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Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed.

  1. Jan 17, 2012 #1
    I'm a 22 year old student who studied economics and accounting in undergrad. In 6 months I will have a C.P.A. license and be starting full time for a big public accounting firm.

    Problem is, I now know I want to go into experimental astrophysics. Despite being only 22, I feel pretty old to begin my journey towards a phD. This is especially daunting considering my only background in math/physics is calculus (not yet onto differential equations) and intro level physics. Another obstacle I face is that I am not wealthy (quite the opposite) and have racked up substantial debt in the form of student loans (about $80k).

    A lot of people laugh at me when I tell them about my plan, and that's fairly understandable. Nevertheless, I am fully determined and willing to make the sacrifices necessary to do something I'm passionate about. Never before have I been so sure about what I want to do. Now it's all about figuring out how I get there.

    Anyway, I'm looking for some advice. I'd also love criticism so I can fully understand what I'm getting into, though I can assure you it will not change my mind.

    My plan right now is to work for a year in accounting, making about 55k, and live frugally so that I can pay off as much of my student loans as possible. In the mean time I will take every opportunity to teach myself about physics, math and other sciences. At that point I plan on going back to undergrad full time and getting a degree in astronomy/physics.

    Another idea I had was to work for 2/3 years but taking my summers off (my employer is very flexible) to take summer classes so that it won't take as long to get my undergrad degree. This would also enable me to pay off more of my student loans. On the downside, this would take even longer and I would not be able to fully immerse myself in research opportunities and the like. Because of that I've almost dismissed this idea completely.

    I understand this is a very unlikely and improbable goal, but in my mind it is 100% achievable. If you have any tips or resources for me I would greatly appreciate it.
     
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  3. Jan 17, 2012 #2

    micromass

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    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    Physics is very difficult. Do not underestimate it. Do you even know that you will like physics? Only knowing "intro physics" is not representative for what physics is all about.
    You say you will work the next year. Why not self-study some math and some physics during the year to see if you will like it?? If you can work through Halliday & Resnick and still like it, then the future is looking a bit brighter.

    Why do you want to do physics anyway?? I hope you don't get interested in physics because of the pop-sci books. That would be the worst reason to get into physics. And I can guarantee you that you won't last.

    You're going to end up in a quite lucrative job now. Try to pay off your current and future debt first. Do not go into college with a current debt, even if it means that you have to work for a couple of years before starting your degree. Physics is not a lucrative carreer, so please take care of financial issues first.

    Try to self-study for a couple of years first before rushing into anything.
     
  4. Jan 17, 2012 #3
    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    Thanks for the reply, it really does mean a lot.

    I understand that physics is very difficult and that I'm very naive. With that in mind I plan on following your advice and self-studying over the next year. I've already began but given my background there's a long way to go. It sounds wise to build a strong knowledge base before deciding on any sort of jump back into undergraduate.

    Pop-sci books aren't really my motivation, and I've barely gone into them. But I think you have a point in mentioning that I need to have a legitimate motivation. So far all that has been is the enjoyment I've had in studying on my own. It has sparked a passion in me that I can honestly say I haven't felt in any other facet of my life, ever.

    From what I've read there is "dirty" side of studying physics (long years, poor pay, endless job searches) that people like me can't imagine when we think of studying the universe. I don't claim to fully comprehend this, but I can tell you that I know it exists and I know that it often is too much for people to handle. Given how I feel so far I am 100% willing to accept this challenge and make the necessary sacrifices, but I'm sure you have seen other people say the same thing but end up quitting.

    The more I think about it the more I think you are right that I should work a couple years to pay off my debt. This puts me not only in a good financial position but gives me time to build that strong knowledge base. In the mean time, can you think of any other advice for me that could help me down the road? Would it be feasible to try and reach out to researchers in my area and try to make some connections? Any specific resources you think could help me? I know I'm reaching here but anything that you give me would be greatly appreciated.
     
  5. Jan 17, 2012 #4
    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    I would advise against taking too much time off from school (I made this mistake myself). Unless you are really good at independent study and motivated enough to keep at it while working a full time job outside of school, you may have trouble getting back into the swing of schooling (especially in something as difficult as physics). Would you be able to take some classes part time while working in order to keep up momentum while paying off your loans?
     
  6. Jan 17, 2012 #5
    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    Polymathiah I mentioned that my employer is very flexible and I do think this will enable me to possibly take summers off in order to take classes. That way, I'll be able to pay down my debt while working towards an undergrad degree.

    Let's say I work for 2 years while taking summer classes then take 2 years to finish my undergrad degree and gain research experience. At this point I'll be in a better position to reevaluate the potential for moving forward with physics, and at the same I'll have the work experience needed to fall back on if an attempt at a phd fails.

    If you don't mind me asking, how much time off from school did you take and how did it end up hurting you exactly?

    On a somewhat related note, has anyone heard of phd students taking advantage of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program?(http://studentaid.ed.gov/PORTALSWebApp/students/english/PSF.jsp [Broken])
    It seems this could end up helping phd students since their postdoc work pretty much ensures 6 out of the 10 years needed working for a nonprofit, correct? And assuming these students would qualify for the Income Based Repayment plan, (http://studentaid.ed.gov/PORTALSWebApp/students/english/OtherFormsOfRepay.jsp#IBR [Broken]) which I think those with substantial debt would given the low salaries in postdoc work, it seems like this could be a great option for phd students. Any comments?
     
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  7. Jan 17, 2012 #6

    jbunniii

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    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    22 is far from "too old." That's not even an issue.

    The student loan debt, on the other hand, is a major issue. I would not even consider undertaking a new degree until you pay it off completely, and accumulate some savings. Grad school is hard enough without a financial anchor dragging you down.
     
  8. Jan 17, 2012 #7
    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    Just be aware that some universities aren't very summer-friendly. My school (a very large public university, certainly a high ranking physics school) hasn't had an upper-division physics class in summer in the past four years (and that's only as far back as I've checked - for all I know, they've never had one at all), and has only had two of four introductory physics classes.
     
  9. Jan 17, 2012 #8
    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    I took three years off from school and when I went back I ended up having to withdraw from some classes because the workload was too much for me. I believe that if I hadn't taken time off, I would have preserved my momentum and not had to drop the courses.
     
  10. Jan 17, 2012 #9
    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    Workload and taking time off are gonna be pretty subjective. I received a BA in Psychology the first go round, took 4 years off, and then started a full time engineering curriculum. I knew this was all up to me, and I put my all in it...and I got a 4.0. Yeah, you will have to work out the kinks and see what works best with your study habits, but you will do what you need to do, just don't go back to school after a few years and think that jumping into 17 credits is a good idea.
     
  11. Jan 17, 2012 #10
    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    @Angry Citizen: Thanks, I'll keep it in mind. Maybe taking falls off would be better, I just can't take off springs given the nature of public accounting (busy season).

    @Polymathiah: Interesting. Hopefully I can ease into it. Thanks for all the advice.

    @USN2ENG: Awesome! You're the kind of example I was looking for to know that this isn't just an unattainable pipe dream. If you care to share, did you have to deal with paying off your debt before going back to school?

    Everyone has been incredibly helpful, please keep the advice coming!
     
  12. Jan 17, 2012 #11
    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    I had about 17k in federal loans which I deferred. Currently I am getting the GI Bill so I am not racking up TOO much more. I was only making about 33k/yr with the psych degree so the opportunity cost of trying to pay off the 17k on the 33k/yr wasn't worth it to me. I figured that the quicker I can get my eng. degree the quicker I can make a decent salary and pay off the loans.

    If I was in your shoes, I would probably pay the 80k down, as quick as I could with your new goal in mind. As a CPA you are probably making better than 30k, also you are young (I'm 30) so even if it doesn't seem like it...you have plenty of time.

    Good luck man, I would advise taking a single class in your spare time though. 1 each semester will keep you in enough of a routine so you dont forget everything. You could start the Math sequence and knock all the way up to linear out by the time you were ready to start.
     
  13. Jan 17, 2012 #12
    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    What do you plan on doing once you get your PhD?
     
  14. Jan 17, 2012 #13
    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    Right now it's probably too early to say exactly what I'd like to do. In general something that I find fascinating is spectroscopic observation, but admittedly I have a lot to learn before I can say I want to focus on it. I do want to be involved in research rather than industry but then again so does everyone.

    Given the advice in this thread I'm thinking it would be best to put off PhD plans until I've gotten a little farther down the road. Focusing on the undergrad degree while preparing for a potential PhD down the road seems like the best approach.

    For those of you who went into graduate physics when did you realize what you wanted to focus on? Or when did you realize what your options were?
     
  15. Jan 18, 2012 #14

    jk

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    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    I second the suggestion to work while taking classes. If your employer its flexible, you can take one class a semester. More than that is probably unrealistic....you will be surprised at how demanding a job with the big accounting firms is.
    If you can keep this up for two to three years, you would be done with your undergraduate courses and also have paid off most of your loans. You can then start to apply to graduate schools
     
  16. Jan 18, 2012 #15

    micromass

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    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    Uuh, 1 course a semester does not allow you to finish undergraduate in three years. Did I misread your post?

    Maybe 1 course a semester for three years lets you finish the first year of undergraduate...
     
  17. Jan 18, 2012 #16

    jk

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    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    You are correct. I meant the physics coursework. The original poster already as a bachelors so would not need things like history, literature etc.
    I went back and compared with my undergraduate course work and it seems it would take closer to five years at one course per semester. Unless he (or she) takes the summers off from work and take two or three classes.
    Even so, five years is not too bad. 27 is still pretty young to start on a graduate degree. The only risk is burnout after four to five years of full time work and part time coursework. The plus side is that the loan would be paid off and the OP may even have some savings
     
  18. Jan 19, 2012 #17
    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    What about distance learning courses? If you were in the UK I'd certainly recommend it. The OU has some top researchers in "experimental astronomy" who spend a lot of time developing good courses:

    http://www3.open.ac.uk/courses/countries/USA.shtm

    You will need to see if this is a good track for the USA, I've no idea what OU courses may or not get you into "graduate school" - they would certainly prepare you for "doing a PhD" in the UK.
     
  19. Jan 19, 2012 #18
    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    Keep in mind that EVEN IF you get the phd, the odds of ever getting a permanent job doing astrophysics are very small. Will you be happy if you get a phd only to wind up back in accounting, or in insurance or finance? Thats the most likely outcome.
     
  20. Jan 19, 2012 #19
    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    Don't let age discourage you. When I graduated high school (having taken calculus), I did practically no mathematics or physics for 3 years before going back to do 2 years in Chemistry at a distance university (only did some more calc, DE's and a lot of physics), before transferring out to 2nd year physics at a very good faculty. This was at 23 years of age. The transition was hard for me but if you give it your all and do what you need to do, you can do pretty well.
     
  21. Jan 19, 2012 #20
    Re: Accountant going back to undergraduate to study physics. Advice/criticism needed

    This. Cannot emphasize this enough.
     
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