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Other Advice on Adult's Path Towards PhD in Mathematical Physics


I've read a few of the responses in the guidance section on this site and had some conversations with guidance personnel at my college, but I was hoping to get some other, potentially more objective insights from the group here.

I will be 34 this year and am currently a sophomore at a local community college (albeit it's actually pretty good compared to my other foray at community college where I grew up) and I work as a Senior Software Engineer/Architect with almost 15 years of experience in my field. I have a good job with a great salary, excellent benefits, and plenty of room for growth. I am self-taught in my field and had dropped out of college after one semester back in 2000. I generally have been taking 11-12 credits per semester due to working 40 hours a week in addition, however I also take summer/winter classes when I can, so it all evens out on a yearly basis.

I was always fascinated by Physics and Astronomy so I am currently majoring in Physics and intend to transfer to University of Maryland next year to finish a UG degree in Physics possibly with a double major in Mathematics. Afterwards, I would like to go to graduate school to pursue a PhD, likely at University of Maryland since they have a top Physics graduate program and I could stay in the same area. I would ideally like to specialize in Computational and Theoretical Cosmology/Astrophysics, but more generally I want to focus on the mathematics and theory of the universe and space and possibly building computational models to test those mathematical theories.

Now, I am literally doing all of this for my own interest and personal growth. I would love to find a position where I would be paid to do math and physics all day, but I plan to do research on my own either way once I finish with school even if it's in the evenings after a day job. It would be nice, but I am not of the belief that I will finish earning a PhD and get some great postdoc role immediately or maybe ever.

And after all of that background, here are my questions.

First of all, I can't help but compare myself to other students at school and I see these 16 year old kids in my differential equations class because they are two years ahead at their highschools. I may have 3.8 GPA and be the one helping them with their school work, but it seems like these advanced young ones are the type of students graduate schools would be looking for, not a mid-30s programmer who is dramatically late to the academics game. Am I deluding myself? Is it realistic at all that I would even be accepted into a good graduate program as someone in their mid-30s who was away from academia for so long? I will likely be 36 when I graduate and am ready for graduate school.

And my second concern is timing. Let's just assume for a moment that the schools only look at my grades and consider my experience in the "real world", general intellect, and passion as pluses, I don't see how I could earn a PhD in Physics and work full time and allow neither to suffer, so I have worked it out financially where once I begin graduate school I will go on extended hiatus from my work. I have calculated that I would be able to sustain myself financially for 3 years if I maintain my currently lifestyle or maybe 4 if I cut back a bit. I would like to think my experience in the real world and overall passion for the subject would drive me to complete the program in 2 or 3 years, but how realistic is that? I would ideally like to be able to work as a TA (or RA, but preferably TA) in order to benefit from the free tuition and small stipend. Is that something worth relying on or is it very difficult to achieve that?

Finally, where could I improve my chances as a whole for acceptance and getting a TA role? Any recommendations would be great.

Sorry for the long post, but I would really appreciate anyone's genuine insights on the subjects.


Science Advisor
Education Advisor
Insights Author
  1. Your age won't be a factor. Don't forget about the advantages that a mature student such as yourself can bring to the table such as maturity and real world experience. Long term, finishing the PhD and entering the post-doc race into your 40s might be an issue, but I don't think you'd be less competitive for positions because of your age. It's more that by that point in life people are wanting some kind of stability with their employment that you don't get as a post-doc.

  2. A PhD is a full-time job. I've seen people try to do it part time and it tends to drag on forever. So you're correct in that balancing full time work and a PhD is unlikely to happen. In the US it's common for the PhD to take about 5 - 6 years, sometimes even longer. I don't think it's realistic to expect to cut this down to 2 or 3. The good news is that just about all physics graduate students are funded with a combination of stipends, grants and TAs or RAs. You won't make a lot of money, and likely not what you're used to making in the real world, but it's more than 0.

  3. TAs are usually offered to graduate students with admission. Exceptions are for professional programs like Medical Physics where it depends on the program (and even then a lot of Medical Physics graduate students get quality assurance jobs). In some other cases students are granted admission with no guarantee of support, but this is typically seen as a "polite" rejection.
Thanks Choppy!

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