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Changing directions at 31

  1. Jan 16, 2010 #1

    Here is a quick summary, made brief only so I don't write up an autobiography.

    I am 31-years-old, with an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Computer Science. I took no physics courses in my course work. Since last summer I have been independently studying physics and calculus out of the textbooks used by MIT's courses. I have a very strong desire to change the direction of my life. My long-term goal is graduate school, and eventually a PhD.

    I realize it's a little late for me to be making this decision. And that's where I need some advice. Since I already have an undergraduate degree, I'm wondering what it would take to give me a reasonable chance at being admitted to a graduate program. I don't think most universities let you start a new degree if you already have one. But it's ridiculous to think I could take graduate courses without taking undergraduate physics classes first.

    So, to summarize, I'm 31, I'm studying physics independently, and I want to aim for graduate school. Is this hopeless, or is this situation more common than I assume it is?

  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 16, 2010 #2


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    From all my applications to grad school, I think they all required me to have an Undergraduate degree in a physics related field. I'm not 100% on this, though. Bear in mind that a PhD in physics can take from 5-7 years.
  4. Jan 16, 2010 #3
    As usual, most things are possible if you have enough time and money.

    If you are serious about getting a Ph.D. in physics, you have to build up enough of a physics background so that you can be admitted to a program and manage to do the work.

    Assuming you've brushed up on math and freshman physics already, I'd suggest that you start by trying to take some upper division undergraduate physics courses. I'm in California, and I know that many (if not all) of the CSU schools have what they call "Open University", where you can essentially walk in off the street and take any course you want that has open seats. I'm sure other state schools have similar programs.

    I did something similar, and found that after about a year of coursework, I was well-prepared for an MS program. Having completed the MS, I am confident that if I had the time and money, I could have been admitted to a Ph.D. program and done well there.

    Would it be possible to go directly to a Ph.D. program after just taking a year or two of courses? I don't know... perhaps, but it would have been a much more difficult sell. Going into an MS program also gives you an opportunity to do some research with professors, which would be invaluable moving forward.

    Good luck with whatever you decide to do!
  5. Jan 16, 2010 #4
    Thank you for the advice.

    My intent was to find the shortest path to being a reasonable applicant for a Masters program. I'm sure it depends on the quality of the university I am aiming for, but my question was essentially whether it's critical to have an Undergrad degree in physics, or whether I can do pretty much exactly what you've suggested, taking a series of upper-level courses.

    Does it seem likely that a masters program would take someone who doesn't have an undergrad degree in Physics (my philosophy / computer science degree doesn't seem very relevant...), but who has taken various courses, and has passed the requisite exams?
  6. Jan 16, 2010 #5
    Different schools have different rules. Going back to the CSU schools, they are often willing to conditionally accept students without a physics degree, on the condition that they complete a specified set of the upper division physics courses. The top tier universities don't really do this, and many of them do not even offer a terminal master's degree.

    In my case, when I applied I had taken Freshman physics eons ago, and had finished one semester of Open University and was in the middle of my second. I was accepted on the condition that I received at least a 'B' in all of the courses I was currently taking.
  7. Jan 26, 2010 #6
    I don't think that it is hopeless at all. I know a friend who just started his M.Sc. degree at the age of 29. However, since you don't have a physics background, you might need to take many undergrad courses. I strongly suggest that you send e-mails to (many) graduate study coordinators at physics departments, and ask for their opinion/suggestions.
  8. Jan 27, 2010 #7
    It's never too late, especially for a field like physics. It is rather common with physics I would assert(based on what I've read/heard) for people to suddenly go "You know what, my destiny is to study physics"... Quite a few economists and such have ventured into physics.
    Make sure to check out some lecture videos online like
    http://www.youtube.com/MIT and http://www.youtube.com/khanacademy
    I saw khanacademy in a thread here somewhere, really good stuff.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 24, 2017
  9. Jan 27, 2010 #8
    I can understand how you feel. Because I also experience the same, I just started my MS in nanophysics. :smile: I am not 31 yet (I will be 29 this year), but I can't help that I feel old compare to my friends in class. So, you are not the only one to feel it.

    However, my friend (he is a Biophysicist) told me that to get serious in Physics is a 'call' from your heart and whoever hear this 'call' should not ignore it but follow it. By following it, we are being honest to our self. Tell this to the Professors in grad schools you want to approach. If they are a 'real' and 'true' Physicists, they will never and I said NEVER turn you down!! Believe me.
  10. Jan 27, 2010 #9
    It's never too late. My mom went back to school while I was in high school and got her masters in physics, and she's now going back (again) for her PhD in Materials Science. Before she applied to her PhD program, she took a graduate level course and proved to the professor she was more than capable of handling the program. He was more than happy to support her application after that!

    Of course, her situation was a little different, since her degree was in a related field and she had quite a few publications in physics from her time getting a Masters. I do think the route she took would be something for you to consider trying, though.

    Best of luck!
  11. Jan 28, 2010 #10
    I don't know about that part.

    At my school, if you have an undergrad degree, you can get a second degree even quicker than the first.


    Here's some highlights:

    You could probably get a second bachelor's degree in 2-3 years.
  12. Jan 28, 2010 #11


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    This may be late, but this is the very reason why I started this thread a long time ago:


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