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Crazy dreamer at 43 wants to study physics

  1. Oct 26, 2007 #1
    I'm 43 this year and starting a B Science next year majoring in physics. I will have to study part-time and continue working full-time, at least initially. I love physics, I'm not particularly talented in either physics or maths. I'm putting in the work to come up to speed and I intend to make up for it with hard work all the way.

    I want a PhD! Is that crazy. I know its crazy at my age. I'll be well into my fifties if I get there. I'm too old for any significant academic career, I know that, but understand this is more a life fulfillment impulse than common sense.

    But I don't want to waste effort or die old, broke and homeless from loss of income. I'm going to have to support myself all the way, I have nothing to coast on - no house to sell or savings to mooch. That's a whole other story. My job is just a money job, my time in exchange for cash and superannuation. I want more than that.

    At my age how can I eventually earn a living doing physics, keeping in mind I probably won't even finish my undergraduate studies in under six years? I'll be 50 years old. I'm fit and healthy and intend on remaining so.

    I suppose the best I can hope for is to teach physics at high school or perhaps technical school?

    (I live in Australia. Our system is similar to yours (USA) but we get a little more governmental support at university level but who knows how long that will last. Its eroding all the time.)
    Last edited: Oct 26, 2007
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  3. Oct 26, 2007 #2
    There is a guy in my class who is definitely 60 or over and doing a bachelor's in physics and astronomy. He's taking it slow, I think he was hinting that he can't keep up, but in any case, he's there.

    I'll graduate next year in physics, which will be year 5 for me. Then I am counting on about 6 years for a Ph.D. as an experimentalist. I hear it tends to take less for a theorist, but a year or so is pretty moot.

    Anyway, that's a long time if you have other obligations. Definitely doable, but hard nonetheless. What you might want to look into is a Master's in physics, instead. You won't be head of a project any time soon, but the door will be open for you to do lots of cool stuff anyway.
  4. Oct 26, 2007 #3
    hi Notaphysicist, i'm not in the US so i dunno how's the system there but are u willing to support urself throughout ur academic pursuits? did u findout whether scholarships/financial support has no age limitations and stuff?
    if you are very determined abt a doing physics for the rest of your life, then u can definitely go for it.
    i dunno whether u'd have already seen this but here's a link that'd inspire you:

  5. Oct 26, 2007 #4
    I know a guy who's over 50 and well on his way to getting a physics PhD, and he's doing fairly well.
  6. Oct 27, 2007 #5
    There is no fool like an old fool. And I say that as a 45 year old MS student who is hoping to continue on from there...
  7. Oct 27, 2007 #6
    I work with a gal who's mother is a physicist who had a successful career in industry. Her mother didn't start school until she was 35, after her kids were in high school. That is not a whole lot younger than 43. Go for it.
  8. Oct 27, 2007 #7


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    Notaphysicist, if you want the certification, that's one thing. If you want to contribute to advances in scientific knowledge, there is a lot you can do without the credentials. At age 55 with no college degree, I have collaborated with two younger guys and we have an astronomy paper under review at a peer-reviewed journal. We have at least 3 more projects/papers in the works. There is a lot that you can do with publicly-available data sets (NED, HyperLeda, IRSA, SDSS, DSS, and on and on) that can be valuable. Once you understand where problems/conundrums/unexplained effects exist, it is a matter of determining if you can wade through existing data to address them, and then it is a matter of sheer force of will and determination to do the data-reduction and see if trends emerge and if generalizations can be extracted from the trends. A prominent observational astronomer said of our little group "you don't have any graduate students to do the work so you have enslaved yourselves."
  9. Oct 27, 2007 #8
    The way you write it sounds as if you do not have serious financial obligations - you aren't supporting a wife, older children, a heroin habit, or a foreign military occupation. This is good, because any one of these things would make the whole process exceedingly difficult.

    As for your undergraduate degree, you'll probably be paying for most of it, and I think you should take some time to see if the higher level classes are offered at night. Most higher undergrad classes aren't, which means you'll be quitting your job or working part time. That may well be the largest financial burden you accumulate.

    In the US you get support in grad school, but you need to be on your game. Here, so long as you pass the qualifier, most schools pay for your school and a small stipend. Personally I live just fine on the stipend, but not everyone does. It is my belief that the qualifier will be difficult for you, but that you can pass it. Be prepared to study hard. By the time you're done I believe you'll have some debt, but in the scheme of things, it won't be that much. If you're smart and responsible, you won't be anywhere near the debt doctors or lawyers take on. Heck, you won't even be in the same order of magnitude.

    As for the financials afterwards, I think you'll be well off. I have many a time stated on this board that I think much of the information provided here and elsewhere about a physicists pay and lifetime earnings is either overly optimistic, meaningless, or just plain fantasy. I'm am not as upbeat as many here. However, even I will say that, on the other hand, it is rather difficult to be badly off with a masters or PhD in physics. At least in the US, the worst thing that can happen is you end up teaching high school - and compared to all the possible worst outcomes, that really isn't that bad.

    Honestly one of the things that worries me the most is why you are choosing the degree. I went into physics with a certain set of ideas of what physics was and what I'd be doing in it. I believe lots of others have the same feelings I did. At some point I had to admit that all my preconceptions were fictional. What they were replaced with is something I love even more. Not everyone is so lucky in the switch.

    I guess to sum it all up, my advice to you is the following: make sure you really understand what you're getting into. . . but if you decide you want it, go for it. Life's short, enjoy yourself!
  10. Oct 27, 2007 #9
    That is an awesome link veejay. We are what we find. Thank you so much. It gives me focus. I know posting here was the right thing to do.

    The encouragement is terrific. And the last post by Locrian really gets to the heart of the matter. I've had to do a lot of soul searching as to why I want to do it. From a purely getting-along-in-life perspective it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to start something like physics so late in the game.

    If I was totally honest I'd own up to the fact that I what I really want is a self-supporting career in theoretical physics. And I don't just want the knowledge. I want the degrees to. I want the recognition and status they confer. That may be a little shallow but its the truth. I want people to know I made it. But I tremble in my boots just saying that out loud. I also really, the dreamer in me, actually wants to contribute to the fundamental understanding we have of the universe. I've got crackpot theories and I don't want to be a crackpot. I want to be a scientist. The more rational part of me says I'm dreaming and will end up on the waste heap. In the end I really don't care if I end up teaching high school. That's cool. There's nothing wrong with that. That's still an awesome career.

    On the practical side. I already work nights so I can attend university during the day. I've just moved to a tiny apartment close to three universities, one of which I will be attending next year part-time. I'm setting myself up for lean and compact living. I call it micro-living, but that's a whole other thread.

    And I'm going to have to work all the way through. I'll investigate scholarships. I'm single. Supporting a daughter but its a modest commitment. No family to speak of. Nothing but my own dissipated, dreaming self to stand in the way.

    Thanks for all your encouragement. I'm going for it. Way I see it. I'm a *** ******** now. If I do nothing, in ten years time I'll still be a *** *********. So at the very least, I may as well be a *** ******** with a physics degree and research interest. And if someone gives me job teaching, that's still better then doing nothing at all and only dreaming about it.

    A note of interest to my situation.

    I'm not a self-learner. I am, but it's just too slow. I need and like the structure and rigor of a taught course. I love going to classes. I love all of that. I've been studying at home, online, correspondence, net tutorials, etc. I seem to be going in circles with that. I'm doing an online physics subject now. Its so isolating. And its hard to keep up. There's no momentum. So brick and mortar university is the only real option for me.

    I've done a diploma at technical school (Architectural Technology), and a Graduate Certificate in Design Computing at University of Sydney. So I know I can do it.

    But will I have the guts to carry it through.
  11. Oct 29, 2007 #10
    I know a guy whos like 70 and he's taking physics. He's not doing that good though.
  12. Oct 29, 2007 #11


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    Forum Readers, do not be mislead by that observation. A few other classmates may be doing poorly also. The 70 year-old may have to redevelop some skills lost a long time ago; some pre-requisites may have changed for the course during the last several years. We are not yet told which Physics course this 70 year old is attending: Fundamental rigorous survey, upper division, or graduate level?

    By further curiosity, how many students began in his class this term, and how many dropped from it? Is this 70 year-old student surviving the course with a minimum C?
  13. Oct 29, 2007 #12


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    I had several people in my intro physics class that were 18-20 years old and couldn't handle the class and failed out, so the correlation between this guy not doing well in physics and being old is not generally true. The two are not related beyond the point that the man may need to redevelop some math skills he may not have used in a while.
  14. Oct 29, 2007 #13
    One of my professors is 65. He's a physics professor at 65. Age isn't much of a barrier, since he's still learning new physics and developing new physics.
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