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I'm 37 years old. Can I still get into astrophysics?

  1. Aug 27, 2012 #1
    Question. I'm 37 years old, former US Marine (13 years), I've been living in rural Japan for the past 5 years with my Japanese wife and two sons. I'm currently an English teacher in a Japanese Jr. High. I have taken only a few basic college courses on military installations.

    I love science and astronomy and I'd like to study at Ohio State in the Astronomy department. As a former Marine, I have motivation to finish what I start, so that's not an issue.

    The question is, how will I be received in the university and are there others who start a career in astrophysics this late? I'm just asking. I'm going to do what I want to do regardless if it's rare or strange. That's just me.

    Domo arigato!
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 27, 2012 #2
    I am 49 and work on top physics subjects. you are so young! :)
  4. Aug 27, 2012 #3
    Go for it.

    It happens all the time from what I've read...

    Traditional study is overrated, if your able to do it and you want to, then do it.
  5. Aug 27, 2012 #4
    I'm just a couple of years older and I'm considering a similar move, heading into physics with a non-science degree. I've done a bit of research with some of the exact same age-related questions, so I may have some helpful info. But, then again, maybe not. Take the following for exactly what it's worth.

    First of all, check out ZapperZ's excellent "So You Want to Be a Physicist" for a better overview of a physicist's education. It's a solid road map to make sure you have the best chance of being academically successful.

    You'll need to start by getting a BS in physics and get some undergraduate research experience. Will it be weird to take classes with fresh high school grads? Yes, no doubt. I've been the older student among freshmen before. That part will be a little strange, and it could mean you won't be included in some things, but otherwise it shouldn't really be a big deal. In fact, your maturity and work ethic will probably be beneficial here.

    All of the grad programs I've contacted tell me being 40+ on admission isn't a hindrance to success. If you've prepared well, you'll probably do well. A couple of programs even said a few of their most successful students have been older. But the reality is many of these students end up dropping out because of family and financial obligations younger students don't have.

    As a Marine, you're no stranger to difficult situations, but what you're looking at is somewhere approaching 10 years to get a PhD in one of the most difficult majors on any campus. Consider carefully what this means to you and your family and whether or not there are other things that might be better to pursue. I'm told ageism in academia and industry is far less of an issue with physicists, but I'm assuming it does still exist in places.

    When I look at it, that kind of time commitment and sacrifice is overwhelming, but I'm not sure I want to pursue anything else. Right now, this is exactly what's weighing on my mind.

    Good luck, whatever you pursue!
  6. Aug 27, 2012 #5
  7. Aug 27, 2012 #6
    For a career in astrophysics, that means grad school right? And that means trying to become a research professor? If that is the case, I would unfortunately say it probably is too late. Not certainly, but considering grad school for astro can easily take over seven years, then a few years of post docs. It could take fifteen years to get started at the bottom rung of your dept as an assistant professor. Its a path that most people who attempt dont finish, at any age.

    But you can certainly get your undergrad degree and even a grad degree then shoot for some sort of technical career.
  8. Aug 27, 2012 #7
    I'm 28 and came to this forum in search of similar answers as I'd like to study physics with no relevant background. From what I gather so far:

    1) Don't be so focussed on one area of physics so early on (astrophysics) as in the course of your studies you may find other areas that you didn't know existed, that excite you even more.

    2) Be prepared to do lots and lots of math :-)

    But there are probably others here who can give you better advice than I.
  9. Aug 27, 2012 #8


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    Have you considered the long-term financial aspects of a late astrophysics career? Will you have to pay for your undergraduate degree, or will it be covered by the GI Bill or something like that? Ph.D. students are normally supported by teaching or research assistantships, but the stipends are just enough to cover living expenses and tuition (or you get a tuition waiver). You're not going to be able to save much money towards eventual retirement until you get a real job, which won't be until age 47-48. If you stay in the academic career track, your first job will probably be a postdoc which won't pay a whole lot either.

    By the time you get an assistant professor job (a very big if considering the number of such positions available), you'll probably be about 50. Assuming you stay on track and get tenure, how much will you be able to save up for retirement? Some universities may still have defined-benefit pensions, but the trend for a long time has been towards 403(b) tax-deferred savings plans that you and the university contribute to, like a 401(k) in industry or the commercial world. So the amount of money you have in retirement depends largely on how much you can save from your salary while working. When I retire, I will have been saving up for 33 years. Will you still be working at age 83?

    Or will you have enough of a pension from your military service that this won't matter?
  10. Aug 27, 2012 #9
    Also, you may hit 50 before you finish your studies/post-docs as someone mentioned above - but if you're in good health you may still have 15-20 years after that to devote to your career right? I don't think that's anything to sniff at personally...

    Also, if you don't act now, you probably never will, and how does that saying go? "Better to regret the things you did, than the things you didn't do..."
  11. Aug 27, 2012 #10
    Wow! Thanks everyone for so many responses! Very interesting... It's the long time between start to finish that concerns me most in regard to earning a decent salary. Perhaps I could focus on getting a government job in the long run so I won't lose 13 years of 'credit' towards a decent retirement via the government. I'm open to anything exciting, really. Lots to check up on with that... I'm not so interested in being "rich", as I am in just earning X amount of dollars to be happy and comfortable. At least my wife is an ER / ICU nurse at the local university hospital here! Her income helps us big time in Japan. She could probably work at a hospital in Columbus easily given that she studies medical English a lot.

    I've spent the past five years after the Marine Corps trying to figure out what I want to be 'when I grow up'. lol (I was a 7212 working with Stinger missiles and I was a Weapons and Tactics Instructor for the Battalion. Very technical stuff.) I keep coming back to astronomy and teaching so I just might do it. Nothing is more fun than whipping out my telescope to show all the people in my rural mountain valley neighborhood, young and old, Jupiter with its four large moons, Saturn's rings, or even a close up view of the full moon from beneath the Japanese cherry blossoms in spring. I personally want to know more and be a part of the human experience of exploration and teaching.

    And who knows? I speak a lot of Japanese so maybe I could get a job coordinating with JAXA here in Japan! That might be exciting too.

    Thanks again, everyone!
  12. Aug 27, 2012 #11
    Teaching astronomy is a lot different than being an astrophysicist. Its still a hard career to get, lots of competition and few positions available. But if you just want to teach you dont need to do the post docs and you dont technically need a PhD (though its so competitive that a PhD is just about a de facto requirement).
  13. Aug 27, 2012 #12
    Depends on the level, but if you have a masters degree it's pretty easy to get a job teaching basic astronomy. The trouble is not so much the competition and the positions (there are tons of adjunct positions) but the pay and the work conditions which are awful.
  14. Aug 27, 2012 #13
    I dont agree at all. Even with a PhD, landing a teaching job at a community college is hard. At our local community college we even had people fly in from different parts of the country to interview for a math teacher position. Thats because the work conditions are so sweet and the pay is high enough that many people want those jobs.
  15. Aug 27, 2012 #14
    Landing a permanent position is hard. At least in Texas, getting an adjunct position is trivially easy.

    There's a huge difference between permanent positions and adjunct positions. If we are talking about permanent positions, yes that's hard, but if you just want to teach astronomy, it's pretty easy to get a job doing that.
  16. Aug 27, 2012 #15
    I agree. I have never applied for a permanent position because I have never seen one offered. But I think competition is stiff even for temporary, benefits free positions. I'm not able to land one with my master degree. Its hard for me even to get tutoring positions.

    Maybe TX is different, my experience is in AZ, CA and OR. I'm suspicious that is the case though.
  17. Aug 27, 2012 #16
    I actually posted something similar myself, though my situation is a little different.

    I am 34, so not much younger than you. I have always loved the sciences, but I never pursued them professionally (long story as to why, briefly explained in my own thread).

    One positive thing that I can tell you is many adults go back to school in order to pursue other professions. I remember seeing statistics somewhere that showed 30% of all adults over the age of 28 will end up going to college or going back to college for a new career path. Though I feel those numbers are a bit high, I can tell you from what I've seen personally, there are lots of us doing it.

    As far as physics, you can most certainly make a viable career out of it. Though it is a competitive industry, it is really all about what type of job you are willing to take. Also, are you willing to move across the country to take that job? You can almost definitely find something, it is just a matter of how picky you are about what you want to take.

    Another positive thing I can tell you is that I have already started over the summer and the teachers and students responses to me have been great. I was a bit nervous about what the students would think of an adult like myself being in their classes. Once I started classes, I quickly realized the students look up to me because I ask the questions they want to know, but many are too shy to ask the teachers themselves. They also love working with me because I am more motivated than most of them at this point in their lives. The teachers have (so far) loved me because of my participation and motivation in class. Anyway, once you start college, you will find there are quite a few adults our age taking classes along with you!

    The whole college thing is new to me, as my previous profession required a certification and C.E.U.'s (continuing education units), so a degree was more of a waste of money than anything else unless you wanted to pursue particular sub-fields in the industry. Though I have been a regional manager in the past, I was admittedly very nervous about not knowing what to expect. However, the experience has been amazing, and the feeling of finally pursuing something that I truly love is indescribable. If your heart is truly in this, don't let anything hold you back!

    The only bad side that I can tell you is that going to school for physics is going to take a lot of time away from your family. Not at first of course, but as you get into the more advanced physics and math courses, you will need to study a lot. Everyone has told me numerous times that physics is one of the most difficult majors and that there is a vast amount of knowledge you need to soak up. So, there may be some times in your life where school will have to come first and family second. Just something you need to consider before jumping into this.

    As far as what Dave Aioli said, I think it is all great except one thing I was a bit confused about. When Dave stated that many of the older students end up dropping out of grad school because of family and financial issues, one question that I have is what about stipends? From what advisors have told me from several schools, about 70-80% of students getting their masters in physics end up with stipends, and 95% of students getting their doctorate in physics end up with stipends. So I would have to ask that once they've gotten through to grad school, how is money a hindrance when they can earn money while pursuing the degree?

    Anyway, I wish you the best, and hope that my personal experiences have helped alleviate some of your concerns. If there's anything else you wanted to ask or talk about and don't want to post it on the forums, please feel free to PM me any time.
  18. Aug 27, 2012 #17
    I would guess that they get accustomed to a standard of living and dont like going below it. Everybody has their own baseline of a standard of living and no matter where that is, going below it is painful. To me, grad school pay was the most money I had ever made but I heard other students often complain about not making enough.

    Also, time is of huge concern. If you have kids or a spouse or anything else in your life, working up to 50-60 hour weeks for years on end strains relationships.
  19. Aug 28, 2012 #18
    Oh, I could definitely see time becoming a concern. The money issue was the only thing that surprised me. But yea, that's something that I'm a bit wary of too, but I have to do it. So long as the OP is aware of that, he can at least make an informed decision for himself.
  20. Aug 28, 2012 #19


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    However, adjuncts don't make as much money. At the college where I work, they get $2500 per course. That's $20000 per academic year for a full teaching load. How many colleges have enough astronomy classes for a full load? Also, adjuncts usually or often don't get benefits like health insurance or a retirement plan.
  21. Aug 28, 2012 #20
    Ascendant78, ModusPwnd explained exactly what I've found. Older students often come from established careers with a family and home. That sets an expected standard of living and the stipend often represents a drastic cut. Living like a student after not having been one for a decade or more can be stressful. Then there are the very real income and retirement concerns jtbell brings up. That kind of stress added to time away from family can take its toll. If they don't have a realistic plan, it will be a very tough road.

    No one said that we, as non-traditional students, can't cut it. Just that there are many sacrifices along the path. There's always stuff we can't foresee, but prepare for what you can. Have a Plan B that you can be happy with in case the Plan A of a permanent faculty position just doesn't happen.

    It probably wouldn't hurt to have a Plan C as well.
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