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Studying How best to prepare for MSc. in Astrophysics

  1. Aug 25, 2016 #1
    Hi all,

    I'm a software engineer, I graduated in 2013 as a mature student and I'm now at a senior level. I wanted to pursue a Masters degree and I've found an accredited distance learning MSc. in the UK ( https://www.ljmu.ac.uk/study/courses/postgraduates/astrophysics-msc)

    I'm using Khanacademy to go through maths until I can do the self assessment test for the course at which point I'll move on to physics and MIT opencourseware lectures.

    I have a year to prepare and there is so much to learn - I'm hoping that somebody could give some recommended reading or free course recommendations that can refresh and update my secondary school physics to that needed for an MSc.

    I will be putting in the work, I'm already doing 2-3 hours of Maths a night. I just need some kind of checklist of mechanics and theories to know before starting a MSc. in astrophysics so that I'm not left scrambling to catch up from the very start.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 25, 2016 #2


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    Normally the prerequisite for an MSc in astrophysics is a BSc in physics. If you're starting over at high school physics, you have a lot of ground to cover. Most people take about 4 years of full time study (which amounts to more than 2-3 hours a night) with direct feedback from professors to get to this level. And even then, not all that successfully go through that stage are successfully able to continue on into graduate studies. Not that I'm saying it can't be done, just trying to make sure you're realistic about what you hope to accomplish.
  4. Aug 25, 2016 #3
    I think you're crazy, but Choppy already explained why. If you want a checklist, check out your local university's "typical course of study" for a physics major, then do research into those courses to see what textbook they use (and/or what topics they cover).

    The reality is that graduate school is competitive, even for an MSc. Since you are self-teaching, you won't have any research experience. Why would a university accept you over someone else who was taught by an accredited university?
  5. Aug 26, 2016 #4
    Thanks Choppy, I'm not registered yet so if needs be I can push it back a year. In my experience as a (admittedly mature) undergraduate the 4 years of college tends to involve a lot of time wasting. Granted I was not in a hardcore physics subject but computer science does have quite a bit of maths and several languages involved and I feel the course could easily be completed in one year by someone determined enough. Sure I might find out I'm not smart enough to even do it in two years but I'd need to know the material I should be learning, or the relative bar, before I can make that decision.

    Dishsoap you assume I'm trying to progress into research. I'm doing this more out of interest and the mathematical and problem solving skills directly contribute to my abilities as a developer. Additionally it would open up support positions to me such as programming telescopes, developing astrophysical software tools and any number of other applications. Even if I did eventually want to progress into research I would start by moving towards one of these support roles, or at worst I would do another masters at a brick and mortar institution. After all if I ever live the dream of being able to not work for 4 years while I study why not make it 5? ;)

    I really do appreciate the feedback and I don't want to come away as argumentative I'm just putting down my reasoning. What I'm really looking for here is links to self assessment exams for similar courses that cover physics, recommended reading lists and subjects for undergraduate physics courses and above all some books about similar topics aimed at self-learners.

    I've purchased two of Leonard Susskind's "The theoretical minimum" books which come with accompanying online lectures. Does anyone have positive feedback about these or should I not bother? I currently have classical mechanics and quantum mechanics
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2016
  6. Aug 26, 2016 #5


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    For the record, I don't think this is feasible, but I'll give book recommendations anyway. You'll need to start by getting Kleppner and Kolenkow's book on classical mechanics, or Morin's book on classical mechanics. Work through it completely. This will teach you way more than khan academy or Susskind.
  7. Aug 26, 2016 #6
    Thanks I appreciate it. Is it the time-scale that is unfeasible in your opinion or the idea of not first going through an undergrad physics course?
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2016
  8. Aug 26, 2016 #7

    Vanadium 50

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    The two are coupled.

    It takes about 6000 hours to get a BS in physics. You're proposing about a tenth of that. Sure, there's time wasted in undergraduate programs. But is it 90%?
  9. Aug 26, 2016 #8
    My undergraduate experience was I spent the full 20 hours in classes in year one, even though I already knew 90% of the subject matter. 2nd year I cut that to 4. 3rd and 4th year I only went into the campus when necessary and worked from lecture notes and the library. I'm sure physics will be different but when you factor out time wasted on group assignments, the 10 minutes you lose each class due to lecturers setting up and leaving for the next class and time spent on things you may have already grasped it does reduce a lot. Now maybe undergrad programmes here are just a lot easier and more time-wasting than in other countries.

    I'm not disagreeing with everyone. All replies so far have been along the lines of "Can't be done" so how about I change the question to how, in your opinions, can it be done? I have a career, this is an interest for me which have positive benefits on my current work, open up other areas of interesting work and something I will eventually pursue. I want to be sure I'm equipped to do it when I start. Pretend I never mentioned one year - as a graduate of a computer science discipline how do I start to move in the right direction to be able to cope with this or another physics postgrad?
  10. Aug 26, 2016 #9
    I also think that another hurdle that will be difficult to overcome is the physics GRE. Even though you may want to go into astrophysics, you will (generally, I think) need to apply to general physics programs. That means you'll need to learn at a bare minimum:

    2 semesters classical mechanics
    2 semesters quantum mechanics
    2 semesters E&M
    and a smattering of solid state, particle physics, etc.

    This is assuming you have already completed general physics, and have the math background necessary for the physics (linear algebra, differential equations, three semesters of calculus at minimum). Also, some people get by without having taken 2 semesters of the "core" classes (I'm one of them), but for a solid background to convince the admissions committee that you've sufficiently self-studied, I think you'll need to rock the pGRE.

    In response to your comment posted just now, I have somewhat of a dual degree between the CS and physics department (a "computer physics" sequence). That was my experience with the CS courses that I took as well - unless attendance was required, I could learn just as well by going to Google.

    Physics is not this way in my experience. The lab experience alone is crucial to solidify your understanding of key concepts.

    My opinion is not as well-founded as that of Vanadium and some of the other more advanced users here - I'm only a first-year grad student. But I believe that it is possible, though not in one year. My opinion is that, with instructor guidance, it takes three years of ~8 hours per day studying (this is just an average). I would double that due to a lack of instructor guidance, and quadruple the time to account for the fact that you are only studying 2 hours per day. The lack of instructor guidance is crucial - you may not run into this in your first couple of months, but at some point you will be stuck on a problem, unsure of how to proceed.

    Anyway, you have to ask yourself... will you still want to go to graduate school when you are sufficiently prepared... in 24 years?
  11. Aug 26, 2016 #10
    I think there might be some kind of disconnect between US and EU education here, maybe not. I assume you're referring to US since the PGRE is multiple choice and we don't refer to graduate school over here. I've linked the course I'm interested in in the first post.

    I'm not saying one or the other is better I'm just making sure that we're talking about the same thing - over here a MSc. is a 1 year add-on to your undergraduate degree and then you can continue on to a PHD if you want to continue in research or academia. It's not uncommon for people with an undergrad in one subject to take a postgrad in a completely different subject after a few years. (Probably not common to go into the hard sciences though, I'd guess it's a lot more common to go the other way )

    Ignore me if you were referring to this type of course, I just wanted to be sure. 24 years does seem excessive though since OU provide a physics undergrad course that an average student with no prior knowledge can complete in 8 years part-time
  12. Aug 27, 2016 #11
    Ah, that's my bad. I didn't know that the European way of doings things was that different. Would you be willing to do the 8 part-time years route?
  13. Aug 28, 2016 #12
    I certainly could, I'm just wondering if anybody with experience of a UK or Irish masters would have some feedback. Again I only have experience with the undergraduate course I completed but any Irish or UK site I've checked about degrees in general recommends a masters instead of a second undergrad degree. I couldn't find any about physics the closest matches were natural science and physics for medical devices. I genuinely appreciate the feedback everyone has provided so I think my plan for now is to check out the two recommended classical mechanics books, pick one and go through it then see where I am after that is complete
  14. Aug 28, 2016 #13


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    To expand on what Micromass said, and to give you an idea of why others think this is insane, at least as far as the US is concerned:

    Typically students will need somewhere around the following level of competency based on textbook to move on to a graduate program:

    Mechanics: Taylor/Marion
    E&M: Griffiths
    QM: Griffiths
    Thermo: Cater (This is just what I used, I know others have strong feelings about this text)
    Math: Bare minimum should be taking an ODE or PDE course, ideally, you should go through Mary Boas text prior to above.
    General Chemistry (Important for Astrophysics, and just physics in general): Silberberg/Zumdahl - pick your poison.

    These are just the core requirements that every physics degree in the US should hit. For the specialization you're trying to do a MS in, you're probably going need more than just a passing familiarity with GR, SR and certain topics in cosmology.

    Obviously you don't start at any of these texts. You should go through K&K and Purcell as primers to both Griffiths/whatever you decide to use as a upper division mechanics text. If K&K and Purcell seem intimidating, you can go through go through a "mid-range" intro text like H&R physics, 5th edition. That alone could take you the better part of a year.

    Obviously, the time frame you want to do this is in is impossible. Barring that you're some secret savant, most of the dead time in undergraduate studies is to give students a time to process the information they've learned and study topics more deeply. We literally spend a year on each of the E&M, QM, CM, and Thermo texts above alone. I don't know of anyone who has tried to do all 4 in the same year, to me it sounds like a bad dream. That is also assuming you have the background to get anything out of them already, which you don't.

    But lets back this up a bit:

    If this is the goal you have, you're already qualified for these positions. Getting a theory based degree in Astrophysics isn't going to help you. If this truely the case I would just look into masters programs for software engineering, or some kind of optical engineering degree at most. Friedmann models are going to look mightily esoteric if this is your goal.

    I wouldn't bother with these, and I wouldn't bother with Khan/MITOCW/Online videos in general.

    Summarizing, can you do it? Maybe. You can only control what you can control, and that's how much you know. You can't control whether admissions would admit you into their program and etc. Can you gain that knowledge in the time frame you're suggesting? Probably not. Can you do it faster than someone in a undergraduate degree program - maybe, maybe not.

    This should apply somewhat to the UK as well, assuming they don't live in a bizarro world compared to the state of the US education system.
  15. Aug 29, 2016 #14
    Unfortunately we'd need someone who had completed a MSc over here to tell us the difference. I really appreciate the depth of your post, and for the feedback everyone else has given. I'm considering starting with an undergrad or MSc in maths and physics to start with and I've revised my timeline significantly upwards.

    One thing I would argue - "If this is the goal you have, you're already qualified for these positions. Getting a theory based degree in Astrophysics isn't going to help you."

    This is true at a basic level. Somebody could ask me to design software to do something and give me all the expected behaviour, requirements and tests however in the real world requirements are never perfect, behaviour never matches perfectly and lateral thinking is needed. Sure a simple program is basically turning words into computer instructions but when you get to the level of a large application you really need to understand the domain you're programming in. I can apply best practices, design patterns and accepted architecture but unless I can detect an issue I'm not very good at my job. Of course the customer can tell you there's a problem but translating an issue that a customer is seeing to the code that is producing the problem requires the same kind of insight. In finance this usually comes down to obfuscating sensitive data, dealing with rounding errors in transactions and attempting to implement financial regulations for one country without breaking the application for another country.
  16. May 13, 2017 #15
    Hello I completed my B.tech in Information Technology and I want to pursue my higher studies in physics field but I don't how to go about it. Can anyone help me about it?
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