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PhD in Astrophysics: Wasting my time?

  1. Aug 19, 2014 #1
    Hello all, so I'm just finishing up my basics in undergrad school and am starting to take math and introductory physics classes, and just wanted to clear something up to make sure that I'm not wasting my time. My goal is a PhD in astrophysics. Now I know that in order to get into a good grad school, I have to make good grades, score high on my GRE, and do UG research, which I am well on my way to doing.

    Now, here's my dilemma: I want to work for NASA doing research, and when I say working, I mean TRULY working for them, as in civil service. I am already a federal government employee with a nice, stable job, but astrophysics has always interested me. So a few questions:

    1) Will I be able to maintain my job and still go to grad school? I'm flexible in that I can move almost anywhere with the type of work that I do, and I can work VERY part time if need be (16 hours or so per week). I hear that astrophysics have to put in a lot of hours every week to stay on top of things, and while I can understand having to work a lot just before a major presentation or something like that, working 60+ hours a week for any length of time is obviously not an option.

    2) Will I be able to work for NASA in astrophysics research? I hear that astrophysics only comprises 9% of their budget (could be wrong) so that means fewer positions available. This is why I feel the need to hang on to my government job, because I know that everybody does their PhD, is incredibly smart, and does interesting and relevant research. I won't be unique in those aspects, so already possessing a govt job and NASA not having to do a background check, issue a security clearance (have that), etc.. may be the only thing that makes me stand out in any way.

    3) If 2 is not a possibility, would you recommend any other degree to get in order to work for NASA? It's certainly an ambition of mine, so if there's any other way that doesn't involve doing boring managerial/admin type work, I'm all ears.

    To add, I'm currently double majoring in CS/Physics in order to build myself a safety net and least get SOMETHING useful if astrophysics doesn't work out, so if I can build on that in some way, I'd be eager for advice towards that end as well.

    Thanks guys!
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 19, 2014 #2
    1) HIGHLY unlikely. Especially if you want to work for a good advisor. A not so great advisor who is just going through the motions *might* tolerate that, but I can't imagine any serious professor allowing one of his grad students to work a second job, and usually by contract you're not even allowed to if you have funding.

    2) This is also highly unlikely. Assuming you're accepted to a good grad school and find a professor willing to take you (most departments have less than a handful of professors who do Astrophysics, and not all of them are willing/have the money to take on students at any given time), unless you're the best of the best your odds of finding a job at NASA, or anywhere for that matter, doing astrophyics are small.

    3) I suppose some kind of engineering, but honestly I would not be so set on working for NASA - you should be much more flexible than that.
  4. Aug 20, 2014 #3
    Ok thanks, that's a fair point. So is there a way to work for the federal govt in some capacity as a scientist or engineer without having to give up my current job? Maybe a master's program or something along those lines? I'd be willing also to work in a national lab under the DOE or some other such agency. I just don't feel like I can give up the benefits and security that a govt job affords me. I should note that I'm interested in all kinds of science (biology, chemistry, physics, geology, etc) as well as a few types of engineering, it's just that astrophysics happens to interest me the most, so I can be flexible in that regard.

    I could be wrong, but I heard that almost all research positions require a PhD, which would again put me in the position of having to give up my job. Is this true? I guess I'm just looking for a bit of advice on how to go to school while keeping my job, even if extremely part time, and then being able to slide into some science or engineering civil service job.
  5. Aug 20, 2014 #4


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    The reason most research positions require a PhD is because one spends 50-80 hours a week, almost every week for 5-7 years doing research during their PhD! You get pretty good at research that way, in a way that someone with only a master's usually isn't.
  6. Aug 20, 2014 #5


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    The National Labs are operated by contractors and administered by the DOE. So if you work for a National Lab you won't be a federal civil servant.

    A high percentage of NASA jobs are similar. If you're an engineer at JPL, for instance, you aren't on the federal payroll and you don't get federal benefits (JPL is operated by Caltech under contract to NASA).
  7. Aug 20, 2014 #6
    Alright that's fair enough. So are there any good non research science or engineering positions available in civil service with a B.Sc. or a M.Sc.? Just trying to get a feel for what I should do and set a clear goal so that I have something to look forward to, because I tend to do much better when I am focused. To add to a previous post, I'd pretty much be willing to do anything in engineering except civil engineering, that just doesn't interest me at all. And I am going for computer science right now if that's at all useful.
  8. Aug 20, 2014 #7


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    Most engineers in directly in civil service (and there are a lot) are typically either civilian employees of the armed forces or they primarily do paperwork, reviews, and provide oversight to contractors. You can see the types of engineering jobs available at usajobs.gov

    Since you mention you're doing computer science, if you want to stick with that there is a LOT of internal software development in the federal government.
  9. Aug 20, 2014 #8
    Hey, thanks for the reply! So, if I'm going the computer science route, would it be more useful to double major in math then? Or some other field? And, would I require a M.Sc.? Or would just a B.Sc. generally be sufficient?
  10. Aug 21, 2014 #9
    Applied or computational math could be helpful, but programming is a tool, which all said and done, is "easy" enough to pick up that you probably don't need a dedicated degree in it. Moreover, the specific knowledge obtained in engineering or physics programs (especially engineering for NASA/private companies like SpaceX, from what I have been told) is more difficult and more important.

    So if you're going to go the double major route, try engineering + CS.

    By the way, civil engineering is actually a much more interesting field than people give it credit for, statics problems are surprisingly sophisticated, although I admit that I'd rather do electrical engineering for instance.

    EDIT: To be clear, applied math/computational math degrees are very versatile as well from the job statistics, so there's no reason not to, but if you're specifically targeting engineering my impression (and it's just an impression mind you) is that engineering + CS or straight up engineering is the most efficient route to that destination.
  11. Aug 21, 2014 #10
    Ah ok, I think I've got it. Now when you say engineering + CS, are you referring to a specific type? The department that I'm in, specifically, has 2 other degree plans that I can do without ever having to cross into another department, and those are computer engineering and software engineering (EE is in another department by itself, for some reason). Maybe one of those 2? I heard that computer engineering is a pretty even mixture of electrical and software engineering, so maybe that'd be a way to get a good grasp of all 3 of those disciplines?
  12. Aug 21, 2014 #11
    Choose the engineering discipline which is most closely associated with what you imagine you want to do. Picking an easier to get into discipline because it is bureaucratically convenient is generally a good idea, unless it pushes you down a track you're not interested in.
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