Physics vs Engineering

  • Helena Kudiabor
  • Jan 10 2024

Given the similarities between physics and engineering, many people struggle to decide which sector they should pursue a career in. To help you decide, this article shares insights on the advantages of both sectors, tips to help you decide, and clarification about whether it’s possible to switch careers.


Relationship between physics and engineering

We’ve already established that physics and engineering are closely related. However, you may be unsure about exactly what the relation is. 

There are two types of physicists: pure physicists and applied physicists. While pure physicists conduct research to learn more about the universe, applied physicists conduct research to investigate problems in physics or science more broadly. 

So, when physicists conduct research, engineers then apply this research to create new products. For a more practical understanding, let’s compare and contrast the responsibilities of an astrophysicist and a space system engineer. Astrophysicists conduct research to better understand the physics of space and how/why the universe has evolved over time. Space systems engineers use this research to help them design, build and maintain effective spacecraft.

Why choose physics?

A career in physics is a great opportunity for people interested in research. Many people working in the field work at laboratories, universities and other research facilities, conducting research that could help improve the planet for the better. Many physicists are also interested in getting the next generation passionate about physics, and so choose to pursue careers as teachers and lecturers. Given the shortage of STEM teachers in the UK, many organisations offer generous scholarships and bursaries to aspiring teachers.

In case you decide a career in research or teaching isn’t for you, a career in physics provides many transferable skills, like problem solving and data analysis. These skills (and a scientific mind) are sought out by employers in a range of industries, such as finance and law.

Why choose engineering?

A career in engineering is great for those who like hands-on, practical work. Engineers design, build and test a variety of different products, so it’s a great option for someone interested in both science and design. Similar to physics, there’s a range of specialities for engineers to pursue, so you’ll be able to build products related to something you’re interested in (from robots to crash test sites). Imagine the feeling of seeing a product you worked on becoming popular with the general public.

Furthermore, a career in engineering isn’t too dependent on funding. Physicist’s research is dependent on grant proposals and other funding considerations, so grant writing and negotiating funding is a significant portion of the role. While engineers are still vulnerable to market changes and product failures, the challenge of securing funding isn’t so much of a concern. 

Tips to help you decide

The best way to decide between the two career paths is to secure practical experience. Through work experience, you’ll be able to see the day in the life of an engineer and/or physicist, and be able to decide which career is right for you. Even if you’re not able to secure work experience, it’s still worth reaching out to people in the field for a discussion about their career path or to request shadowing opportunities.

You should also take the time to think about what you want out of your career, and which career path suits you best. Think about factors like pay, qualifications and skills you enjoy and which career path offers the best opportunities for you. 

Can you switch between an engineering career and a physics career (and vice-versa)?

It’s definitely possible! If you’re thinking about making the switch from engineer to physicist, the transferable skills you have will be very useful. Plus, if you’re interested in further study, most apprenticeships and degrees ask for physics or engineering qualifications.

Finally, while it’s slightly more difficult to pursue an engineering career as a physicist, many people have done so before. As long as you can show a demonstrated interest in engineering, and explain why you’re embarking on a career change, you’ll stand out to employers. 

I hope you found this article useful, and best of luck on your career journey!