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Is it too late for a physics degree?

  1. Sep 30, 2008 #1
    Hello, I am a 30 year old with a BS in communication, with a specialization in video production. I've been working full time in this field since college, and although I enjoy my job and like what I do, I find physics fascinating and can see myself really enjoying a career in that field of work. I did quite well in physics and math in high school, but that's about the extent of my education.
    I would love to go back to school full time for a degree, but from a financial standpoint, quitting my job to go back to school full time is just not an option.
    The local community college (Greenville, SC) offers night classes for an associates degree which is great, but after 2 years I would find myself in the same situation.
    Is there anyway a person can earn a physics degree, and eventually a masters while still working a full time job, or is earning a degree a full time job in it's own?
    Thanks in advance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 30, 2008 #2


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    I would suggest taking a few evening courses at your college first, which would give you a taste of what you're in for if you decide to pursue physics full time. Being good in high school physics does not necessarily mean you'll do well at the university level.

    And no, it's never to late to pursue a passion.
  4. Sep 30, 2008 #3
    Thank you for your response, and I agree, taking night classes to see if a physics degree is worth pursuing seems like the best thing to do. But do you know what options I would have after 2 years if I decided to go for a bachelors, while still being able to work full time?
  5. Sep 30, 2008 #4
    As an undergrad, I can tell you it would be difficult to learn physics on top of working full time. Maybe even impossible. This would mean you'd need to prolong your degree by 2-3 years.

    As for finding work in physics, that would be very difficult as most positions are reserved for PhDs. So if you are sure this is something you'd want, be prepared to do ~10 years of school.
  6. Sep 30, 2008 #5
    Let me see...4 years of Undergraduate studies in Physics, add another 2 years of Graduate studies, and another 4 years after that for your PhD. That makes 10 years of studying! :cry: You'll be hitting your 40's while trying to compete in the scientific/research jobs against the 20 year old puppies now that my friend is gonna be the hard part after you manage to finish your education.

    In places like in Japan if your over 35 years of age with a PhD and trying to get a job in the industry, let alone in any University over there, they don't want you. I don't know how it works in America, but in Asia its really that competitive.
  7. Sep 30, 2008 #6
    agreed w/ howers. Physics problem sets take a alot of time. If u manage to go to upper division classes , you still will be in a time crunch. I can barely handle things even tho im not working at all.

    How bout you just read physics from popular science magazines? Upper division physics isn't that mindblowing. it's alot of tedious math, and you might not liek what you're doing. Again, the upper div problem sets are very challenging, and take hours. In those hours, you might just be doign long and annoying integrals. Sure theres concepts, but msot of the hw is jsut math. physics sure is fascinating, but it doesnt seem liek it when your doing the problem sets.
  8. Oct 1, 2008 #7
    Well it seems like the answer to my question is yes, it is too late. I can't see any way I could return to school for 10 years while not earning any money, then as Hippo said try competing with people in their 20's while I'm just turning 40.
    So do you think without a PhD I'd be wasting my time? A masters wouldn't be enough?
  9. Oct 1, 2008 #8
    A masters would be enough if you work in an area of applied physics (some condensed matter, medical, photonics) and want an industrial research position. Some applied masters programs can be done almost entirely online. The real trick as you point out is getting the upper division physics courses. 99% of places offer these only during the day. One I know of that doesn't is Northeastern Illinois (http://physics.neiu.edu/courses/future.html) - they seem to cater to part time students, but it's a long commute from South Carolina.
  10. Oct 1, 2008 #9
    I wouldn't go far as to say it is too late. You could still make a good living in teaching science in High school and Community College. And maybe instead of publishing 5 to 10 papers a year (I'm speaking to the Super Duper smarties), in your free time you could do 1 to 2 for the Hell of it just to keep yourself active and motivated whenever you get the itch to do research.
  11. Oct 1, 2008 #10
    It's never too late to change... but the cost seems to get higher the longer you wait.

    I'm with Choppy... if you think you are interested, try to take a course or two while you keep your current job. You might find that you hate it... or love it.
  12. Oct 1, 2008 #11
    NO. It isn't too late, so long as you are determined. Someone else mentioned already that upper level physics courses are mostly mathematics--and that is true--but I don't believe that ought to dissuade you from pursuing something that you care about.

    You are only 30 after all. And even if you were 40, if you had the will power and the money, you really could do anything--including changing your life around this way.

    I would suggest this...

    1) Take the good advice that has already been stated: go back to the community college and take one class: "General Physics 101, Part 1," or whatever they call it. Just make sure that you take the Calculus based course, and not strictly the algebra/trig course.

    2) Study as much of the text in private--science professors are notorious for being terrible teachers, so you're pretty much on your own anyway; but if you have a well written book you'll be fine. See how you do after the first semester.

    3) If you are satisfied with the outcome, take General Physics Part 2.

    4) After a year of being back in college, you might just be able to finagle your work schedule a little better. Yes it is true that it is difficult to find a place that would cater to a part-time student of physics (and in the evenings no less). But by that point...you know: there is always serendipity...ask yourself this question again of "what do I really want to do" after you get this far. By then, you may very well have landed yourself a part-time job video recording time-elapsed experiment for the department head (you never know). YOu make connections and opportunities arise only as a result of your ensconcing yourself in the field. You cannot be an ostrich and expect results. Be in the thick of things.

    One other thing I would also suggest is (eventually) start targeting your own niche in the field; and try to relate it to the skills you know you already have.

    I'll bet you'd enjoy Optics or "Photonics" (whichever you prefer) very greatly. Also, if you work with cameras, I'd imagine you might pursue interests in Electronics, or even Waves.

    There is a yearning in you obviously, and I think that is very important. You do not necessarily have to land yourself the government Nuclear Physicists position someday--start out small and work your way up.

    Yes, some of it will be boring; all subjects are like that. And indeed some of it will be very challenging. I confess that I did absolutely no job while an undergraduate physics major; and I was deeply grateful for it. Still it really depends on the person I think. For me at least, I needed to focus. Maybe you are different--my weaknesses are not necessarily your own. Remember that.

    And I seriously doubt that anybody here could honestly say that they completely understood everything all of the time.

    "Oh yeah! That quantum exam, I completely aced it...I could rewrite quantum mechanics backwards and with my hands up my [expletive deleted]! Schoedinger, you just got owned!"

    Just remember there are a great many braggarts in every field; don't be intimidated, just tune the world out like a good little nerd and get down to work.

    Sometimes...even your professors will be full of ess-ach-eye-tee. We had a guy once that used to come into class late every day, looking like someone just beat the crap out of him in an alley before he came over there; and then would babble on with his back turned about E&M like he wrote the damn textbook, AND STILL screwed up the laws of attraction.

    Anyway, I'm getting away from the point.

    Start small. Try it. You'll probably love the general class more than anything else above it anyway if you love physics.

    And if in the end, it doesn't work out after that first year taking one class each semester (unless they require you to retake Calc I simultaneously), be satisfied with yourself for not allowing yourself to be in a rut.

    Seriously, you may end up going back to college and discover in something else even.

    The point is to never stop trying to improve yourself.
  13. Oct 1, 2008 #12
    i thinkwhat you should do is to make sure being a physictst is what u relaly want to do.

    Email a univsrsity research physicist, and ask him more about what he does. The day to day stuff, like programming a computer, doing experiments, etc. Is it the kind of job you really want to do? Make sure you liek the end of the path before you start your joruney.
  14. Oct 2, 2008 #13
    Thank you everyone for the advise and information. It was all very helpful. I think I will spend the next few months talking to people in the field and attempting to learn as much as I can on my own. Does anyone have any suggestions on good books for that? I'm looking at Physics, by Jim Breithaupt.
    If I'm still interested after that I'll take my night classes at the community college. It's a 2 year program, so I'll still be able to keep my job. After that, like Francis said, i'll either know or not if that's what I want to do, and if so will find a way to make it work.
  15. Oct 2, 2008 #14
    I like my general book, "Fundamentals of Physics."

    This link is to a newer edition of it...


    I think this version has Modern Physics in the last half of it as well.

    Also, for future reference: a good Physics Math text would be the book by Mary Boas...


    But you wouldn't need that until you get into upper level course (maybe 2nd or 3rd year).
  16. Oct 4, 2008 #15
    I can almost guarantee you that after you spent the next 6-7 years in school and maybe several years after that getting a job, you'd discover that work is work, and that there would be little or nothing really all that more (or less) fulfilling about what you'd end up doing. Equally importantly, there's no way in hell the net present value of going through that process is equal to the npv of staying where you are.

    You'd find ways of defending what you did and talking up the choice you made to friends and maybe loved ones, but you'd be lucky to convince yourself that it was a good idea.

    Buy the textbooks. Take a class or two. Read the crappy pretend physics books you find at book stores. Enjoy it. But don't throw a career away to pursue it.
  17. Oct 5, 2008 #16
    I <heart> Boas.

    To the OP, no I do not think it is too late. However, careers in physics can be difficult to build. The Ph.D. is necessary for most tenure track professorships, although there are some teaching positions for master's physicists (non-tenure track, or some tenure track community college professorships), and a bachelor's or master's is good foundation for teaching high school.

    I'm teaching high school physics after a master's, and I'm quite happy with it. I get to keep learning, I get to learn the basic stuff deeper, and I am encouraged to continue my education (currently working on a second master's, may go for Ph.D. eventually).
  18. Dec 6, 2008 #17
    I just turned 43 on Dec 2, 2008. For the past several years, I've been fixated on physics, driving my wife insane in the process :smile: When I'm not working on computers, I'm reading some physics book, magazine...the discovery science channel is on all the time, and my professors have been Michio Kaku, Ronald Mallett and Neil deGrasse Tyson (on TV of course).

    The "working on computers" part was part of why I decided to embark on this adventure. Frankly, I'm getting sick of it. Mac vs PC. Windows vs Linux vs Unix...enough already! Newton's third law of motion was applicable and relevant thousands of years before Newton was even born, and it will still be applicable thousands of years after his death in the 1700s. Does anyone care about my ability to build and configure a Windows NT4 server? You get my point....

    Like you, I was concerned with the amount of time it would take to earn anything meaningful in the way of a degree in physics. But for the first time, I'm more focused on enjoying the Journey than the destination. My math skills have atrophied to a middle school level but I don't care. I'm taking the elementary math courses, algebra, moving on to calculus, and looking forward to the journey.

    The way I see it, attending school part time, only being able to take one, maybe two classes a semester, I'll have my Phd in physics sometime around age 65. If I do nothing, I"ll be 65 anyway. What I found most amusing about this fact is that all people will see is an old guy with a Phd. They won't know I just got it :smile:

    If you're considering physics because you're looking for a fantastic career, you'll probably be dissapointed. How many people can work in an accelerator anyway? But if you're like me, and you're doing it because you're fascinated with the way our world works...if you spend hours contemplating things like quantum erasure, cold fusion, frame dragging and closed time loops...if your wife (or reasonable fascimile) rolls her eyes when you offer an explanation of how the microwave oven actually works, I say go for it. Enjoy the journey the same as you would a finely prepared gourmet meal. Which ever way you choose to go, you'll end up somewhere. Does that seem utterly "un" profound? Then let's have a discussion about Level 1 alternate realities in the multi-verse :smile:
  19. Dec 7, 2008 #18
    At the university of chicago we have all sorts of "old" graduate students in my undergrad physics classes. I know of one that is in his late twenties or early thirties that, after getting a degree in computer science from U of I, came to Uchicago to get a degree in Physics. He's doing pretty well, and he worked it out so that he *only* has to take physics classes. I think he only takes tops two classes a semester or something, so he either works on a regular job part time or gets graduate student funding. There are several "graduate students at large" like him in our program.

    that being said, its never too late to return to school: http://www.chicagomaroon.com/2005/9/30/47-year-old-freshman-tries-hand-at-college

    This guy is now in his 3rd year as a physics major, and he's bloody smart. He gets great grades so far as I've heard.
  20. Dec 8, 2008 #19


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    It's hard for me to think of any further education as a waste of time. I think that mindset might be more of a problem than your age.

    If you're doing it just to earn more, and not because you really dislike what you're currently doing and want to change direction and do something you would enjoy much more (afterall, what good is a paycheck if you're miserable your whole life), then I'm not sure why you're even asking.

    On the other hand, people with families to support do have to be concerned short-term with putting food on the table while attending school. And, as others have pointed out, there are some ways to deal with that, from taking classes part time while continuing to work your current job...at least for part of your return to school...to teaching the family to collectively tighten their belts.

    Don't forget to consider long-term earning potential if you change careers, not just the short-term belt-tightening to get the degree. Maybe you're in one of those fields that's very lucrative even for people with only a B.S., and you're motivated to put up with it because it pays gobs of money. On the other hand, if it's feeling like a dead end, you may be able to earn more long-term by getting Ph.D., even with a few years off mid-career (afterall, everyone following the traditional route certainly delayed earning an income at the start of their careers when all their friends were going out and landing well-paying jobs). Or, maybe you make up for a 5 yr Ph.D. program by working 5 extra years to ensure you have an adequate nest egg for retirement.
  21. Dec 11, 2008 #20


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    I personally have thought about this very question myself. I am ~26 years old and am curious about the concept of returning to school and finishing my BS in physics. I finished a degree in another field and have been generally uninterested in what I am doing right now and wonder whether I should consider going back to school and finishing my physics degree. I already completed classical mechanics and a single semester introductory course to quantum mechanics, but it has been >5 years since I have so much as touched a physics textbook.

    Considering many of my undergrad friends who finished their physics degrees and continued onward to graduate school are well on their way to to a PhD I can't help, but think that I am wasting my time wondering whether I simply would have been happier doing something else. I am highly unlikely to ever catch up with the careers of other people my own age, albeit I don't think I would need to be at the top of the field to really be happy.

    I could theoretically go back to school next year and use the remaining portion of this school year to review over material, but I wonder whether such an endeavor is even worth the effort. Clearly I wouldn't face quite the challenges that the original author of this thread, but I would be decidedly older than many of the other students in the same class.

    So what do people think?
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