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How old is too old?

  1. Jan 28, 2012 #1
    Hello all! I'm a 31 year old who is contemplating going back to school for an astrophysics degree. First time through, I obtained my BS in Information Systems Management because that was my job while I was in the military and computers have always been my hobby. I've also always had a good working knowledge of technology. I've since separated from the military and am currently employed full time and have a comfortable life; however, I feel like something is missing. I want to contribute and feel useful to human-kind rather than just live day to day and be comfortable.

    I've always had a fascination with the stars and astronomy. I'm starting to feel a pull in that direction. I've recently joined a local astronomy club and love every minute of it. I've got my veteran benefits to assist financially, but I'm wondering if I'm too old to go back to school to get an astrophysics degree. Looking at the universities around me, it seems as though holding a normal full-time job and going back to school for a degree like this doesn't mesh too well. All the classes are during the day so that would mean quitting my current job to go back to school. What are your all's thoughts?

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  3. Jan 28, 2012 #2


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    Your age really isn't a factor, so don't worry about that. I can't really say for sure if you're going to have problems finding classes, but I'm definitely sure that your age is not an issue for going back to school.

    If you really want to get a degree in physics (a lot more universities offer a degree in physics with an emphasis in astrophysics than full-fledged astrophysics degrees), maybe you can try out the typical lower-division courses a physics major must take. Those classes are large enough in number that I would imagine you could easily find night classes just to see if you might enjoy it or not.
  4. Jan 28, 2012 #3
    You should probably first test the waters by enrolling in a physics course at your local community college. Its cheap, and you can find out if you actually like it.

    Another serious consideration- will you be happy if you get your astrophysics degree but end up in the exact same job you are already doing? Astrophysics/physics undergraduates generally don't get work doing physics, and even most astrophysics phds can't get jobs where they do astrophysics. If you love the knowledge, go for it. If you are doing it to get a job that you feel "matters" you need to look into the actual job prospects.
  5. Jan 28, 2012 #4


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  6. Jan 28, 2012 #5


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    I don't think you're too old to do an astrophysics degree. I'm sure there's a lot of astrophysics research going on a various universities, but it probably won't pay that well, and I hear that it is difficult to progress on to a stable position at a particular university. But I don't know really. sorry to just say some possible negatives, but that is mainly what I hear about academic research. On the plus side, you could do a job which you really are interested in. Unlike a lot of people who aren't really fulfilled. I agree with particlegrl, maybe you should think specifically about what your plans are for after doing this degree.
  7. Jan 28, 2012 #6
    Thanks everyone for the great responses! I'm definitely looking at taking the advice of enrolling in a physics class at the local community college. Probably take a math course too, just to get it back fresh in my brain.

    As far as my ultimate end goal, honestly I've always wanted to work for NASA. I live in Houston and grew up here so its always been close by and a fascination of mine. If I were to get a degree in astrophysics (or physics with emphasis on astronomy), I'd want to be involved in learning whats out in the universe/solar system -- if the opportunity ever came up to actually have the chance to fly into space, I wouldn't even hesitate! We've just barely scratched the surface and I want to open the door of understanding even more.
  8. Jan 28, 2012 #7


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    i do think it is possible to be too old. i would say if you are over 100, i would seriously consider going back to school.
  9. Jan 28, 2012 #8
    Then what do they get jobs doing? You mean no astrophysics phds become astronomers? I find that pretty hard too believe. How else would you become an astronomer.
  10. Jan 28, 2012 #9
    I said MOST astrophysics phds don't get jobs where they do astrophysics. Thats not at all the same as "No astrophysics phds become astronomers."

    If there are N jobs where you get to do astrophysics and 10N astrophysics phds, do most astrophysics phds get to do astrophysics for a living? Now, if each astrophysicists trains roughly 10 graduate students before they retire how do the numbers of openings relate to the number of job seekers?

    And yes, a phd IS necessary to get those few jobs, but its not sufficient. Many astrophysics phds end up working in banks, insurance companies, management consulting, programming, etc.
    Last edited: Jan 28, 2012
  11. Jan 28, 2012 #10


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    Why do you think astrophysicists contribute more to humankind than whatever you are doing now?
  12. Jan 29, 2012 #11
    My current degree and experience has driven my skill set into IT Operations. In the 10 years I've been in the field I have been able to climb the ladder to a senior-level position; however, I'm still just going to work each day maintaining and operating the systems I'm responsible for. Yes, this does contribute to the immediate and relatively local needs, but its just not fulfilling nor makes me feel as though I am doing my part for humanity.

    Astrophysicists (those who have the chance to be in their field) and physicists (again, those in the field) are able to conduct research and further our understanding of the universe and the environment around us. Research and projects aimed at specific goals, with some even being unsuccessful at times, provide a better understanding or actual products that contribute enormously to all of humankind. For example, John O'Sullivan in regards to WiFi and Dr. Sultana Nurun Nahar/Dr. Anil K. Pradhan with the Opacity Project/New cancer therapy.

    I hear and read about things like what the above named people/projects have accomplished and that makes me want to strive to do what I can for all of us. Plus, to reach for the stars, in a somewhat literal sense, has always been my dream.
  13. Jan 29, 2012 #12
    It depends on what you want to do.

    If you want to change your career the problem isn't age. Most people with astrophysics degrees (me for example) end up doing the exact same job that you are currently doing, and that's irregardless of whether they start at 17 or 31.
  14. Jan 29, 2012 #13
    Fulfilment really *bad* reason for doing astrophysics.

    Once you've thought about the deep mysteries of the universe, this is going likely leave you even *more* unfulfilled. If you spend a decade thinking about the universe, and at the end of it, you end up back at your old job, this is likely to leave you even more dissatisfied and unfulfilled about your daily life.

    Also the more you study things, the more you realize that you don't understand them, so if you are looking for the feeling of "understanding the universe", it's a bad idea to do astrophysics. It will leave you even more confused, but confused at a higher level.

    Not that this is a bad thing.
  15. Jan 29, 2012 #14
    Pretty much all astronomers have Ph.D.'s, but most astrophysics Ph.D.'s don't become astronomers. Most astrophysics Ph.D.'s end up doing more or less the same job that the OP is doing.

    The three big industries that hire specifically astrophysicists are oil/gas exploration, national defense (i.e. designing H-bombs), and investment banking.
  16. Jan 29, 2012 #15
    I'm glad we are having this conversation now. :-) :-) :-)

    Your job is fairly typical of what people with astrophysics Ph.D.'s end up doing. If you are dissatisfied with your job *now*, then think about what it will feel like after spending a decade of pain and effort, seeing the wonders of the universe, and ending up in the same place.

    In another thread, I went off on something of a crazy, insane rant, and a lot of it is because of this. My current job isn't that bad because I'm doing something deeply mathematical, but a few years ago I was doing something much, much more similar to what you are doing now, and I found it painful and unbearable because I'd bit into the apple of knowledge and tasted the sweet nectar of discovery.

    That's not to say that you shouldn't go for it, but I just want you to realize that if you are unhappy now, astrophysics will change your soul to make you even more unhappy. But happiness isn't everything.

    Or maybe not. One thing about astrophysicists is that the three industries that hire astrophysicists in large numbers are morally ambiguous. I work in investment banking, and I'm deeply morally conflicted about what I do, not because what I think that I do is bad, I don't. But I always wonder in the back of my mind if I'm wrong and what I think is saving the world is actually destroying it. It's an very unpleasant feeling, and it's made even more unpleasant in knowing that if I don't have this self-doubt, then I really am dangerous.

    The people that I know that design H-bombs have it even worse than I do. I know people working in exotic credit derivatives or emerging market debt, and when you talk with them, you see a lot of guilt and self-doubt over what they actually did.

    And it's not a coincidence. One thing that you learn in astrophysics is how puny the planet is, how insignificant on the cosmic scale, humanity is, and how *easy* it would be to either save the planet or wreck it. Once you learn those secrets, you get hired by people with the power to either save the world or destroy it, and it's *painful* because you don't know whether you are doing the right thing. Your astrophysics training teaches you that doubt and skepticism is a good thing, and to ask deep questions, but that becomes painful when you work in "world destroying" industries.

    1) I really don't see them playing a more important role in helping mankind than what you are doing.
    2) Even if that's not true, the very, very strong odds are that you will end up doing what you are doing now, and knowing that you could do more is going to make you a little crazy.

    Dreams can become nightmares.

    I went off on a crazy rant on another thread, and someone sent me personal e-mail asking me what I was doing being so negative and cynical. The reason why, is that astrophysics will change your soul. It will affect how you think and how you look at the world. This is truly a life altering journey. But it's also a dark, painful, and lonely one, and before you go off on that journey, I want you to know what the road is going to be like so that you can make an informed decision about what it is that you want to do.

    Unless you are spectacularly lucky, you will end up more unhappy and more unfulfilled as you spend a decade of your life and have even more unquenched thirst. I went through that road, and a few years ago, I was doing the same work that you were doing, and I kept pretending that I was happy. I stumbled on an article talking about someone that I knew that was "changing the world" and I had something of a nervous breakdown that kept me home for three days. If you are unhappy now, then after you sink a decade of your life into this, you'll be even more unhappy.

    But happiness isn't everything. Here is the apple. It's your choice whether or not to bite into it, and I just want you do know the consequences of doing that. The rant I went off in another thread might sound negative and cynical, but the cool thing is that *knowing* that astrophysics would make me profoundly unhappy and unfulfilled, I'd do exactly the same thing, because one of the things that I think I've learned is that there are things that are more important than happiness.
  17. Jan 29, 2012 #16
    How would you feel at age 80 if you look back at your life and think "I wonder if I would be happier with my life if I had gone back and studied like I wanted to". You certainly won't be looking back saying "I regret not writing all of those requirements docs I could have in those 6 months I wasted going back to study and realising it was not for me".

    I'm 34, went back to study engineering last year (I always dreamt of working on space related projects) and truth be told it is one of the very best decisions I ever made. Don't let your age get in the way. Your age will not hinder your studies, if anything you will have a more mature approach and will appreciate it more than most of your younger fellow students.
  18. Jan 29, 2012 #17


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    You're not too old. I'm 32. I went back to finish school at 29. I'm 2 semesters away from my BSc (graduate after fall 2012) but I'll likely have to wait until 2013 for grad school.
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