1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

56-year-old Physics Undergrad

  1. Jul 6, 2012 #1
    Hi everyone! I have been stalking on this forum for a while now, and have finally gotten some courage up to post this. I am currently a physics undergraduate major at a state university. I am enjoying my studies and getting straight A's.

    I worked for many years in Silicon Valley as a test engineer and my first physics studies were in device physics at Bekerley which I found fascinating. During those days I decided that I HAD to learn physics. However, now that I am learning it, I am beginning to wonder what for... My plan is to go all the way through my PhD in physics. I had to start at the beginning because I needed all the math and science studies - so I have many years of study in front of me to obtain my PhD. I am thinking I might very well be in my mid 60's when I finish and I hope to find an actual job in physics, eventually. I love astronomy, particle physics, optics, and many other aspects of the field. My passion is the laboratory; gathering data, crunching numbers, tweaking experiments, rinse, repeat.

    So, here is my question; how do I choose a specialty - or even a minor? I thought about astronomy, but heard others say there is no work for a physicist with a minor in astronomy. Then I thought maybe physics with optics specialty would be fun - but search results showed no jobs. Everywhere I look, I see no jobs. Should I give up on a future at my age? What do you folks think?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 6, 2012 #2
    The economy is in a slump. Things may or may not be better when you get out. Age discrimination is a very real possibility for you. Do it if you value physics to the point where the PhD. would have been worth it even if there is no job waiting for you. The bleak job outlook is the reaon I didn't go for a math PhD.
  4. Jul 6, 2012 #3
    If you have means to sustain yourself then i'd say take the road far as it can take you. Since, oh well as a poet has said :
    Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
  5. Jul 6, 2012 #4
    Thank you, Super Kirei, for your response. I understand about math. My brother has PhD in math and has gone back to school to study Geography Information Systems. He has worked most of his years in the computer programming, but even in that area he is having trouble finding work in nowdays.
  6. Jul 6, 2012 #5


    Staff: Mentor

    Many physicists are employed in defense work doing acoustics or radar. Then there's the possiblity of teaching at a college. One specialty you might like is computer simulation of physical systems. Checkout the open source physics website at www.compadre.org/osp. They have many examples written in java that use ODE solvers to simulate a variety of systems from simple harmonic oscillators to galactic formation.
  7. Jul 6, 2012 #6
    jedishrfu, this stuff looks like fun! Thank you so much for this link. I love playing around with such things. I start computational physics in the fall...and I am a little in fear of it. My brother told me that it will be too difficult for me, but he thinks I am an idiot. Typical brother, I guess.

    I did some easy computer programming at work, but it was mostly just "tweaking."
  8. Jul 6, 2012 #7


    Staff: Mentor

    I took a course in it a couple of years ago while I was between jobs. It used osp and was new to the prof. Four students signed up but soon two of them decided to switch classes. Don't know why maybe a fear of writing programs in java. They were undergrads. So the remaining student and I were taking it as a grad course. It was mostly programming and understanding how error is introduced into a simulation and appeared as excess energy or as energy loss. We had to teach the prof how to use eclipse and some java tricks as he was a visual basic guy. Also there were no tests just weekly homework and a final project all simulations using osp. I really liked the course as the physics was light and the focus was on programming in java, something I knew quite well.

    The reason I took it was to get one more credit so I could teach at a local community college. I needed 18 graduate level credits in physics to teach. Instead I wound up getting a job where physics simulations were done a lot.
  9. Jul 6, 2012 #8
    I assume you're not having any financial difficulties if you're able to just quit your job and start on the path towards a PhD. If this is the case then I say go for it! A PhD in physics isn't something you take lightly and just decide one day to do, so I'm sure it's something you've considered heavily. Say you are 65 when you finish... you're going to be 65 no matter what. Would you rather be 65 with the PhD you've always wanted or 65 with no PhD and a lot of regret?

    It sounds to me like you have the determination and desire to do it while being in the lucky position of actually being able to do it. I see no reason not to.
  10. Jul 6, 2012 #9


    Staff: Mentor

    I've been thinking about it too and Im older than you. My wife thinks I'm crazy to pusue it but work will pay for courses and give me time off if only I can get into a grad school nearby. There's only one and its very competitive so I'd need to take the GRE General and possibly Math exams to compete. But age works against you as the profs have the final say in selecting grad students based on how well they might work out doing their research and they choose younger students who have a lot more to lose if they drop out not to mention the age discrimination issue.

    But I think you should go for it.
  11. Jul 6, 2012 #10
    "Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey."

    Yes, it is a marvelous journey, and I do thank the Universe, or my lucky stars, or whoever for the chance to do this...but to what end? My father was a professor, and his father was professor; so I always assumed I would get at least one PhD in my lifetime.

    The idea of becoming 65 and NOT achieving this is an idea I do not like, so thank you for that image *_*

    One thing about age (and sex) discrimination: When I was accepted to the University, I was accepted to the nursing school, even though I did not apply to that school. The registrar's office just assumed that since I am a 50-plus year old female, that I would naturally want to become a nurse. They would not allow me to apply to the physics program until I received a written letter from the Physics Chair stating that I could apply... (apply!) to the program.

    So, I realize that I am up against not just a glass ceiling, but a virtual wall here.
  12. Jul 6, 2012 #11
    Reading your posts, I realize that I lost sight of the reason I was even going back to school! You are all correct. Thank you for renewing my vision. I will focus on the joy of learning, and not on a fear of the future...

    Thank you all so very much for your words of inspiration!
  13. Jul 6, 2012 #12
    I feel quite bad now, I automatically assumed you were male. I have no idea why I did that but i'm not pleased with myself right now!

    But yes, as others have said, I think the journey is just as important as what you do at the end of it. I came here a few years ago with similar worries as you, I was a 'mature' student and wondered if it was worth the time and the effort. I decided it was and I can honestly tell you this past year has been one of the best of my life. I hope you have a similar experience. :)
  14. Jul 6, 2012 #13
    So inspirational. Thank you. I was enjoying school so much until I started thinking about why I was attending...then I guess I got distracted by fearful grad students who couldn't find work. I will take your advice and just enjoy my school-life.
  15. Jul 6, 2012 #14
    jedishrfu, I sure hope you get accepted into the grad program you want.

    I also took classes while working, which work paid for, and I am so glad that I did! What a real gift that is, to have an education that is essentially free! During all those years I was working at a startup (many long hours), raising two girls alone, and participating in many other things including performing in the symphony orchestra as a violinist! (I am a music major orginally.) There were so many times that I thought I should not take classes because it was just "too much" to do; but in the end I got a ton of my work done toward my physics degree, learned programming languages, learned some physics and math, and kept my mind sharp - all of which I think are more valuable that "free time" to watch TV.

    I had a Latin teacher in high school who once told me that the mark of a brilliant mind is a man carrying a bag full of books. (We used to carry bookbags, remember?) I never forgot that because I always yearned for a brilliant mind. I believe you are like-minded.
  16. Jul 6, 2012 #15


    Staff: Mentor

    Funny you mention Latin teacher. I too took Latin. Our teachers famous quote was veni vidi relinqui, I came I saw I left. He taught Latin for thirty minutes and then lapsed into other interesting topics like how horse tracks are really run so that resident horses always earn just,enough to pay for their upkeep.
  17. Jul 6, 2012 #16


    Staff: Mentor

    Another tool of interest for simulation is matlab. We touched on it briefly in class. It's quite powerful and reminiscent of IBMs APL but a bit easier on the brain. There's a clone version called free at that I've used to do some quick number crunching. Also theres octave although I've never used it that is also free and is a more complete clone of matlab or so I've been told.
  18. Jul 7, 2012 #17
    Here is my advice, though maybe viewed as pessimistic in nature. I see college as input/output models. If the input is less than the output, it is worth it ( money wise) then it is worth completing to me. One must understand that going to college for the sake of learning is counter productive. According to President Obama, everyone should be able to go to school, for financial reasons. I differ with his "everyone" statement, but he's right that college CAN lead to a better financial future. Now, I am not trying to tell you not to go to graduate school or to go, just remember than education beyond high school, should be treated as an investment. It is a business decision to me. Now, if I can't see myself getting a job to outweigh the monetary, as well as opportunity costs, then college isn't worth it in my eyes. Spending tens of thousands of dollars for the sake of learning isn't worth it at all, spend TIME at the local library if you're interested in just learning. Now, in the STEM fields, you normally get free tution and fees and a small living expense for GRADUATE school. I personally don't see it worth accumlated student loan debt at your age, with little means of paying it off and getting a return on your investment. Unless you made it rich in silicon valley and literally going to school for the sake of going, then my argument has no footing. You also have to remember you are getting up in age and retirement is coming, unless you have a spouse. Just think about things from all angles. I have to be the evil side of it, because on this forum, you say PhD in physics, and half of these guys get all gitty. Lol. My two cents, my main point is to see both sides of the coin in the sense of reality beyond what is cool.

    Good luck in the future, I honestly hope my analysis doesn't offend you and isn't true. Because it would mean you are rich and you are doing what you love and that truly is rare. If it isn't true, I hope you got a plan for things if it doesn't pan out. Because it's different for a 65 year old phd grad to not have work than it is than a 28 year old phd graduate student.

    If there is confusion on my post, feel free to pm me.
  19. Jul 7, 2012 #18


    Staff: Mentor

    Your analysis is good in general but in this case, I think PLIFE is pursuing the completion of a circle and is doing it for the joy of learning physics.
  20. Jul 7, 2012 #19
    windowmaker, thank you for your candid response. I feel, though, that if we viewed all of life's journeys through the lens of whether or not it is a good investment, we would never have children, get married, travel for fun, or have exciting adventures such as boating, camping, mountain climbing, scuba diving, and so forth.

    Based on your viewpoint, I have to assume that you are not yet in your 50's. I believe those of us who have already seen the value (or lack of value) of accumulating money just for money's sake, have a slightly different position from which to view such things.

    I do, however, worry about the fact that I am "spending down" my future - but in truth I have already bought several homes, paid for several cars, sent my own kids to college, and traveled all over the planet. There is nothing in this world I need money for except food, and being vegetarian I could probably grow my own if I had any interest in gardening (which I don't).

    So, what do we pursue at the age of 50? A better house? A nicer car? A more comfortable recliner? Do you recommend that I just keep working so that my nest egg will be a bit bigger? Those are proper goals I suppose, but I would need a more convincing argument than "you should just go to the library," or "you will spend all your money."

    Seriously, I appreciate your point of view since my question was about whether or not I am wasting my time, and you did state that my time would be better spent at the library. I just don't believe that learning is merely the reading of books and remembering stuff. Learning something like physics involves all four senses.

    Perhaps we should view a foray into university as more along the lines of an expensive adventure (like scuba diving), than as a good or bad business decision??

    (As an aside, I have actually spent more than the equivalent of one-semester's tuition on very exciting scuba adventures.)
  21. Jul 7, 2012 #20
    jedishrfu, thanks for the info about MatLab. I have heard of this program before, but never tried it myself. We used to do all of our calculations using assembly, C, and C++, but those languages do not look nearly as intuitive and easy to learn as this MatLab does! I did spend several hours yesterday playing with the free download and it is really fun. I am inspired to learn more about this tool - so fun!
  22. Jul 7, 2012 #21


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    The goal of a PhD is to contribute to field - push out the boundary of knowledge. Is there a better way of doing something, or is there some phenomenon or apparent anomaly yet to be explained? It would help to know what areas interest one.

    A physics major with a minor in astronomy/astrophysics is fine. Industry may have interests/needs in other areas, however, if one's skills can address those needs there are jobs waiting.

    PhDs may also pursue a career in academia or within the national labs, including NASA.

    In his book, Introduction to Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion, Francis Chen noted that his mother, the eternal scholar, achieved her goal, a PhD, at age 72. The educational process is unending. It's never too late.

    One may browse the sites of the American Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society (APS):
  23. Jul 7, 2012 #22
    I have nothing to contribute here except noting that this is inspiring for me. I hope in my 50s I will be as eager to learn about science as you are.
  24. Jul 8, 2012 #23
    My goodness, Astronuc, your reply brought tears to my eyes - no kidding... contributing to the field is my dream and the inspiration of Francis Chen's mother's story is more than encouraging. Thank you so very much.
  25. Jul 10, 2012 #24
    Ok. I did say if you had the means to do it, my argument would hold no ground. It is really rare for someone in their 50s to be able to afford a education and you should take full advantage of it. In fact, I'm glad my assessment was incorrect, as I stated originally. I honestly hope you find all the joys you intend to seek with furthering your education. I just wanted to be a "lens" to another viewpoint. If we never knew both sides of a issue, we wouldn't be a good democracy. So kudos for you, for doing exactly what you want and education is always good.
  26. Jul 10, 2012 #25
    You won't get into a PhD program. I don't know why everyone is giving you such false encouragement... but honestly I think your boat has sailed as far as the possibility of having a career in physics goes.

    Why do you feel you need a PhD? You should do the bachelors if you really enjoy it, and even get a masters if you want to take graduate courses and have the money to spend, but a PhD is very different. Do you really think at your age you have the fortitude to work 60+ hours a week for almost nothing? Do you realize that getting a PhD is not at all like taking courses and can be a grueling experience? And you say you want to do experimental work, are you prepared to spend all night in the lab pulling your hair out when something with your set up goes wrong and you have to fix it?

    And assuming you even did get into a PhD program (which I really don't think you will), think of the young people who haven't already lived their lives and the fact that you could be taking that opportunity away from someone else. It seems selfish to me, much like an aging professor who refuses to retire and give up their desk to someone in the next generation.

    Learn as much physics as you want, you don't need a degree to do that, but the idea of getting a PhD when your life is more than half over is a bit ridiculous to me.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook