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Am I too late in discovering my passion for science to make a career in astrophysics?

  1. Feb 25, 2010 #1
    Yes, I'm another one of those clueless people asking if I need to be a math "genius" to become an astronomer/astrophysicist.

    I'm 25, graduated in '07 with a B.A. in Sociology and a B.A. in French & Spanish (cum GPA 3.75) and recently started thinking about going back to college to get a B.S. in Physics with the ultimate goal being a PhD in Astrophysics/Astronomy.

    My concerns are:
    - I used to hate math and it never came easy - I do blame sh***y teachers - same for most sciences. I was interested at first but got discouraged and disappointed by bad, lame teachers who basically told me I was not "made" for science.
    - I've always sucked at algebra because I lost track early on, but then got A's and B's in calculus (I went to HS in Germany btw, which means I had math for 13 consecutive years and had covered almost all of calculus - at least superficially - by the time I graduated)
    - Ever since, I've focused on foreign languages (I speak 4) because I aced them without much effort. So I naturally started thinking that that's all I'm good at, and got used to taking the easy way out.

    My motivations are:
    -I've always loved everything space related, loved looking at the night sky (never got the telescope I wanted), loved sci-fi movies as a kid - I was hypnotized by the movie Contact (even before I knew Sagan was behind it, whom I love now)
    - Therefore, I was excited to start with physics and chemistry in 7th grade - until the teachers ruined it for me and I went into pouting mode (because I'm a stubborn aries lol)
    - I've been watching nothing but the Science Channel for about a year now and can't get enough details (minus braindead stuff like "Mantracker")
    - I've not been able to get motivated to pursue any career related to my majors - which I chose because they were easy for me - and the prospect of spending my life analyzing the universe is the most exciting thing I have thought of in years - or ever, really. I've considered pretty much everything, from lawyer to veterinarian but nothing stuck with me.
    - I bought a stack of physics and math books and have been trying to refresh my memory. I remember learnig most of the stuff before (4 years of physics & chemistry in HS) and it's coming back VERY slowly. And for the first time, I'm enjoying the math aspect because now I can see how useful and applicable it is - but I'm still struggling.

    Soooo.... bottom line is: I know I have to start from scratch, and it's probably going to take at least 10 years until I could get my PhD (which is fine by me and won't be a problem financially). But starting at 25 - with a suboptimal background in science - am I too delusional? I have the drive, passion and, based on intellectual conversations with many people about a variety of topics, I'd like to believe that I'm smarter than the average person. I usually believe that you can do anything you want, if you just want it badly enough. But is that enough?

    No sugar-coating, please, I need and can handle the cold, hard truth ;)

  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 25, 2010 #2
    Re: Am I too late in discovering my passion for science to make a career in astrophys

    Your age is pretty much irrelevant, most likely it will be an advantage, at least early on. It's nearly impossible to say if you will be succesful. There is a good chance you could be successful. Hard work, perseverance and discipline are worth a lot.

    On the other hand, I was always well above the curve through high school. I have become very disillusioned with physics in my senior year of university because I feel my mathematical instincts are simply not as good as those who for example, are teaching me. I feel like I'm just not good enough no matter how hard I try. This is a very subjective feeling and likely means nothing. But you don't often hear from people who made it as far as I have who then decide they are just not cut out for the lifestyle. I don't mean to discourage you. If you set your mind to it then you can certainly accomplish a lot. Just be prepared to give up a lot as well.

    But to leave behind the feeling of my existence being worth nothing, well that is way more important to me at this point than physics. Sorry for such a negative point of view to be the first reply, and likely this is due more to my own psychology than anything that would effect you. But I do feel like this point of view is rarely represented here. Of course, doubting yourself will never get you anywhere. I guess my point is, looking back, I wouldn't recommend making a PhD your goal unless you can take it less seriously than I do. But at the same time you have to be willing to give anything to succeed. Also note that I have an unreasonably high standard for myself which contributes to these feelings. This post is almost off topic I guess but at the same time I don't think it's wrong to give you an idea of the bad places physics can take you, not just the good places as will likely be represented in posts of others.
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2010
  4. Feb 25, 2010 #3
    Re: Am I too late in discovering my passion for science to make a career in astrophys

    Thanks Phyisab****, I appreciate all opinions and experiences. I want people to tell me the truth, not what I want to hear ;)
  5. Feb 26, 2010 #4
    Re: Am I too late in discovering my passion for science to make a career in astrophys

    Don't worry about your mathematical background, or teachers that put you down.
    I had terrible Math teachers in my school, and I was really below average (I was one of the last students in my class to learn multiplication table! Really hated it). But then I was lucky to find a teacher which inspired me. In less than one year, I was already at the top of my class, and started participating in Math competitions. There I learned that "doubting myself" is a absolutely normal feeling, and necessary for keep improving.

    Please notice that there are many physicists who also focused in languages as a hobby (Gell-Mann and Feynman come to my mind right now, but there are others).

    About the age thing, there were many Physicists (Leo Szilard for instance) who switched fields (mainly to Biology) in the middle of their careers, motivated by the ethics of nuclear research, and they've suceeded in this completely different area. So age and original fields aren't as much influential as you may think.

    Check this website, I've found it extremely useful (and inspiring): http://www.phys.uu.nl/~thooft/theorist.html . He received the Nobel Prize in 1999. Please notice the part in which he says:

    "But what if you are still young, at School, and before being admitted at a University, you have to endure the childish anecdotes that they call science there? What if you are older, and you are not at all looking forward to join those noisy crowds of young students? "

    I also remember reading a biography in the Nobel prize website from a recipient (I'm not really sure of his nationality). It was a pretty boring biography, but it caught my attention because he only started dedicating to physics at around his thirties.

    So, I'm quite optimistic you can suceed.
    Good luck!
  6. Feb 26, 2010 #5
    Re: Am I too late in discovering my passion for science to make a career in astrophys

    When I first started college, I started in intermediate algebra. I recall telling my advisor I wanted to be a physicists & she told me I should perhaps major in something else. If you work hard enough though, you can build up your math skills, I'm now taking abstract algebra. Be warned though, if you have to start off at the bottom, it will take awhile to get to the top. As for being an astrophysicist, I don't know because I'm only in my final year of my BS in physics/mathematics. Though it appears to be a pretty competitive field which worries me about my future prospects. So yeah, mathematics you can learn, getting into the field is a different story.
  7. Feb 26, 2010 #6
    Re: Am I too late in discovering my passion for science to make a career in astrophys

    If you can do calculus, then there isn't any real math barrier for doing astrophysics. You'll need to pick up PDE's and linear algebra.

    The big problem is that you shouldn't count on a career in astrophysics research even if you get a Ph.D., there are just too few jobs. If your interest is in getting a career, you are more likely to get one if you get a bachelors/masters and then work as a high school teacher or science journalist.
  8. Feb 26, 2010 #7
    Re: Am I too late in discovering my passion for science to make a career in astrophys

    I completely agree with two-fish, one thing is to have the passion and drive for the subject, another is to be realistic about what you can do with that subject career wise.

    ZeGerman, I was in the same boat you are in. I was valedictorian of my high school class, received a full ride to college, majored in math because I thought I wanted to get a good foundation in math before I tackled astrophysics and/or physics, but once I got there I realized my grades were not good enough to get into a good physics/astrophysics grad program.

    I am now trying to pull myself back up by starting physics brand new (self-study and thinking about getting a masters in physics that will include A LOT of remedial coursework). It is my passion though, without a doubt.

    I read somewhere that your passion should be related to the kinds of books you read when you have free time or are away from “work”. In my case, these are science and physics related books.

    I am actually an accountant and see myself living very comfortably with my current profession as I move up the totem pole. But there is always a nagging feeling that it is not my passion per say, but rather astronomy and physics are. But realistically I cannot find a job in the field with my current credentials. It’s sad to say that I make more now than the starting salary of an assistant physics professor here in SoCal. That is the most discouraging, especially if you have a family like I do. If I ever do get my PhD and become a researcher/professor, what will be most discouraging to me will be that I left a very good paying job to follow a dream in which I most probably won’t have a job given the competition and the state of education nationwide.

    Regardless, I wish you the best. Keep in mind though that in addition to calculus, pde, ode and linear algebra, you will also have to take courses in more theoretical math if you want to tackle subjects like quantum theory, string theory, etc. These might be lie algebras, riemennian geometry, abstract algebra, functional analysis, etc.
  9. Feb 26, 2010 #8
    Re: Am I too late in discovering my passion for science to make a career in astrophys

    I had always really liked physics as well. Then, I started to learn it and realized I didn't like it as much as I thought I would. Or, more specifically, I realized that I have very narrow interests in physics (I like mechanics, but could not care less about the rest of the undergrad curriculum).

    I mention this because it seems to be contrary to everybody else and their experiences. I just want you to be aware that the real stuff is WAY different then the glamorous popularizations.

    Be a math major! :biggrin:
  10. Mar 2, 2010 #9
    Re: Am I too late in discovering my passion for science to make a career in astrophys

    Thank you for your insights, everybody! I appreciate every piece of advice!

    I'm going to start taking some refresher math courses at a community college and I'm convinced that I will get it this time around, now I see the purpose and won't allow any gaps to come up again. I do think that my age might be an advantage in that aspect. (Putting up with a bunch of undergrad "kids" is going to be a challenge in itself though lol) And I just have to keep telling myself "I'm not too stupid for this".

    Many of you have mentioned the job prospects. Good point. As of now, jobs are scarce and frighteningly undercompensated. Still, I'm not really all that worried; a lot of progress can - and hopefully will - happen in 10 years, especially with regards to society and politics. With enough emphasis on scientific progress, I'm sure we'll have job descriptions and new areas of study we haven't even thought of yet. Plus, all I need are a couple of good business ideas to make money on the side ;) I guess I'll remain 80% realist and 20% optimist.

    Again, thank you so much, and good luck on y'all's journeys as well :)
  11. Apr 23, 2012 #10
    Re: Am I too late in discovering my passion for science to make a career in astrophys

    I noticed this thread is from two years ago and wondering how things are going for you, ZeGerman. I am non-traditional student, now 22. I am just starting college finally, after being working for over three years since I moved to U.S to start new life.

    Anyhow, I started in biology and disliked it in the process. Now I am in chemistry and organic is killing my passion. The things I am interested in chemistry tend to be physics aspects of chemical processes, so I am considering to major in physics. I am doing pretty good in my physics courses-but doubt that I will not be smart, hard-working enough to compete against all the other physicists. That makes me worry-even though I love it with passion.

    Tell me how things are going and whether you are still in college working toward your astro-career.
  12. Apr 23, 2012 #11


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    Re: Am I too late in discovering my passion for science to make a career in astrophys

    Click on ZeGerman's name, check his profile, and see when his last activity here was.
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