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[Canada] 30 year old going back to school - need advice

  1. Dec 10, 2014 #1
    I am doing a bit if a career shift and am looking to study physics at university. My initial feeling is astrophysics or theoretical physics. I am also planning to take this to Phd if I can.

    I am presently working on the high school pre-requisites that I need but I've encountered a bit of a conundrum.

    Carleton U in Ontario only needs gr 12 Physics (working on now with a midterm overall avg of 100%, finished Gr11 with 94%), Calculus and Advanced Functions to apply. They use my GPA from college (3.99/4) to determine admission and entrance scholarship. Knowing this, these are the courses I planned to finish and things are timed such that I will finish the last course by June 2015 allowing me to start university in Sept.

    I've heard really good things about UBC and Queens especially since they have an astrophysics program. The problem is they require six courses at the gr 12 university level. To complete the other three I would need to delay my university application for another year.

    My question: is the undergrad important enough to delay a year to get the prerequisites to go to UBC? Especially since UBC has my program and apparently a lot of support for research at the undergrad level? Since I am planning to take this education straight through to Phd, does this affect what I should decide?

    Ideally I would prefer not to delay further and its a shame that Carleton seems to be the exception in admission requirements.

    I'd love some guidance/opinions. If I can give more info to help please let me know.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 11, 2014 #2


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    Since I don't speak Canadian (and hence don't understand some of your comments), it is hard to give much advice. That said, I do have a few questions for you to think about. Why astrophysics and why to a PhD? This looks like a narrow channel to a university teaching job and not much else. Is that what you want? Are you up to winning in this highly competitive environment?
  4. Dec 11, 2014 #3
    Thanks for your response!

    Astrophysics because it lies in my field of interest primarily. If not astrophysics I feel like theoretical at least.

    Phd seems like a good goal to set - I want to aim as high as I can so I can ensure the groundwork is set to open doors for me.

    I am absolutely not against a university teaching job though I do feel as though I would like some non-teaching work beforehand.

    Ultimately my choice of physics is interest, I'm not making a "future career" decision, I'm making a "this is what I am interested in". I want a job/career I love so this seems like a good way to go about it.

    Do you have any insight where maybe I'm a bit misguided? Physics world is incredibly vast and it's not exactly easy to lay out a path. Even picking subject areas is tough when you have to learn about them to even understand what they are!
  5. Dec 11, 2014 #4


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    It might be worth checking into whether the requirements are the same for a mature student or not. Sometimes they can be a little different.

    Secondly, as far as an undergraduate program goes, you don't need to specialize. In fact, specializing too early tends to close more doors than it opens. So in that respect I wouldn't spend extra time on high school courses just to get into a more specialized program. The flipside however is that you will likly need to draw on skills that have been developed in those courses. They're not just hoops to jump through.

    Also, the point above is that studying physics is studying physics and it is not necessarily (or even likely) going to lead to a career in physics. Even those who complete the PhD are often unlikely to end up working as a physicist in most cases.
  6. Dec 11, 2014 #5
    At UBC there arent any special considerations for mature students, really. still need all the prereqs.

    So if my aim is to have a career in a space-related field it doesnt mske sense to do an honours astronomy/physics undergrad? I understand that my education may take me outside the field but im really hoping itll lead me to a space agency or researching space. That said, i am studying physics because I want to learn it - again explaining my astronomy target.
  7. Dec 11, 2014 #6


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    An undergraduate major in physics is probably what you're looking for. There are a number of programs that offer more specialized programs at the undergraduate level - such as programs in "astrophysics" or "medical physics" etc. In many cases these are just fine in that they offer a core physics degree, but replace some electives with senior-level branch-specific courses (that you would likely take anyway). In other cases though, you end up replacing some core courses, or avoid exploring other branches of the field that you might not otherwise have considered. An undergraduate degree is supposed to give you an education in physics (assuming you want to go to graduate school in physics). You specialize when you enter graduate school.
  8. Dec 12, 2014 #7
    chaunceyw, it sounds like you are in the same boat that I was in a couple of years ago. I am 34 and currently at Western University in Ontario. I originally did a degree at Queen's in English literature, but I always felt that I wanted to study a more technical/scientific field. After several years, I decided to return to university (at 32), but I had to get the mathematical prerequisites. I went through the Independent Learning Centre in Ontario in order to get 12U Calculus and Vectors.

    What choppy says about mature students sounds a lot like what I heard from Queen's when I originally was planning on returning there, and it reflects what eventually happened for me with Western. If you email the admissions office/registrar at the universities, they may take in to account your background, and they may waive some of the prereqs or require different ones. For example, one of those six 12U courses is almost assuredly English. If you have taken anything at college that could demonstrate facility in English, you would likely not have to take 12U English. The prereqs are there to ensure that you are serious, which I think you have demonstrated through the courses you are taking.

    It sounds like you have a previous college diploma/degree, so you should have enough there to help you out. If you look at the specific courses that you want to take in first year, it is likely that the only requirements are 12U Calculus and 12U Physics, and many of the Ontario universities offer first-year math and physics courses that don't even require those. Like I said, email the schools you would like to attend and see what can be done to alter/waive some of the high school requirements. Now is the time to do it, as a lot of them are taking applications now. I got into Western as a "special student," which is a strange term that Western uses to denote someone who already has a degree. I just had to show that I had calculus (and I didn't even absolutely need to show it, as they didn't take too close a look at me because of my status as a second degree student). I am enjoying it here, and, while it is a lot different from my previous degree, I certainly feel that I made the right call.

    I just want to echo one more thing that Choppy said: you really don't need to specialize yet. Get in there, take the first year courses. I thought that I would love calculus and hate linear algebra, but the opposite was true. I thought that I would love programming and hate theory, but I was wrong. In short, you have a pretty good idea of a general area that you would like to work in, but taking some courses can really alter things.

    Good luck, wherever you end up. I place a much higher value on this now than I did fifteen years ago, and the journey has been worth it so far.
  9. Dec 12, 2014 #8
    Thanks, Porthos.

    I have been in touch with UBC admissions both by phone, e-mail and directly to the program undergraduate coordinator and they were all pretty unmoving. The requirements as stated on the website are what they are, so if I do want to go there my only options are completing all 4U courses, or getting lucky with a transfer from another university. My experience so far with both universities and the Ontario high school system is that they are very formulaic, and really don't tend to stray from the protocol.

    I really appreciate all of the advice, and I'm seriously considering my original route of a general physics major rather than early specialization.

    I am still stuck on whether UBC is a good enough school to warrant extra work to attend (cost of moving/living/etc. aside, for now), or if Carleton will serve my undergrad purposes. I had heard that where you study your undergrad generally isn't really important in Canada, it's graduate school that matters. Carleton is a lot more convenient for me, but if the facilities and prospects of studying at UBC are significant, I really have to put my quality of education and the resources that may be available to me there as my first priority.
  10. Dec 12, 2014 #9


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    It may come as a surprise, but there are schools in the US that you could go to, unless of course, you just have to stay in Canada.
  11. Dec 12, 2014 #10
    I don't need to stay in Canada necessarily - though I do like my country! My main concerns about US education is the cost. Additionally I have a partner who would need to find work wherever I end up, which seems like going across the border might become even more complicated.

    That said, are there any schools I should target? MIT/Caltech would be amazing but way out of my league!
  12. Dec 12, 2014 #11
    The advantage of Canadian universities is that they give an excellent education for a much lower price than most American schools. Tuition for a domestic student here would rarely approach $10,000/year (and is generally between $5000 and $8000) unless you are talking about a professional degree.

    If you are close to Carleton, then I would suggest going there. I chose Western for proximity. Is it as prestigious as the University of Toronto or UBC? Nope, but the education is probably not all that different if you compare courses and the faculty teaching them. There appears to be much less of a difference between universities of prestige in Canada and lesser-known Canadian universities than is the case between tiers in the US, although I am only saying that based on what I have heard people from the US say. Canada's universities are almost all public universities, which creates quite a bit of balance. What matters is with whom (notice I didn't say where) you do your PhD.

    For example, U of T has an excellent physics program, but the Canada Research Chair in stellar formation is at Western (he came from CalTech and is an awesome guy), so you might be better served to do a PhD here than you would at a more prestigious school like U of T if that became your area of interest while in undergrad. Obviously if there is a great professor to work with at a very prestigious university, then that is an easy choice, but it will only become more clear as you take some courses and do a bit of research.

    It really does not matter all that much in Canada where you do your undergrad. It matters that you do a bit of research and make connections with professors who can guide you in choosing a grad program. I would venture to guess that you can do that at Carleton just as well as you can at UBC. Also, if you are closer to Carleton, it is likely that you will have stronger support from friends/family there, which can be a big help.
  13. Dec 12, 2014 #12
    You should be made aware that those two are not mutually exclusive. There are experimental and theoretical components to all fields of physics. As a theoretician, you do theory about some subfield of physics, not physics in general.
  14. Dec 12, 2014 #13
    Thanks for the confirmation. I think I was generally under that impression, I was more saying that I am leaning towards theoretical in general, with the hopes that (theoretical) astrophysics works out for me.

    The prospect of getting neck-deep in this field is both exciting and daunting.
  15. Dec 12, 2014 #14
    My two cents is that in Canada, the first two years (and even three in some places) are the same anywhere. You'll get the same education from a first year physics course at UBC that you will at NobodyCaresU.
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