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Mature student/returning to school

  1. Jul 14, 2014 #1
    Hello all,

    I am thinking of returning to school to complete a PhD in Physics and hopefully work in particle or astrophysics. I will be 43 in August and think a PhD would be a perfect 50th birthday present to me, along with the knowledge it brings. Of course, I am nervous about my age but I figure I can spend the next 25 years in a job I hate or one I love. Luckily, money is not an issue in my choice and I already have a nice 401k.

    A bit of background. I have four kids (15, 13, 11 and 7 months) and have recently left my job to stay at home to prepare for a return to school. I have a M.Ed. and a post-grad certificate in Behavior Analysis. BCBAs will call behavior analysis science but it just isn't my kind of science. My undergrad is in general science. Pretty useless unless you are a teacher. When originally working on my degree in physics, I took off to Europe in my last semester and didn't finish until years later. General science was the easiest way to get a degree and escape a rapidly escalating abusive marriage (I am not married to the same man). I needed to go from SAHM to teacher quickly and this way only took a semester. My math and physics courses are from the early 1990s. My plan is to take a year or so to review the math and physics courses I have already taken. I hope to start as a fourth year working on a second degree but that will depend on how quickly everything comes back to me and what has changed. I plan on using MIT's open courseware to study. I did work on my post-grad online, so online study is not a problem for me.

    Any advice or encouragement would be appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 14, 2014 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    That's quite on your plate with 4 kids and studying online too. Have you decided on a specific college or university? That will determine your chances of actually getting in.

    The traditional way is to pass the GRE and compete with other graduate students applying for the same spots which means you'll be competing with students 20 years younger than you. They will take into account your GRE score, your grades, your academic references more than work references and what you're interested in studying.

    The final decision will be based on what profs are interested in taking as graduate students under their wing meaning you will have to have something that can further their research interests. So it makes sense to studying the university Physics department and do some investigative work on what they're interested what they have published and what research they are pursuing now.

    Its a lot like a job search with many hurdles to cross.

    For Physics, you will want to strengthen your math skills in Advanced Calculus, Differential Equations, Linear Algebra, Vector Calculus, and Boundary Value problems. Next, you'll want to strengthen your Classical Mechanics, EM Theory, Stat Mech, and most importantly Quantum Mechanics and hopefully that will prepare you for graduate school. A heavy dose of programming in MATLAB, Java, C/C++, or Python in a Computational Physics context would really help too.

    For some of the math you could visit the MathIsPower4U website:


    For the Computational Physics in Java visit:


    Alternatively, you could look at MATLAB and/or Octave (free clone of MatLab core function with some add-ons), or FreeMat (a smaller/easier to use free clone of MatLab core function)



    Some of your Physics needs could be met with Leonard Susskinds books and lectures:

    Classical Mechanics, The Theoretical Minimum book
    Quantum Mechanics, The Theoretical Minimum book

    and he has some lectures along the same lines for other topics like Relativity.
  4. Jul 14, 2014 #3
    Thanks for your reply and all of the resources. I am so excited and can't wait to look at them.

    I am lucky that I have a very supportive husband to help with the kids. My 13 year old also loves physics so he has already offered to be a study buddy. He blows me away and is comprehending college-level material. On the plus side, he didn't think he needed math and is realizing he does. So he is also starting to grill me about how to do math. This has helped me remember things very quickly. I did my Masters degree as a single mom with three kids. Don't ask how I managed it. It's very much a blur! For me, it was more difficult understanding psychology and social sciences than math and pure sciences. Dang stuff doesn't follow the rules all the time!

    I live almost smack dab in the middle of Arizona State University and University of Arizona, so those would be logical choices. U of A is more appealing to me based on their facilities and research potential. I want to do a year at one of them as an undergrad, as I would otherwise be lacking in field related references, IMHO. I can probably study everything I need to know on my own but I would think that some networking would be in order. Will they look at my old science coursework gpa? Before I dropped out I was pulling pretty darn close to a 4.0. Hoping I will manage that when taking courses this time. I graduated with honors with my Masters but it is in education. Hoping to get a GRE that blows the admissions committee away. I guess everyone is though.

    I have taught myself some basics of Python, as my 13 year-old wants to learn it and I wanted to be able to help him. He is also learning it on his own. We are going to be coding something this summer/fall, not sure what yet as he hasn't decided. Certainly not good enough to be useful but I don't have a problem learning a programming language.

    Thanks again for the information.
  5. Jul 14, 2014 #4
    Just adding a couple lines here. The Griffiths books for E and M and Quantum are great resources for someone in your shoes. And they are pretty standard for undergrad courses these days. I would recommend at least looking at them. I went through them in my undergrad physics courses (graduated in may).

    It looks like you've gotten good advice. The math will probably be a little more advanced than most 13 year olds can handle, but you never know ^.
  6. Jul 14, 2014 #5


    Staff: Mentor

    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  7. Jul 14, 2014 #6


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    When I went back to school 30 year ago, the prof's bent over backwards to help me. I knew what I wanted, what I needed, and assumed they were just tired of dealing with kids all the time. They recruited me pretty hard for grad school in my last semester. I assumed it was animal magnetism, but, suspect the motives were somewhat more diabolical - like the TA job they dangled in front of me.
  8. Jul 15, 2014 #7
    That is great to hear. It gives me hope.
  9. Jul 15, 2014 #8


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    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Being out of school and away from physics for a long time can make your skills very rusty. You will be competing against students who have been eating and breathing physics and math all the way through, so spending time getting back to speed is essential. It sounds like you are highly motivated and excelled when you were in school the first time, so I think your chances of success are high. You don't mention how much time you'll have to spend--25%, 50% or full-time--as a student. This will matter, of course.

    It is common to take the GRE's in the fall of the year before grad school, which according to your plan will be the first months that you are back in school. Think carefully about your level of preparation at that point--studying with even a bright 13 year old won't necessarily give you the preparation to compete with the best senior physics majors. In addition, grades are important and you will have either no current grade, or just one semester of grades, when you apply to grad school. You might at least think about spedning two years in school, to maximize your chances of doing well on the GRE, to establish a track record of recent good grades and accomplishment, and to build relationships with faculty who can recommend you.

    Be sure to work problems in the texts or OCW classes that you use--regardless of your learning style, they will be useful indicators of your level of mastery of each concept.

    I have worked with many "non-traditional" students who got advanced degrees years after their bachelors, while working full time, so there is plenty of precedence for your aspirations. I wish you the best on your new journey!

    EDIT: BTW, when I first read the ages of your children (15, 13, 11 and 7 months), I thought that you must be an exeptionally high achiever to have had four children between the ages of 7 and 15 months :eek:)
  10. Jul 15, 2014 #9
    Thanks for your advice. Lol to the four kids under 15 months. I would be in a padded room.

    I have left my job to begin studying. My plan is to do so full-time. I have help with the baby. I can spend about eight hours a day studying. I am very lucky to have a baby who sleeps eleven hours a night, so I get to study from 8 to midnight. I always work better at night. My husband is home by 2pm and takes the baby until dinner (about 6pm). He says I get the baby all day, so that's daddy's time. The older boys do their homework and then play some video games during that time. 6 -8 is family time, i.e., video games. Weekends are family time but will still get a good 6 hours in. I am a bit OCD about my schedules, if you can't tell.

    I was actually wondering about doing an extra year for the references and grades. So instead of applying by January 2016, I would apply January 2017. It would be nice to start classes this spring but I don't feel that is enough time to review what I have previously learned and means I would retake classes I have already taken. Not sure if I want to sit through a class when if I don't need to. I am planning on doing a portfolio with notes and worked problems from the OCW/texts. Not sure if anyone would actually want to see it but better safe. Working the problems is the part I am most looking forward to. I was that kid that did the even and the odd problems when the teacher only said do the odd. I am very flexible at this point as to when I am ready to apply. I want to be well-prepared and have a good chance of getting in a program. Will also need to feel I did amazing on my GRE reviews.

    It would be nice to study everything with my 13 year-old but I don't think he could keep up with me. He will keep me on my toes, though, with his questions.
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