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One less lawyer in the world, one more scientist

  1. Dec 20, 2011 #1
    Hello all,

    I am looking for anyone who has had experience entering the sciences/ physics + mathematics fields after having finished a bachelors of arts degree. Currently I am on the road to law school, but for various personal reasons (re: Sagan-esque philosophical realizations) I've decided that it isn't for me. I'm 23, employed, living in Vancouver. I graduated from a good Canadian university with a 3.85 CGPA, Hons. Sociology, which is great for law schools or soci grad schools, but I'm guessing it might not mean much to science admissions committees.

    Need I explain why science and not law? That I should mention one is the way things are and the other is merely the way things have been said? The world needs technical solutions to physical problems, not well-dressed arguments for private property. Nuff said.

    Right now I'm about to start the hunt for different programs, options, and pathways that will get me to a masters and ultimately phd program in astrophysics / cosmology (if research is rewarding), or aerospace engineering (if applied is appealing). I thought I would canvass the interwebs for wizened knowledge. Does anybody know if its necessary to obtain a full undergrad degree to do what I have in mind? or are there shortcuts / bypasses of more specialized course selections / intensive coursework that can be done in 3 years, 2 years? I have math up until 1st year calculus, but no HS chemistry or physics. However I am not unfamiliar with them (thank you MIT opencourseware).

    I am also considering the option that schooling in europe may be quicker/cheaper way to get into a masters / phd program. Anybody have experience with european undergrad equivalents or transitioning back to north america?

    I'll be pursuing this dream no matter the cost, but any sharing warnings or advice or similar experiences is much appreciated!

    Thanks :) :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 20, 2011 #2
    Certain parts of Europe will most definitely cost you less $$$. I heard of somebody who studied History and Philosophy in Canada and then went back to school in Germany for a Physics degree. There, tuition fees range from 0 to 500 euros per semester which is significantly less than anywhere else in Europe or America.

    I don't think I've heard any graduate school who'd be willing to admit somebody into a Physics graduate program with your background. It's already hard enough for physics/engineering majors. I wonder how this Ed Witten person managed to get into graduate school for physics. Obviously, it all worked out for him...
  4. Dec 20, 2011 #3
    "Defecting" into mathematics at Princeton after seeing my cherished presidential hopeful smashed by the Nix is, on second thought, a good plan B. Unfortunately Mr. Wittens is likely the only one who can pull it off with style.
  5. Dec 20, 2011 #4
    Look into Universitat Leipzig. I'm applying there for entry next year (hopefully?). They have Physics programs (BSc and MSc) in English.
  6. Dec 20, 2011 #5
    not following the Sagan revelation bit ... you decided there's life on other planets?

    the "need" for cosmologists is very dubious... if you really want to solve technical problems you should consider engineering of some form. it would be very difficult to be accepted and jump into the MS level in any of these fields with no BS-level coursework. also it's not clear if you have the capacity - many lawyers are not good with numbers.

    it's probably advisable to look into what local school options there are, even CC, and take some classes at the highest level you feel capable of. this will help you ascertain your interest/ability and also improve your chances of admission somewhere.
  7. Dec 20, 2011 #6
    The world also needs lawyers, politicians and journalists to clear the path for "good guys" to find technical solutions to physical problems.

    You don't seem to have become clear about your motivations at all if you can't decide between cosmology and aerospace engineering. So first decide what you *really* want to do.

    The grass often seems greener... I often wish I had gone into law... Judge Judy seems to have a great deal of fun and she keeps the plebs in order - an obviously worthwhile job. At a higher level, pursuing human rights law, or defending environmentalists against big business all seem very practical & worthwhile jobs - at least as worthy, and necessary, as 'finding technical solutions'.
  8. Dec 20, 2011 #7
    Thank you folks for the feedback. I understand I am coming across as a bit vague, hopeful, naive. Cosmology and aerospace engineering are entirely different fields. Does the world need more cosmologists? A few are probably sufficient. I would be satisfied with learning a great deal of cosmology, not necessarily being a cosmologist. What I'm getting at is, being a lawyer is a good career, and its a necessary one, but it doesn't appeal to any of my interests or curiosities. If I have the opportunity, and it seems like I do, I'd rather make the mistake of doing what I find most fulfilling rather than make the mistake of doing what makes me money. I say aerospace engineering simply because I am of the firmest conviction that serious attention should be brought to bear on the problem of off-world habitats if we as a species can expect to survive. I looked into careers in space law for this very reason, but it turns out its mostly drawing up agreements on whose space satellite goes where.

    I know for certain I have an adequate ability in quantitative/ analytic reasoning, and I have an excellent knack for conceptual / processual theories and applications. Believe me, I've given this some thought, and I understand your desire to weed out people who wake up one day and say "screw this office work! I'm going to be a rich scientist!". It doesn't work like that, in fact I am quite literally walking away from a potentially very lucrative career to follow a passion for understanding and investigating the nature of things which is likely rewarded at 20-30% of lawyer earnings if i do research, perhaps 60-80% if i go into industrial applications.

    It seems the consensus is I take coursework at a local university or college to get a foot on the right path. Does anyone have any offers of advice on what the steps from here are? Is it entirely hopeful that I could, say, apply for more advanced programs equipped with perhaps 30-60 credits of phys, math, chem, etc in conjunction with my BA?

    p.s. the "Sagan-esque" revelation is that we are inextricably linked to the grandest and also most fundamental physical/natural processes, and that gaining understanding of this relation provides great spiritual fulfillment as well as the means to improve our lives, in every sense.
  9. Dec 20, 2011 #8
    Not in my experience. I also come from a liberals arts background with a good GPA and have recently changed paths to engineering and maybe physics. I have talked to a couple grad advisers and while it might be possible to gain entry into a program it seems very gloomy. The advisers nicely told me that if there's any competition then for obvious reasons I wouldn't get picked because I would be coming in "half" prepared in comparison to the other applicants. Grad school is the real deal, 30-60 credits can't possibly be enough preparation for those classes. I would say to expect getting close to another bachelor's degree in physics or whatever you want then you have a better shot.

    For example, check out these admission requirements. You would be expected to make up any deficiencies in the first year.


    Also, check out this site to see who you would be competing against..

    http://www.physicsgre.com/viewforum.php?f=3 -click on the Applicant Profiles
  10. Dec 20, 2011 #9
    Did you finish your BA or was this a mid-degree transfer into another faculty?
  11. Dec 20, 2011 #10
    It's easy to romanticize science, but actually doing it is easier said than done. I always tell people make sure it's really what you want to do because it's rough. Even if you're good at it, it's rough.

    Learning about science can be a good hobby, too, and you kind find niches where just having it as a hobby is useful, and I can easily imagine that being the case for law.

    Even though I am going to graduate this year or next year with a PhD in math, I'm STILL considering just having it as a hobby, and doing something else for my day job. In math, as with cosmology, you have to be able to teach (not my strong point) because the main place where you can do research is as a professor.
  12. Dec 20, 2011 #11
    A word of warning- most science and math phds will never hold a permanent job in their field. The normal career path is to get a phd, bounce around in short term (2 year) contract positions for awhile, and then drop out of the field entirely.

    A phd might line up with your curiosity/interests but it most likely won't provide a long-term job in the field of your phd.
  13. Dec 20, 2011 #12
    I always figured you math phd's wind up on wall street when the top ten aren't hiring, no? Kidding. I'm actually relieved to hear that teaching will be a big part of making it my career. I really enjoy explaining things to people and making them understand, seeing the 'look' of enlightenment (or deer-in-headlights is equally fun).

    So, from undergrad to phd is about 8 to 10 years in the sciences, is that correct?
  14. Dec 20, 2011 #13
    I did finish it but I started having serious doubts that I made the right decision about a year before graduating. Now it's 5 years later since that degree and I finally setup myself to go back to school. I graduated the first time with zero debt so now I don't have anymore financial aid from the government so I had to save up and do some other stuff to get back into school. If you already have a lot of debt then I would seriously consider your decision right now because taking on my debt to gain a job less than what your Law stuff would get you is a pretty drastic decision.
  15. Dec 20, 2011 #14
    You'll definitely need another bachelor's degree. Because you already have one major, you'll likely be able to skip the graduating requirements and simply get through the specific program requirements. However, in the first few terms of your new program, your progress will be stagnant until you meet even the basic requirements to start your program. I suppose you could take math courses meanwhile. Then you'll be bottlenecked through first and second term physics and unable to complete any other physics courses meanwhile. My point is that although you'll need less credits to graduate, it won't necessarily take much less time.

    But saying all of this is making me wonder how you could know what physics is even about? I don't mean to offend you but you're not the first arts major to have the physics-is-important-revelation. Have you ever done a physics problem? I love biology, especially evolution. I have read several books of Richard Dawkin's books on evolution and have developed a great appreciation for the field and I admire the researchers in the field. But after taking first year biology, I realized that I hate doing biology. Considering that you have likely not solved many physics problems, how do you know whether you like doing physics. Don't mistake your passion for the philosophy of physics for your passion for doing physics. That is my piece of advice.
  16. Dec 20, 2011 #15
    Well, unless you have actually taught a class before it's hard to say that teaching will be that great. I have a particular problem with communication, so you may have more luck than I did. I would be the ideal teacher for myself, if only I could travel back in time and teach myself. In a way, I am my favorite teacher, and that's part of why it's fun to be me. Some people see it, too, when I give talks. A newer grad student here said he was really looking forward to the second talk in my series of informal talks. That's the sad part. Maybe the math majors and grad students would worship me as a teacher because I have a really deep, intuitive understanding of mathematics. But the lower-level students can't stand me. And that's what brings in the money, so they are the most important ones in the department's eyes. The people who don't want to be there bring in the money. That's why it sucks. Deer in the headlights is not fun when they walk out on your class to complain bitterly to the department and threaten your job. If they get enough numbers, they can get you in trouble with their complaints.

    Looks like 12 years for me, maybe even 13 (no more than that), but I changed majors and messed around a bit. 9 or 10 would be standard.
  17. Dec 20, 2011 #16
    I wouldn't entirely disagree with this, and, actually, it's close to what I was trying to say earlier. But there is a little more to physics than just problems. There is the beauty of the theories and the ideas. That IS part of physics. But so are the problems. Also, there are many different kinds of physics. It's hard to judge physics by taking one class or reading an introductory book. Real physics can be pretty different from that. Intermediate classical mechanics was kind of a shock to me, when I took it. Another issue is that you might not like the way some subjects are taught. That was a big issue for me in that classical mechanics class (conceptual shallowness of the theory and pages of meaningless equations and calculations), but even when I finally understood it conceptually, it was beautiful, but still very different in flavor from introductory physics.

    One thing I can say about math and physics is that the ideas are beautiful, once you understand them. But there's more to it than that. There's the pressure to publish, teaching, fierce competition, the overwhelming amount of stuff you don't know and the constant feeling of inferiority that just about everyone feels, all the ideas that fail (some distinguished mathematician remarked that 99% of what he tries doesn't work), the amount of work it takes to write up your results, people getting there before you do, etc. It can be fairly depressing. So, you have to be really really into it for it to be worth it.
  18. Dec 21, 2011 #17
    Depends what you mean by 'a great deal' I learned a great deal of cosmology up to doing an MSc level thesis on the subject, using the full technical apparatus of GR (tensors etc. at the level of Weinberg.) It left me feeling 'enough already' about cosmology, and it also left me intellectually dissatisfied.

    I now realise this is a permanent state :)

    I explored a lot of social science stuff after 'doing cosmology'. 'Being a lawyer' or 'modelling airflow in aeronautical structures' are now kind of equally appealing to me - if I needed to seek a career - it's really not the subject matter that counts it's 'having a satisfying project' that counts.

    My favourite intrinsic (=non-money making =most important to me) project at the moment is reading Dickens' major novels.

    Why do you think studying cosmology will be totally fulfilling? You will only find that out if you do it. My prediction is that it will not - but I might be wrong...

    Drawing up agreements on whose space satellite goes where might lead to a country being able to place a space station in orbit and in a position to launch missions to the stars (eventually) Who knows, you could go down in history as the lawyer/diplomat that made a combined space missions to Mars possible... if you take the law route.

    Anyone who does physics is walking away from a potentially very lucrative career to follow a passion for understanding and investigating the (physical) nature of things. They only get to do this if they *really* get their act together. Physics was my main thing from age 12 and I ended up (like many science geeks) doing IT stuff. Your choice is most likely to end up being, not law v. cosmology but law v. IT/finance.

    You say "The "Sagan-esque" revelation is that we are inextricably linked to the grandest and also most fundamental physical/natural processes." I agree with this. But I disagree with the second part of your thesis, "gaining understanding of this relation provides great spiritual fulfillment as well as the means to improve our lives, in every sense."

    Obviously you've read a bit of Carl Sagan and other popular science books so have a reasonable grasp of "evolution", "universal laws" (Newton, Einstein...) and these indeed are important things to know. But, I predict, any technical understanding you might gain of these things - applying tensor calculus/ differential geometry, doing lab experiments... will do little to enhance "fulfilment" or "means to improve your life"... even at the purely intellectual level.

    For instance reading Weinberg isn't going to enhance your knowledge of the virtues - reading Plato and Aristotle might... and doing law *properly* is more likely to enhance your appreciation of "Justice" (one of the greatest virtues...)

    Meanwhile, I'm off to read "Our Mutual Friend"....
  19. Dec 21, 2011 #18
    I love the amount of skepticism I'm getting here.

    Agreed. The only way I would get into this is if I can manage to do it for minimal expense (thus the consideration of less expensive options in Europe) and enter it absolved of debts. I'm not quite debt free, but if all goes well it will be within a year.

    But as an side, I HAVE chosen that I would prefer to make less doing something that genuinely interests me / excites my curiosity, than something that earns money but leaves me little time to do things that I like (lawyers do epic 80 hr weeks for the first 4 or 5 years). Is this a naive decision?

    It's entirely possible I will hate every one of those undergraduate snots.

    Yes and No. I've attending many physics lectures, and have always enjoyed following the conceptual explanations and following along with the proofs / derivations. I've done quite a bit of math problems in calculus that are parsed down physics problems. These were classical mechanics, so I have no experience with electromagnetism (let alone anything quantum mechanical).

    Is it, in the end, worth it? The real factor dissuading me from this decision is entering the modern day rat-race of academia, and facing up against all those people that have natural talent or intuition with mathematics. I am learning this material the hard way (i.e. not as a gifted child at the age of 12 like Feynman) - do people like me even stand a chance in academia? I would think we get pushed out by mathematical juggernauts and 25 yr old Phd holders.

    So, homeomorphic, are there endless nights in the lab / office spent pulling your hair out, asking yourself why you didn't go to law school and drive a ferrari / own a yacht?
  20. Dec 21, 2011 #19
    I think mal4mac hit it on the nose

    There's a chance that my current passion with this field is merely a hopeless fancy or a passing whim. I also have a very roving curiosity and a huge mistake would be giving up a solid career for the flavor of the month. I've had intense curiosity in astronomy/cosmology for perhaps 4-5 years, with physics for 1-2 years, and mathematics for the last year. But then again, I've been reading into social theory / strategy and tactics since I was 15 (so 8 years).

    I think I'll just have to enroll in some tough-as-**** physics/math courses at my local university and see if I sink or swim.
  21. Dec 21, 2011 #20
    Not really a serious worry- you don't need to be a child prodigy to get a phd in physics. A more serious concern- you haven't ever done serious physics problems. Grab a copy of Kleppner and Kolenkow's intro mechanics and start working through the problems. Then grab a copy of Purcell's Electricity/Magnetism book and start working through those problems. This will give you a taste of what undergrad physics is actually like.

    No, but there is very real pain when you meet up with people you knew in highschool or college and they have established careers, houses, children,etc and you are still bouncing around temporary contract positions, driving a fifteen year old car,etc. A career in science will greatly delay the typical markers of adulthood. In academic science you won't really hit 'middle-class-lifestyle' until your late 30s. Its not the ferrari you are jealous of, its the <10 year old Honda. Its not the mansion you are jealous of, its a life stable enough to make purchasing a house reasonable.
  22. Dec 21, 2011 #21
    Well, I don't know. Highly dependent on who you are. For some people, it's worth it. I might not reach the end, personally. I had quite a different situation. I had switched majors from EE to math and was much more satisfied in math. On top of that, I was sort of hailed by my math professors as some kind of hero. So, it seemed clear that grad school in math was the right thing to do. But, now, I'm not so sure. It was what I had to do at the time. In some ways, getting the PhD was worth it, whether or not I go for academia. I gained something from it that I will find uses for. The problem for me is that I don't want to just do a brain-dump and not use all the stuff that I learned. My solution is to try to keep doing math in my free time, just making expository articles and stuff like that. I have realized I care more about developing a really deep understanding of math that has already been done than proving new results. My worry is that I will be too busy or not have enough energy left after my day job is over. But no one is going to execute you if you get your PhD and then leave academia. Most people end up in that position.

    I don't know, maybe you do have natural talent or intuition, for all I know. I would tend not to tell people what they can't do.

    Well, at this point, maybe I will become an actuary or something and make tons of money. I don't care about money. But if I save up a lot, maybe I can live off the interest, and then do whatever I want. Maybe try to publish math papers, get really good at piano, or whatever I feel like doing. Complete intellectual freedom. I don't have any regrets, right now, but I just sort of wish I was done with this whole grad school thiing. It has worn me out.
  23. Dec 21, 2011 #22


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    I'll add my voice to the people saying that the practice of science is different to reading books or listening to Sagan. Especially, I've found, in cosmology and astrophysics. My favourite description of cosmology was "the science of systematic errors", which is really very true. My undergrad cosmology lecturer did distance measurements of SN 1a (accelerating universe stuff) and just his descriptions were enough for me. But, if you're the kind of person who enjoys that stuff, why not? I'd suggest you read some research papers, they generally strip away any poetry.

    But, if you want to do science, do it! You should do what you love. But go into it knowing what it's really like.

    Edited to add: This http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1112/1112.5049v1.pdf is what real (observational) cosmology looks like. This http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1112/1112.4995v1.pdf is what real (theoretical) cosmology looks like. These are taken from the latest arXiv papers. Ordinary, everyday things. Not at all like reading a book by Sagan.
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2011
  24. Dec 21, 2011 #23
    I think that stuff can be intellectually fulfilling, actually. It's more the circumstances of it that are the problem for me. All the pressure. If I didn't have to compete for a job (and then get tenure) or avoid students complaints, I would be perfectly happy in academia.

    Sounds like a plan. Keep the law option open.
  25. Dec 21, 2011 #24


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    To summarize (and de-romanticize) that, think of the analogy of living in a wonderful tourist attraction with lots of history, culture, beautiful countryside, etc. All that is very nice to have around, but it doesn't actually pay your bills at the end of the month.

    I used to work for a guy who had a simple strategy for recruiting people (actually engineers not physicists, but that's not important). His criterion was to look for the people who, after they had spent 6 months banging their heads against a brick wall and getting nowhere, still wanted to get up in the morning and carry on banging their heads against the wall for another day. If that picture of "science" doesn't sound appealing, stick with pop-sci + law would be my recommendation. I've been there, done that. I know what it's like to spend 10 years (literally) failing to solve a problem, and finally realizing that the solution is so easy you can explain it to somebody else in 15 minutes. I might be wrong, but I don't think lawyers work on those sort of timescales!
  26. Dec 21, 2011 #25


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    Nice analogy. Mind if I steal it?
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