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Cosmology: a good career choice?

  1. Mar 24, 2006 #1
    i find the study of cosmology very fascinating and now contemplating to study it. But is it a wise choice?

    I mean, how practical is cosmology in everyday life? not that i really need it to be, i'm more than satisfied to have answers i've always been pondering about.

    and is employment hard to find?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 24, 2006 #2


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    I really don't know if it's a good career choice, but I would also like to be a cosmologist.

    What is better than searching (and perhaps finding) for the answers to the most important questions?
  4. Mar 24, 2006 #3
    If you like,its the best of all! No much consideration should be exist to interrupt you!
  5. Mar 27, 2006 #4


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    Depends on what you're doing. Instrumentalists are very hirable in the corporate sector. If you're during numerical theory, you might also be valuable to certain interests. All in all, though, it's not something you do if you want a lot of money or employment opportunities. Make sure you enjoy it before you commit.
  6. Mar 27, 2006 #5

    you don't know where i can find employment statistics do you? and may I ask what you you did you study, and did you have trouble finding employment?

    i dont mind not making alot of money in exchange for knowledge, just the thought of studying for 8+ years plus student loans then being unemployed.
  7. Apr 5, 2006 #6
    In all honesty, you have to have a deep passion for science and mathematics to 'excel' in your desired field.

    Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics really has to inspire you to learn things on your own before you can seriously consider it as a career choice.

    It's not going to be fun unless you really enjoy those subjects.

    If you study physics and mathematics, you will become employed. It just might not be a position allowing you to study space. That research might have to be conducted in your free time.

    This is generalized though.
  8. Apr 5, 2006 #7


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  9. Apr 5, 2006 #8
    I wanted to be a cosmologist, long time ago, as well, back when I was an undergraduate.

    Cosmology is sexy. It makes for great documentaries on PBS. It's tantalizing to contemplate the origin of, well, everything.

    Under no circumstances should you contemplate going into the field, however, unless you are smart enough that
    (0) you began publishing research papers, oh, midway through college
    (1) you taught yourself calculus long before college, say, and
    (2) you've aced all of your physics classes,
    (3) ...which were at a really top-notch school where you actually learned things like Hamiltonian mechanics and quantum perturbation theory, not some pu$5y-a$% program that teaches "quantum mechanics lite" or somesuch.
    (4) you can do semi-Riemannian differential geometry with your medulla oblongata

    Also, you need be
    (5) a good people person
    (6) a very good writer
    (science, ultimately, is all about writing papers and writing grant proposals and going to meetings - sorry! - you thought we actually did research?!?!)

    And, you need to be stupid enough so that
    (7) you don't realize or care that time=money and it's going to take you the better part of a decade to get your phd once you've gotten your ba/bs, which is forfeited earnings during the most important years of your life for building up savings / nest egg
    (8) you don't care that the dumb-a@# sitting next to you in physics 101 who you helped with all of the homework and who just squeaked by - he/she will be making three times what you make, ten years down the road, as a sci/eng manager or consultant for a defense contractor or some other big business, and will probably be your grant reviewer and/or boss to boot,
    (9) you don't mind delaying having a family until you are old enough that you can't reproduce by the normal biological route,
    (10) you are content moving to new states and/or countries every couple years or so, with no moving expenses provided
    (11) you don't mind surviving dry spells by sucking off unemployment or credit card debt,
    (12) you don't mind dealing with landlords most of your life (mortgage lenders don't like people who move a lot and change employers constantly, which you almost certainly will do if you are one of the few lucky ones to actually be offered jobs.....)

    So yea, if that fits you, then by all means go into cosmology.

    Of course this sounds terribly cynical, but every point I raised above is based on real-world experience. I got my PhD from a top-ten school. Flat out I can tell you that, of the friends of mine who entered the PhD program with me, only a very small fraction made it through. And of the ones who made it - and these are all very, very hard-working, smart people, mind you, not flunkies - I know just a couple who have permanent jobs. You know, things with reasonable salaries, benefits, etc. And they, in turn, by the way, were absolutely the LEAST competent of the ones who made it through. They are employed because (1) they aren't creative enough to come up with their own ideas, but they are very good at doing what is asked of them, (2) they were quite happy to work on creating weapons of mass destruction for the US gov't.

    I have an older friend who just now got offered his first "real" job (tenure-track research professor) at the age of 50. Another friend - quite a famous researcher - has been on several of those da$% PBS documentaries, has done some fantastic research that one him all sorts of national awards and citations out the wazoo, and he still fights like heck for every dime he gets, living mainly off the salary of his lawyer wife. Speaking of which, I have two friends who went both to physics grad school and law school. They both assure me that law school is MUCH easier. The one who left physics entirely was making, oh, about $120k right out of law school (ca. 1998), while I was still getting $14k a year to teach dimwits how to do the right-hand rule. By the way, inflation-adjusted, that is more than you will EVER make in academia or a gov't lab. He was MUCH MUCH happier. Yes, being a lawyer isn't a walk in the park either, and ten years post-degree something like half of them aren't in practice anymore. So yea, it's hard. But if you do the numbers, it's far less competitive than physics, especially cosmology.

    So, really, no, whatever you do, for chrissake, please don't try to get a PhD in physics or astronomy or whatever. Go take some engineering classes, or accounting, or law, or anything but physics/mathematics. Trust me. The real world is full of lots of fascinating problems waiting to be solved, problems that might not make for a good documentary on PBS but which should still provide enough intellectual stimulation to keep anybody intellectually fulfilled, and - heaven forbid - employed at that.
  10. Apr 5, 2006 #9


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    I started reading, and I disagreed almost right away.

    I don't think it is necessary that you know full blown Calculus before college, have published papers before graduating or even acing all your physics classes.

    It should be a question you can answer yourself. After learning about physics and mathematics, you should realize how indepth cosmology is. Then you should ask yourself, can I do it?

    Answer that question realistically. Do not answer it in such a way to get an answer you want.

    I think the idea that you propose for someone to go into higher mathematics (cosmology) is absurd.

    Note: If you possess the list ZapperZ made, there is no doubt that it is a good sign that you can do it. I just don't think the converse is true.
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2006
  11. Apr 5, 2006 #10

    That was rather forceful, I realize. I love physics and mathematics myself. And I am happy that I count myself among the few who understand relativity and quantum mechanics (such as is possible in the latter case). Those are two wonderful intellectual edifices of the last century.

    But, I will be happy if I can dissuade you from following the PhD course unless it is something that you feel deep down in your bones, that it is your dream. And remember that, years later, when you can't afford to put your children in a nice school and you don't live in the nice part of town, it was because your dream was so important to you that you sacrificed having a life to do it. I am being perfectly serious here.

    You have to realize that this is the flip-side of the coin that you will never hear if you just go to talk to professors in your department. Of course they would love for you to study physics. They are happy. They have jobs (usually b/c they got them long before the jobs crisis that kicked in in the mid-7o's and has never really gone away since then).

    I have taught on the faculty of a few departments. It is my sincere feeling that most faculty are rather dishonest about career opportunities because they, like everyone else on the face of the planet, primarily are looking out for number one - ie, themselves. Physics and astronomy departments survive by doing good research, which brings in money. The research is performed and the budgets are balanced on the backs of graduate students. Once the department is done with students, ie they graduate, they are no longer of any use. Yes, departments want to brag about their job placement, but it is very very low down on the priority list, primarily because there aren't enough students who ask the right questions like you - ie, are there really any jobs? - and who demand answers before going to study in department X. And, any professor who regularly told the truth to prospective students about the job situation would risk getting a little talk from the department chair.

    And when I say the job situation is bad, I mean it's bad. I mean consider that it's one in three that you actually make it to the PhD, and then another one in two that you have a job after the PhD, and then maybe another one in three that you have a job that actually makes use of your PhD, ten years down the line. And one in one that your job, unless you jump ship, will pay DISMALLY. Don't be misled by those salary surveys. I don't know where they get their numbers. For example, suppose you're in astrophysics. You are top-notch. So much so that you get a coveted Hubble Fellowship. (this is a big deal, by the way). Ok, you are making, what, $45k (last I recall) - and this is the BEST of the best, the creme de la creme of PhDs from *top* programs. If you hear of an astronomer making six figures, it's somebody who got their PhD in the 70's, or else a three-sigma deviation from the mean.

    Everybody thinks cosmology is fascinating. What might make for a better career is to consider something else that you also think is fascinating, but that nobody else seems to think is so.
  12. Apr 5, 2006 #11
    Oh, I didn't mean to propose to go into higher mathematics. But you won't get very far in cosmology without an understanding of general relativity, which is, er, semi-Riemannian differential geometry. Ok, maybe you don't need to know a Bianchi type-9 universe from mud unless you're going to be a theorist, but that's my background, so I suppose I was tacitly assuming that we were talking about theory here. If you want to build a telescope to look at CMB anisotropies, that is another matter. And it's probably better for your job prospects long-term. But, even if you never want to touch theory with a ten-foot pole, you still have to understand the basics, unless you want to be one of those people who gives talks at conferences where they say "Oh, I don't know, some theorist said this should happen, I don't really understand it, but I thought I'd test it...." And then you won't be getting very far with your career anyway.

    But, since you disagree right away, let me ask you:
    How much experience do you actually have in getting a job after your PhD?
  13. Apr 5, 2006 #12
    Thank you starfysmn, that was a well needed reality check for me.

    However, I am still very young and naive and quite content to be piss-poor [In fact, I think I'd rather like it :) ].
  14. Apr 6, 2006 #13
    I have been thinking long and hard about what I want to do with my future.

    My love and heart lies in physics (especially astrophysics/astronomy), however, I realistically understand that I do not possess the talent to become one of the world's top theorists.

    If I still majored in astrophysics/astronomy, would I be able to get a masters/PhD degree in a different field of study? Or, If I am comfortable performing research and analysis of data at observatories/universities as a career, is that realistic?

    I just want to study the universe on some level. I don't care what it is.

    Or should I major in something more generic (physics) so I have a broader base and more chance of excelling in different fields in Grad school?

    What path would you propose to a person wishing to make a career out of science?
  15. Apr 6, 2006 #14
    While I probably sound phenomenally pessimistic, I am just trying to let you know the real situation. If you still decide you want to do it, go for it, but don't make the leap until you are really informed. I too, at one time, was perfectly happy to be poor. I spent a good chunk of grad school living in the garage of a pest-infested house, I cooked my own meals, I rode a bike or the bus, etc etc. You know what? It gets old after a while. Really old. La Boheme is a great opera, but you don't want to emulate it in real life. A friend of mine racked up 50k in credit card debt after his green card ran out and he had no source of income for over a year. He finally got a job just before he was about to hang it up, so he's ok now. But do you want that to be you? Not really romantic, I'm afraid.

    No, you don't have to have the talent to be one of the world's top theorists to be successful, unless, that is, you want to do theory at a top place. The thing to realize in that case is that you are talking about a whole different eschelon than anything that most people are exposed to as undergrads, even if you went to a top school (e.g. Harvard or Caltech). Being smart and working your a$% off is a necessary, but not sufficient, ingredient for success. Other factors come into play later in the game, one of the most important of which is luck, frankly.

    Here are my recommendations:
    (1) Read Feibelman's book, "A PhD Isn't Enough." Read it BEFORE you decide to go to grad school. Read it ten times.
    (2) Look to the end results. That is, look at people who make it and do fine, and ask what it is that they did. Here are some hints:
    (a) Do not do theory. There are no jobs doing theory, and there is no fallback. Exception: If you like writing computer programs, then you can do numerical theory, ie simulation. For example, experience with computational fluid dynamics (CFD) is a nice thing when looking for jobs. But if you do CFD in cosmology and then try to get a job in industry, you will still be at a disadvantage against engineers who just got their BS/MS.
    (b) Do not do anything that does not have potential real-world applications (e.g., do not do particle physics of any type, or cosmology, etc, unless you don't mind making a huge gamble that will more likely than not fail to pay off)
    (c) If you build things in the lab, you will be infinitely more marketable. For example, do work in AMO (atomic-molecular-optics), or build instruments if you are going into astronomy.
    (d) If you want to do astronomy, find a niche. e.g., high-resolution stellar spectroscopy, etc. Stay away from fields that are really "hot". These tend to be trendy and burn out people in a heartbeat. Do something a bit off the beaten track, something useful, and do it well.

    Other than reading Feibelman's book, my number one recomendation is this:
    ----> WHO you work for is the single most imporant decision you can make. Your choice of dissertation advisor is ten times more important than what school you go to, what your grades are, what area of physics or astronomy you study, etc.

    In the department where I got my degree, the strongest correlators of success are these: (1) who did you work for, (2) did you do observation/instrumentation or did you foolishly decide to do theory.

    So how do you decide who to work for? DO NOT decide b/c person X does cosmology and you think it's cool whereas person Y studies, oh, binary stars and you think that's boring. Sure that counts for something but the fact is that once you get into a research program your interests will change anyway. No, the way to decide is just as I said before: Look to the end results. Before deciding to work for professor X, find out how many students professor X has mentored, and what happened to them. Are they all gainfully employed, still doing research, or did they either drop out or just vanish out of sight after they got their degrees? Is professor X selective about who he/she takes on? (the correct answer is yes) Does professor X actually make time for his/her students, meeting with them on a regular basis, or does professor X think that his/her time is so valuable that he/she makes very little room for face time? Is professor X a nice person or a jerk? (this is very important, do not discount this!) Are students of professor X encouraged/provided with $ to go to conferences and "network"? Does professor X have a steady stream of grant money? Does professor X pay his students so they don't have to teach?

    One very easy trap to fall into is to think that if you work for a real curmudgeon who doesn't have money to support you, that your personal sacrifice will be regarded as a sign of dedication.... ---> It doesn't work like that.<--- Don't be afraid to follow the money. If you can't get paid to do your research as a grad student, you'd better have a really good reason for not switching to work for somebody who will have at least enough respect for you to provide you with an income.

    Hope that helps. Good luck!
  16. Apr 6, 2006 #15


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    starfysmn's rants smack of a bitterness that you won't get from every astronomer/cosmologist, even those who left the field, but there's much truth in it. The field is very competitive and the job opportunities are few and far between. You really should love it if you're going to try it. However, let me provide some more optimistic points to balance this thread's cynicism.

    For starters, the failure rate in Ph.D. programs is low, almost across the board. There may be a few exceptions, but every school I visited (and they were all top schools) said that the majority of their students received a doctorate. At Princeton, we have someone kicked out of the program (with an MS) only once every few years and these are only the really lazy folks. We also occasionally have someone leave voluntarily, but the vast majority of entering students end up with a Ph.D.

    As for job opportunities, it is difficult to get a faculty position. However, astrophysicists are quite desirable on the job market. At Princeton, when a student decides to leave astrophysics, it's usually because they've been offered a ridiculously high-paying job on Wall Street or in a consulting firm. In this respect, going for a Ph.D. in astro is not a waste of your time; in fact, you gain a lot of computer skills (something that might have changed since starfysmn's time) and you're viewed as a top-notch problem solver (good for consulting firms).

    What about those that do make it? Are they scratching out a living? Absolutely not. Professors of astronomy and cosmology are very well paid and the fact that they don't all make $100,000 a year does not immediately put them in the low income bracket. If you're a reasonable spender and you don't have 15 kids, you'll be able to get by just fine on a cosmologist's salary. If, as a postdoc, you're not satisfied with 40 or 50k a year, I think you need to do a serious re-evaluation of your priorities.

    Finally, a firm grasp of general relativity and quantum mechanics is not required for a cosmologist, just for certain types of theoretical cosmologists (especially early universe people). Most of the necessary physics is classical or semi-classical.

    But it's true, if you're a very money-centered person and don't like teaching students, then I would say academia in general is a bad idea. Also, you have to work and you have to be a good at mathematics and physics. If you enter the field without these qualities, you only have yourself to blame when life becomes frustrating.
  17. Apr 6, 2006 #16
    Sorry, complexPHILOSOPHY, I didn't answer your question!

    I don't know about the first question, to be honest. It depends on what field you are talking about. Physics BA/BS is more flexible than an astronomy BA/BS, but other than that I can't help you.

    As for performing research and analysis of data at observatories/universities: This requires a PhD in your field. The only real exception to this is if you have some astronomy background (say) but you also have a really good background in, oh, computer science, or some other engineering background if we are talking about building instruments.

    For example, there is a huge amount of image/signal processing that goes into the analysis of, say, Hubble data, or CCD data from any other telescope for that matter. Setting up the data pipelines for these things is a task that sometimes takes more time and effort, all of it programming, than anything else that astronomers do. You need to understand things like what is a convolution and what is an FFT, but if you can do that and you're really good at programming fortran/c/idl, then you can probably get a job somewhere without a PhD. Still, most people who do this sort of thing DO have a PhD in astronomy or related field, and in most cases you would be competing against them.

    If you are happy to work in an astronomy as a support person, I can tell you that most departments are in constant need of good IT/sytem administrators. You definitely don't need a PhD for that, but you won't actually be doing much if any research.

    Mechanical/optical engineers are always in demand, for building new telescopes and instruments.

    Telescope operators (at observatories that actually have permanent paid operators, as opposed to ones where the visiting astronomers operate the telescopes) don't need PhD's, but an MA/MS is probably a good idea (I could be wrong here). Observatory support people don't need PhDs.

    One place to look to see who's hiring and for what, is:
    http://members.aas.org/JobReg/Jobregister.cfm [Broken]
    This board is geared primarily for PhD track astronomers, but it's a place to start....

    Again, good luck!
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  18. Apr 6, 2006 #17

    You are right that I was spewing lots of venom. Whew! Just the frustration of my own current job search. And, you are right that people who get kicked out *often* are simply not hard workers, although I would argue that the correlation is actually rather weak, knowing several counter-examples in both directions.

    And you are right that you don't really need to be a GR/QM whiz. Probably in the end, personality and resilience is probably more important.

    Regarding the money thing, though:
    NOBODY goes into physics/astronomy/cosmology for the money. Everybody who goes into these fields is willing to make huge sacrifices in this regard to do what they love. That point is absolutely unassailable. However, (a) most people who go into these fields are also willfully ignorant of just how large of a sacrifice we are talking here, (b) when you get old enough to be married and have kids, your sacrifices can have significant ramifications for those who you love, not just yourself. It's one thing to live on ramen. It's another to ask your children to. Something to consider.

    My first postdoc was a 1-yr position that paid 30k with no benefits (ie no health insurance, relocation, etc). Big mistake accepting that. I would be happy making 40-50 a year if I had some measure of job security/benefits. I don't think my priorities are out of whack. Quite the opposite.

    So here's one last bit of gratuitous advice: Have some self-respect. Don't accept the first job you get offered just b/c you are happy they selected you. Sure, you aren't in this to get rich, but there are limits!

    Anyway, again, best luck to everyone. And really, read Feibelman's book. It's golden.
  19. Apr 6, 2006 #18

    I would like to give you the same advice the man who convinced me to get a physics gave me. You see, after all his talk about how wonderful it was, two years later (towards the end of his PhD) he was left desperately searching for a job. After one particularly bad day (he had a wife and child, after all), he pulled me to the side and said:

    "Don't get a degree without checking to see if there are jobs first."

    Good advice. He was in astrophysics, by the way.

    You could believe Spacetiger, or starfysmn or me, but why not check for yourself? Call up a few Wall Street firms or consulting firms and ask them how employable you'll be half way through your PhD in cosmology (that should be enlightening!). Examine the data for employability in Universities. Read.

    The best information you've been provided with so far was Zapperz's link, but you should look hard at other data as well. Listen to what people say, but in the end, care more about what future employers say.

    Forget this talk of liking something and giving over to a life of poverty to study it. Liking something, being employable, and being paid well for it is even better.
  20. Apr 6, 2006 #19


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    I don't doubt that hard workers get the shaft from time-to-time, but honestly, I don't think the correlation is very weak. I can't really quote statistics on that, though, so I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.

    Not having children, I'm hesitant to comment on the difficulties of raising kids on a salary like that, but as a grad student, I make about 30k a year and have more than enough money to support myself. In fact, I have a lot of money in the bank, spend a good bit on my hobby (making rock music :wink:), and I go out to eat pretty much every day. If I'm ever forced to eat Ramen, it's because of convenience, not cost. I know the situation can be different in some places, particularly those where the cost of living is high (e.g. Santa Cruz), but that's something the student should take into account when choosing their school.

    On family issues, I can only tell you what I see in those that do have families. Two of the grad students here have kids and they are certainly not struggling to get by in the program. The kids are raised in apartments, to be sure, but they're fed well and given good care. The primary problem, or so I'm told, is that the parent or parents are limited in the amount of time they can spend with their child. Personally, I would not have kids during grad school, but I don't get the impression it's as much a problem for the postdocs, who are paid at least 40k (probably more like 50k, I don't know exactly).

    It's not luxury, but I'm not sure I would want to raise my kids in luxury anyway.
    Last edited: Apr 6, 2006
  21. Apr 6, 2006 #20
    This is a bit of information cute blurbs about how much money tenured professors make do not convey. I have no idea what the average time spent as a postdoc is in astrophysics, but for all phd's its almost a decade. The salary is abysmal and the competition fierce. Once you're out, you can spend years more as associate/assistant professors. Finally, you'll be making what your friends were making fifteen years earlier.


    That little piece of information I don't know - how long you'll be a nobody in a postdoc job before moving on - that's something anyone going into a phd program really needs to find out.
  22. Apr 6, 2006 #21
    Not true for most everyone. 32-42 is more like it, less right when you start. Your college might be a bit better. Many are probably worse.
  23. Apr 6, 2006 #22
    Time in postdocs? Hmm. Some people pass them directly, but this is rare. 7-8 years is not unheard of. If you don't get a really good postdoc offer to begin with, it's probably best to go right into industry/national labs. I have many friends who build nuclear weapons, which, by the way, an astrophysics degree prepares you for excellently. Just as in all other employment avenues, selling your soul gets you better pay (this is not a judgement - I did it too!).

    As for how long you survive on soft money, which means that every couple years or so you have to get another grant or you're toast, and you earn about half of the professors? Well, some people do this for their entire careers. Quite a lot, actually.

    SpaceTiger is talking about Princeton, which is tops. My program was ranked, well, tied for number 11 on the most recent USNews & World Report rankings. Of course these rankings should be taken with a huge grain of salt. The point, though, is this: OK, maybe you don't have to be Einstein, ace all your classes, and do renormalization in your sleep. However, I'd say if you don't get into a program that's, oh, in the top 10 to 20 ranked, then you should seriously reconsider your options. Which means, by the way, that in most states, going to the top-ranked physics department in that state is a waste of your time. Chances are you would be much better served getting a degree in electrical engineering, which is almost the same thing anyway but markets much better.

    SpaceTiger probably does ok on 30k/yr, but this is not typical for a grad student. Hmm, it was about 6 yrs ago, but the most I ever made was 14k, and that was a good year. And out of that I had to pay a few thousand in tuition/fees every year. That is just one difference between a top-ranked program and one that is just off the top-10 cusp.
  24. Apr 6, 2006 #23


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    This I would agree with, but it depends on how much you love the field. There are definitely stories of people picking themselves up from poorly ranked schools (much lower than 11) and getting high-profile faculty positions, but it requires even more work and dedication than from a top 3 school. It all comes back to what you really want in life and how hard you're willing to work to get it.

    The statistics Zapper linked don't say, but I seem to remember the monetary offers for the different schools (ranks ranging 1 to 10) as comparable. I don't remember anything as low as 14k, so maybe things have changed. Also, my pay has increased with time -- I started at more like 25k.
  25. Apr 6, 2006 #24
    Thanks for the comments, SpaceTiger. Careers/funding is on my mind since NASA's ATP program has NOIs due today. I've spent WAY too much time on this page but hopefully some people have benefited. Physics has sort of ignored its problem. You'll find lots of pages like this
    http://www.prospects.ac.uk/servlets/signposts.DegreeServlet?mode=View_sheet&id=55 [Broken]
    where they say, gee, congratulations on your PhD. Now, with a little additional training, you are qualified to teach High School! It's an insulting little band-aid on a pustulent wound.

    But, as in all things, if you persevere and keep from wasting your time on the web (ahem!), you'll do ok. Just remember, (1) Top-5 or top-10 program, (2) Pick your advisor well.

    Later, cats....
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  26. Apr 6, 2006 #25


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    I don't consider all time spent on the web to be a waste, but I agree with the general sentiment. :wink:
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