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Why Physics? An Intern's Perspective

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Many times, my resume is just thrown in the garbage when applying to engineering positions because, right at the top under the section titled "Education," it says “Bachelor of Science in Physics” rather than the preferred "Engineering." It is sometimes difficult to get a chance to prove to people that physicists know the same material as engineers do but from a different perspective.

When I began college, I was a physics major with a concentration in mechanical engineering. My alma mater, Le Moyne College, has a partnership program with Syracuse University in which I participated for 2 years. Here is how it works: students major in Physics at Le Moyne, but also take prerequisite engineering courses at Syracuse University that are required to join the Syracuse Engineering Master’s program after graduation from Le Moyne. As long as a 3.0 GPA is maintained, the students have automatic acceptance into Syracuse’s Master’s program, as well as half-off tuition.

When I participated in this program, I traveled to Syracuse University 2-3 times a week and took classes with the engineering students there. Actually, the classes that I took there I felt familiar. I was relearning the material that I had already learned in physics but more from an engineering perspective. Many of the engineering classes I took correlated almost identically to some of the physics classes I had taken. For instance, most if not all of Statics is learned in Intro Physics courses, Materials Science is the engineering version of Condensed Matter Physics, and Dynamics of Mechanical Systems (Vibrations) is the same material learned in Analytical Mechanics class. The way of approaching problems and the process to understanding what is going on in the problems was much different, but the problems and solutions are exactly the same. In general, engineers are more interested in thinking practically, developing and learning what they need to know. Physicists are more interested in thinking theoretically, analytically, and logically. We dissect problems to the very core to understand exactly what is going on behind the scenes. For this, I think I am a much better problem solver and that I have a broader perspective.

I left the Syracuse program after my junior year. Before doing so, I had to make some important decisions. Do I really enjoy learning this type of way as an engineer? Do I want to go to graduate school for engineering or physics? What if I want to go straight through to my Doctorate instead of hitting my Master’s first? Do I even like Syracuse University? I decided that, when I go to graduate school, I don’t want to study engineering, I want to study physics. Even if I have an engineering job in the future, the Syracuse program would only allow me to go to my Master’s degree when I will most likely go straight through to my Doctorate. If I get my Doctorate, I do not want to waste my time taking two steps to get there instead of one. I asked myself, what is the point of continuing with the engineering classes when I am learning the same material but in a way that I want to learn it and in a way that I am comfortable interpreting the material? For my senior year, I still would have had to take 5 more courses at Syracuse before graduating and moving on to the Master’s program. Instead, I relaxed a little and enjoyed my physics classes, especially my capstone research and labs.

Why physics? I always knew I loved science and that I would grow up to be a scientist. What type of science was a question that I struggled with throughout my entire childhood and beginning of high school. During my junior year of high school, I took an interest in astronomy. I took physics in high school, first applied physics and then AP physics; I grew in love with it. Not to mention that physics satisfied my obsession with competition and challenged me to be the best and the smartest. I figured that physics was the perfect science to blend all the sciences together. It is the broadest subject and I could go into pretty much any field I want to with a physics background. My mind was set. Do not get me wrong, physics and I have had our ups and downs, our inevitable mental breakdowns, a healthy love-hate relationship; but I would not have wanted to graduate college with any other major and would not want to continue my education with anything but physics. I don’t know why I constantly feel the need to torture myself by studying physics, but something about physics gives me satisfaction. There is no science that asks more questions and digs as deep to find answers. With physics, any subject can be mastered, ranging from engineering to law where analytical and logical skills are necessary. Physics has taught me so many important skills that can be used in a variety of ways.

My advice to other physics majors that might run into problems similar to those I have had when applying for an engineering position is to put your major at the bottom of your resume and your skills and knowledge at the top.