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Programs PhD choice: Theoretical Astro or Instrumentation?

  1. Mar 27, 2008 #1


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    Hi folks,

    I am trying to choose between two PhD scholarships. They are both at the same university & both research groups have excellent reputations.

    I'm being pressured by the university to make a decision by Monday. They're British PhDs so I'm assigned to my research topic right from the first day.

    One is a Space Instrumentation related project. Probably something to do with future X-ray missions, working with two great nearing retirement profs who have had a lot to do with NASA and ESA throughout their careers.

    The other is a Theoretical Astrophysics project doing N-body simulations of galaxy mergers and interactions, and preparing for data from a major space mission that will be launching just after the end of the PhD (so good post doc prospects?). This would be with a younger supervisor but still a full professor who is more organised and more keen, but who I wasn't so keen on when I met him. (Although it is evident that he liked me - he has made himself really available to answer questions about what we'd work on, unlike the Instrumentation guys.)

    In my first degree (physics with astrophysics) and masters (satellite engineering/Martian environment) I've always erred on the practical side of things, so I was surprised to be offered a theory place. I've been trying to convince myself that I should go for the theory but I am under no illusions - I am only an average mathematician.

    If I did go for theory, would I be stuck at a computer doing differential equations all day or do the theory PhDs get to go and do fun stuff too?

    What are the prospects like afterwards?

    Would I be mad?

    Would I be excluded from doing anything practical ever again?

    All thoughts welcome! Thanks in advance!
    Last edited: Mar 27, 2008
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 27, 2008 #2
    With instrumentation you have more options once you get out for sure, you can stay in academia or work outside and probably get paid more. It depends on how much job security means to you. It is ridiculously hard to get decent faculty jobs, which is pretty much what you would be looking at with a theoretical degree. If your math skills are only average, I would probably lean to instrumentation, although math skills can improve of course with use/practice. I guess what it really comes down to is which one would make you happier in the long run which is by far the most important thing. But I do think that job finding would be easier with an instrumentation background. Who the hell knows. . .

    Fun is relative, some people like doing DEs all day in front of a computer. Sick bastards.
  4. Mar 27, 2008 #3


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    Interesting. Thanks. Weirdly, I'd figured that Theory would give me better job prospects afterwards; in software and investment banking type positions especially, but also in academia: theory guys tend to survive the downtimes as all they need are pencils, paper and erasers, compared with the Instrumentation guys who need hundred million dollar satellites?

    But, as you say, who knows! ...I don't think I'd be happy doing theory forever - especially as I get older, so as much as I might try to convince myself it would be a good idea right now, it probably isn't. Cheers.
  5. Mar 27, 2008 #4
    Hey, don't base your decision on my (probably bad) opinion. There are jobs in the finance industry, they like programmers, and people with lots of statistical experience from what I hear. Once you get that job in academia, you're golden, hey if your tenured you have to try to get fired. It's just a beast trying to get tenured. Best of luck!
  6. Mar 28, 2008 #5


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    Thanks very much for your messages AstroRoyale. It was helpful to discuss it with you. The decision has been made: I was telephoned this morning by the university to say that the instrumentation offer is completely unconditional (Instrumentation will take me even if I fail my masters degree*) so I plan to accept that one as the least risky option just in case something does go wrong in the last couple of months of my masters degree. ;-)


    *I still plan to pass it of course
  7. Mar 28, 2008 #6
    Congrats, thats great news. Best of luck to you!

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