Nuclear energy – the energy that develops as a result of splitting the atoms that make up matter – is responsible for generating 20 percent of America’s electrical power, according to the Department of Energy. If you want to work in a field related to nuclear power, you might wonder whether nuclear engineering or nuclear physics is a better program of study. While both career paths offer exciting opportunities, there are significant differences in the work you would do and the subjects you would study in each occupation. Generally, physics and science programs focus on the theory of a branch of physical science such as nuclear physics, while nuclear engineering focuses on applying science and math principles to designing devices, systems and processes involving nuclear energy. The benefits of choosing nuclear engineering over nuclear science is the ability to get a job sooner, begin specializing your education earlier and enjoy a broader array of job opportunities.
A Shorter Education
How long does it take to become qualified to work with nuclear energy? The degree you choose can play a big part in determining how long you must go to school. You can become a nuclear engineer with just a bachelor’s degree, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). To be a nuclear physicist, you will most likely need to go to graduate school, the BLS reported.
The extra schooling needed to become a nuclear physicist delays your entrance into the workforce while also costing you years of your time and tens of thousands of dollars in tuition costs.
More Specialized Degree Options
One benefit of opting for a nuclear engineering degree program over a nuclear science program is that you have more colleges to consider. Unfortunately, nuclear physics and nuclear science programs are not common at the undergraduate level, perhaps because most physician and scientist roles require an advanced education.
The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredits 22 undergraduate programs in nuclear and radiological engineering. In addition to meeting general accreditation criteria for all engineering degree programs, nuclear engineering programs must prepare students to apply atomic and nuclear physics to nuclear systems and processes, measure those processes, perform nuclear engineering design and work in any specializations included in the degree program. Coursework in a nuclear engineering program might include Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, Nuclear Reactions and Radiation, Nuclear Reactor Theory, Nuclear Design and Radiation Detection Laboratory.
The four-year undergraduate programs in nuclear science and nuclear physics that do exist often include classes such as Introduction to Nuclear Science, Introduction To Nuclear Measurements, Applications of Nuclear Science, Theoretical Mechanics, Thermal Physics, Modern Physics, Electronics and Electromagnetic Theory. An undergraduate nuclear science program might also offer specialization options, such as pre-medical and physics. Since nuclear science bachelor’s degree programs are hard to come by, many students begin their college education in a majoring in general physics and must wait until graduate school to begin delving into the specialized field of nuclear physics. Meanwhile, nuclear engineering majors spend their undergraduate career learning about their specialized discipline.
Nuclear engineering students can also gain valuable work experience through cooperative education programs with electric and energy companies, according to the BLS.
More Job Opportunities Outside of Academia
The career paths open to you once you graduate differ significantly depending on which degree you decided to pursue. Many nuclear physicists work in academic research positions, with about 22 percent of all physicists employed by colleges and universities. They conduct research to learn more about atomic and subatomic particles and their properties. Though physics research can be applied, rather than theoretical, research, it still does not have the quick effect on the larger world that nuclear engineering design does. About 30 percent of physicists find work in scientific research and development services, while 19 percent work for the federal government.
Nuclear engineers go beyond the role of researcher and design and develop methods of harnessing and using nuclear energy. Some nuclear engineers work on nuclear equipment including reactor cores and radiation shielding, the BLS reported. About 40 percent of nuclear engineers work in the industry of electric power generation. Their job duties may include monitoring operations, managing maintenance activities and instructing workers in nuclear power plants on safe processes for handling and disposing of potentially hazardous nuclear waste. Those who don’t work in energy generation instead innovate new ways to use nuclear power for practical purposes such as diagnosing and treating diseases in the healthcare industry or serving as power supplies for water and space vessels, the BLS reported. About 17 percent of nuclear engineers work for the federal government, 15 percent for research and development services, seven percent for engineering services and five percent for the manufacturing industry.
Ultimately, this question of how you want to work with nuclear power is the most important factor to consider when choosing between these two degrees. For academic research jobs, nuclear physics may well be a better choice, while the opportunity to design real-world solutions to power generation and medical problems is a major benefit of studying nuclear engineering.
For the nearly one in five physicists who work for the federal government, a bachelor’s degree in physics is typically sufficient to get started in the field. In other roles, master’s degrees and Ph.D. degrees are common.