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Astronomy PhD at 34

  1. Dec 16, 2015 #1
    I am 34 years old and have a bachelors in math from about 10 years ago. Ive also taken 3 graduate physics courses throughout the years. I work full time as a systems analyst, and have been doing this type of work since I graduated from college in 2005. I also have an MBA.

    I’m wondering, with my background and age, what are the chances of getting into an Astronomy phd program with just a great PGRE score?

    I don’t mind leaving my current job and salary if admitted since ultimately my dream is to become an astronomy professor and researcher. I also do not mind going overseas if an overseas school was to admit me (currently I am in California).
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 16, 2015 #2


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    Go for it!
  4. Dec 16, 2015 #3
    I've been meeting people at my community college that are at least twice my age, and it's so awesome that they've decided to pursue their dreams, what they may have wanted all along. I think a math degree will definitely help with a thorough grounding in the fundamentals, you can definitely get into a PhD program, provided you work hard enough. Anyone can do it, they just have to stay strong. And don't be discouraged! They say once you get older it starts to get harder to learn new things, but I don't think that's really all that true. Anyone can learn anything they want, provided they work hard enough and genuinely want it.

    As Bystander just said...

    Go for it!
  5. Dec 16, 2015 #4

    I'd ask someone in an astronomy program, or a professor. It is extremely hard. It is even harder than mathematics itself, which is very hard. I had a great GRE score at age 40 and it didn't do that much for me. Mathematics is a specialized skill which depends on the mastery of numerous subskills. Some people absorb it much more quickly than do I. Hard work alone isn't enough. I think starting at age twelve would be a big advantage.

    It was particularly discouraging to see graduates who were much better than I fail to get jobs. I had no idea what I was up against. I might have been able to get a job teaching math at a junior college. Instead after getting a master's I went back to programming.

    Don't pay attention to the "follow your dreams" crowd. I don't understand where they are coming from. Are they clueless or do they just want to make you feel good? This has nothing to do with reality. There is very little demand for astronomers.

    BUT Brian May lead guitarist of Queen became a professor of astrophysics, so it isn't impossible.
  6. Dec 16, 2015 #5
    Well nobody said that rock musicians are thick, music is quite well related to math.
    If you have that kind of personality and don't mind groupies well why not have fun?
    Feynman was revered for that, Some of Pink Floyd could have qualified too.
    Then there is Ozzy Osbourne, Meatloaf etc.
    (and DJ's that seem to only know 1/1 time, boof boof boof)
  7. Dec 16, 2015 #6


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    The supply of new PhD astronomers probably far exceeds the number of "permanent" positions available for them. During the course of his career (30-35 years perhaps), a typical university research professor probably supervises on the order of 10-20 PhD students. It takes only one new PhD to replace him when he retires.

    You need to be prepared for the strong possibility that you will end up going back into IT or something similar, after finishing your PhD. Will you consider yourself as a failure if that happens, or will you think of it as an interesting and worthwhile period of your life anyway?
  8. Dec 17, 2015 #7
    Did you have a great GRE or PGRE score at age 40?
    Did you get a masters in physics or astronomy? Did you think about going for the PhD or was your end goal the masters?
    I have heard this before as well, but I just can't see myself doing IT for the rest of my life. Although it is financially stable, it is not fulfilling in the long term. I guess if I don't go for it now with astronomy, I feel that as I get older I probably won't have the energy to put in the long nights trying to solve a hard problem. I tell myself if I want to be sitting around my house at age 60 as an astronomer (or at least working in astronomy somewhere) or still in IT? I can't see IT in the future for me in the long term.
  9. Dec 17, 2015 #8
    I am aware of the statistics. I won't consider myself a failure if I fail to land the astronomy job of my dreams. I feel that it is about the journey. Even thinking about studying astronomy formally in a graduate program gets me excited. As long as I can do that and then have a job where I can use the skills I gained, and maybe make a small contribution to the astronomical field, that would be more than satisfying. Salary and or prestige has never been important to me, as long as I make enough to take care of my family's needs.
  10. Dec 17, 2015 #9
    Do you think also that just a great PGRE score is enough to get into a good PhD program? I thought about doing the masters but it self funded and I am not sure I will get a great ROI. I am also aware of an online astronomy masters degree through Swinburne University in Australia. It looks legitimate, but again...would it help me get into a PhD program or am I better off self studying for the PGRE alone?
  11. Dec 18, 2015 #10


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    It also depends on what your goal is. Doing PhD in astronomy DOES mean you get to do astronomy full time for a number of years. Hence, there is nothing wrong with having that as a goal in itself. Having a PhD might also -depending on what you end up doing- help in you in your future career even if you go back to industry afterwards.
  12. Dec 18, 2015 #11
    Even if they pay your way the ROI is going to be terrible due to opportunity cost. If you pay your own way then it's financial suicide. Get funded or don't bother.
  13. Dec 18, 2015 #12
    Getting a great subject GRE score will be difficult for anyone, regardless of age. I do not think age 34 per se will stop you. However, the subject score and general scores are just part of the qualifications the admissions committees in the USA consider. Being out of school for 10 years, may make it hard to get good letters of recommendations. (I know this was a problem when I went back to graduate school in physics after working more than 10 years) Maybe your professors in the MBA program will give you recommendations, but schools may give more weight to your math or physics graduate course professors. You may need to take further graduate courses in physics to keep your contacts for letters of recommendations current. Presumably, your professors for courses many years ago may not remember you, unless you were an outstanding student (once in a generation or decade).
    My suggestion, is get your ducks in a row. Either reestablish contact with your graduate course professors and see if they will be willing to write good letters of recommendation (LOR's), or take further grad courses, explaining to the professors your goals. Study for the GRE.

    Take the PGRE to see where you are. The scores are generally considered current for around 5 years (you may check this).

    But Given the premise of your question:

    A good PGRE is not by itself enough. All programs I'm familiar with want LOR's. I have even seen disclaimers that say a good GRE is not enough to be guaranteed admission. My thoughts may be wrong but:

    1. Best to have a good GPA. A good GPA can overcome a bad PGRE and average LORS.
    2. A good PGRE and average LOR's with a under B GPA is not nearly as good as a good GPA, but some schools allow that some programs are distinctly harder than others and PGRE is a good standardizer between harder and easier graded programs.

    3. Without LORS, a fantastic PGRE and old physics graduate courses will be insufficient anywhere.
    4. Age is not the main problem.
  14. Dec 18, 2015 #13
    BTW: I achieved my best PGRE score at the age of 46.
  15. Jan 4, 2016 #14
    Did you find it hard to obtain admission into a PhD program given your age?
  16. Jan 4, 2016 #15
    I was extremely lucky. I admit it. I applied to only one graduate school. (I was working in a physics related area, so I did not critically need to get in somewhere). Their reply suggested I was on the borderline (50-50 chance) . Finally I was admitted.

    I think the department did not expect me to get the mean score for their incoming students on the PGRE. (Perhaps this impressed them, considering I took graduate courses in physics and EE/AE (part time) sporadically over a period of 15-20 years)

    The hardest part was getting LOR's though. Two of three LOR's were more from highly educated colleagues at work rather than faculty. I do not know how strongly they were considered. I do believe my colleagues considered me to have considerable ability and interest in physics and their LOR's reflected this.
  17. Jan 5, 2016 #16
    Did you finish the PhD already? If yes, how has it been as an older physics graduate in obtaining post docs and/or employment in academia if that is the route you took?

    The part about the sporadic physics courses would definitely be me. I thought about investing close to 20k in order to obtain a terminal masters within a 3 year period, and then go for the PhD, but it just doesnt seem like a good investment if I can try to get in directly to a PhD program that will hopefully offer me full funding.

    Was the admissions committee leery of your LORs being from colleagues rather than professors? In my case, I also at this point would look to get LORs from colleagues.
  18. Jan 5, 2016 #17
    As far as I know, the admissions committee was not leery. No one ever told me. I am always a little careful about telling my story because I was admitted more than 13 years ago. It is possible the committee considered the enthusiastic support of my mentor at the lab (he told me he gave me a good recommendation) was considered as highly as a faculty member at a university. The committee had a transcript of a half dozen graduate physics courses after my Masters in 1983, and about a dozen engineering courses to consider to offset the lack of LOR's from faculty members.

    I did complete my doctorate. I did not stay in academia but I did have one post-doc for about 1 -year. I am currently employed in similar government lab before I left for the doctorate in 2003. (No better no worse; no promotion) My 18 years of federal service and benefits before I left for grad school counted towards retirement, so I picked up where I left off (I felt this was even better than another post-doc).

    As far as I know, grad student funding does not depend on whether you declare yourself a master's or doctoral student. Most likely you will get a tuition waiver and a teaching or research associate position. You will be paid for your service (teaching or research) to the university and department.

    One note: After undergrad, my GPA was very low. When applying for grad school (now remember this is >35 years ago), I thought I would tell the committee that I was only interested in a Masters. I thought that I would get my foot in the door before suggesting I join the doctoral program instead. To my surprise, the members I talked to were more receptive that I try for the doctorate. I almost talked myself out of the position that I really wanted.
    (It may also be the committee may want to see what I could do on the PhD qualifying exams, before investing a lot of time on me for a masters. In some schools, the masters is sort of a consolation for unsuccessful qualifiers. I passed the qualifiers, but later left the school for government service. These were the days of "Star Wars defense", in the early 1980's)

    I did not know it but I almost talked myself out of my current position during the initial job interview by suggesting a mid level management role that I really did not want. They wanted me as a scientist. I thought I was coming over to their side of the fence, when I found out they were more in support of my goals when I was direct.

    I probably should emphasize my experiences were a long time ago and my not be typical. Also I was lucky and I know it. (Younger men than I or their close family members had serious health problems that stopped them ) I was even lucky that I could pick up where I left off and my time in service and benefits counted. Two years ago, I was applying for several positions as adjunct professor at community college paying 10-20K each, without benefits and no office, if I could get them. Perhaps leaving the first lab under good terms was an important consideration when the second lab considered me (after I completed grad school). I always felt it is important not to burn bridges after crossing.
  19. Jan 10, 2016 #18
    Don't pay attention to the "follow your dreams" crowd.

    Don't pay attention to this crowd either.
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