Ask Brian: I am torn between physics and engineering
Follow the subjects you have a passion for
PROBLEM: I am one of the many Leaving Cert students struggling to decide what to choose for my CAO application before the July 1st deadline. I’m stuck in my final choices between science degrees in the physics/maths stream or engineering. I’m told that a science degree in physics/maths could be less well-regarded degree than engineering? Is there any evidence of this?
ADVICE: There are strong job opportunities for graduates in all degree programmes in so-called Stem disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Degrees in physics also fall under this category.
Employers are constantly looking for graduates with strong numeracy skills. This means competency in mathematics is key for a degree in areas such as physics or engineering, and for working in finance, analytics and computing, as well as in the semiconductor, meteorology and space industry.
Many companies employ engineers, as well as physics and mathematics graduates, but they can end up doing very different jobs. For example, a physics graduate could end up working in Google as a data analyst, alongside engineers working in software development.
Prof Padraig Dunne, head of the school of physics at UCD, says there is strong demand for physics graduates.
“In Ireland the financial services sector employs many graduates, as does the semiconductor industry, for example at Intel Ireland, ” he says.
“One rapidly growing sector is the space industry, with over 30 companies now operating in Ireland. Traditional sectors such as education and health also employ significant numbers of physics graduates, for example in teaching and medical physics.”
This is also true for mathematics graduates; there is a huge demand in risk, finance, analytics, and computing.
I would encourage anyone with a passion for maths to consider specialising in areas such as actuarial science, or doing a degree in financial mathematics, statistics, or mathematics.
Computer science is another popular route for students who enjoy problem-solving.
The best advice I can give any CAO applicant who is torn between the choice of a science degree in the physics/maths stream or an engineering programme, is to always follow the subjects you have a passion for at third level.
When comparing a maths or physics degree with a degree in engineering, you may see many similarities in the subjects you will study in first year. But it’s important to look at what you would study in years two, three and beyond. This will give you a good indication of where the degree is ultimately heading.
A good place to do this is on qualifax.ie, where you will find details of all aspects of all CAO course options, from every year of the programmes in question.
It is also worth talking to current third-level students and find out what their experience is and the type of project work they do. This might help you to differentiate between the physical and mathematical science degrees with those in engineering.
The Careers Portal website (careersportal.ie) has an excellent section on science and engineering, which includes career and course videos.
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