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Should I give up on astrophysics and study something else?

  1. Jun 15, 2014 #1
    Astrophysics has always been my passion. I remember reading many books on it when I was a child, and my fascination grew even more when I took my first intro astrophysics class this year in college. The more I read up on job prospects on astrophysics, the more depressed I get. I have always wanted to study this subject and eventually go on to graduate school in astrophysics. My ultimate goal would be a university professor, but I've heard academic job prospects in physics are dismal, and it's even worse in astrophysics. I can live with not making a lot of money as long as I get to study what I love, but I'm not willing to go into this field knowing that I probably won't be paid very well, I won't have a tenured faculty position, and I'll probably end up having a job that's irrelevant to astrophysics.

    Recently, I've just been thinking about going into quantitative finance. I love math, I found economics interesting (I will try a finance course soon), I can tolerate programming, and the salary is very attractive. I just finished up my first year in college, so I'm trying to figure out what I want to major in.

    If I decide to pursue astrophysics, I can major in applied mathematics, which is my current major, and minor in physics, OR major in physics with an emphasis in astrophysics (might graduate late), and go to graduate school in astrophysics. If I decide to go into quantitative finance, I will probably major in applied mathematics or statistics with a minor in managerial economics, and go onto graduate school in these fields.

    I just finished my first year of college, and I know I'm still young, but it's frustrating deciding on something that your passionate about vs something that will give you a (more) stable future. What are your opinions?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 15, 2014 #2
    Does it have to be astrophysics? There are other interesting fields in physics - some having decent prospects. You could double major in both physics and mathematics if you still cannot decide between physics and finance.

    Also, just because you are passionate about something does not mean you need to pursue a career in it. If you are really scared about job prospects in astrophysics, I would go for a more stable future. You can always read astrophysics textbooks/papers in your spare time.
  4. Jun 15, 2014 #3


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    This is a very common concern these days.

    Personally, I think that it's okay to still pursue your passion, but do it with your eyes open and make sure that you have a backup plan if it doesn't work out. To pursue astrophysics for example, you don't really have to make a choice to specialize in that until you get into graduate school. An honours physics degree is sufficient and will leave room to allow you to explore other sub-fields that you might not know about and maybe take a few other courses (such as a finance course) that may help to make you more marketable.

    Also, it's important to understand that in pursuing an academic subject, you're giving yourself an education, but not necessarily a vocation. If you want to be trained and qualified for a well-paying vocation right out of school, then you either get into a professional university program (engineering, medicine, etc.) or find a community college program that will train you for a specific field. This, of course, can always be done after your education - the issue of course is usually cost (both in money and opportunity).
  5. Jun 15, 2014 #4
    My undergrad advisor did her PhD in astrophysics. She says only 10% of the people she knew who graduated with a PhD in astrophysics went on to actually enter academia in astrophysics. However, the same group all have good jobs somewhere. She entered into science education outreach herself.
  6. Jun 15, 2014 #5
    The only reason why I would go on to graduate school in Astrophysics is to be able to research what I love, and teach it to other enthusiastic students as a professor. However, I know the chances of this happening are slim, so I would rather not waste my time doing a PhD on a subject that I won't even get to research. I would much rather go into something that's more practical and vocational, such as finance, that will at least be well-paying. And this is what I'm struggling with: passion vs stability.
  7. Jun 15, 2014 #6


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    That's fair enough. The only guarantee with graduate school is the work that you'll do in graduate school. However, it sounds like you've already made your decision.
  8. Jul 5, 2014 #7
    I thought I made up my mind, but I keep going back to the possibility of switching my major to physics with an emphasis in astrophysics. Whenever these thoughts come to head, I always have to convince myself that it is not a good idea. This stresses me out so much. I feel like I am going to regret not doing astro by the end of my undergraduate career, but then again, I might regret actually doing it at the end of my graduate career.

    As of right now, I am still undecided, and it's annoying me that I can't make up my mind...
  9. Jul 7, 2014 #8
    I'm sort of in an opposite situation. I decided on engineering and regret it now that I'm almost done with my bachelors. For me the lack of intellectual stimulation became depressing, not that engineering is boring, just too focused, by its nature. I feel like I'd be happier trying to make a physics education work somehow. I may likely change my major. I can't make up my mind either, though. Could I do grad school in physics? So many factors.

    I feel you man.
  10. Jul 7, 2014 #9
    Nobody gets wealthy by doing something technical. People enrich themselves by doing something social. The technical education and skills are simply a means to an end. People do not throw money at you just because you're smart and well educated. You still need to bring something else to the table: A business or an employment plan.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson is one well known example of a scientist who has unusually good abilities as a celebrity who can explain science, while not seeming pedantic or obtuse. Yes, he has a strong education as an astrophysicist, but he makes his money by educating on TV.

    It seems that you feel your prospects for building a career where you can be an astrophysicist are not as lucrative or as assured as you'd like. Is this because you would like to sit in an office with telescope observations and lots of coffee so that you can publish new theories of the universe? Dream on. You need to sell these ideas. Tyson is one of those gifted individuals who really gets in to the selling of ideas.

    The classic position for those who would like to sell their education is that of a university professor. However university professor positions are scarce because our population is no longer growing as fast as it used to. The Baby Boom and the Baby Boomlet are over. In many countries, populations are aging or actually shrinking.

    So what's left? Well, if you're still wildly enthusiastic and eager to share, you too can become a TV celebrity. Or perhaps you could aspire become an Internet meme of some sort, seeing that television is not the growing medium that it used to be.

    If that does not appeal to you, then studying a science with little direct application (like astrophysics), isn't for you.

    Ultimately, we'd all like to think that we can live our lives to become rich, famous, or control large resources. But we don't all make it. In fact, very few have that combination of salesmanship, education, intelligence, vision, and drive to get them closer to that goal.

    It's time for some real soul searching. You have some big decisions to make.
  11. Jul 7, 2014 #10


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    Jake, I see the point of your thread and there is much I agree with, but you are making an (implicit) assumption that fields like astrophysics are not particularly lucrative or useful outside of academia. However, the skillset and tools that those who pursue graduate degrees in astrophysics acquire (large-scale data analysis, computational modelling using PDEs, simulations, etc.) can be very useful in a number of different business sectors (e.g. quantitative finance, data science aka "big data", software development). A similar point can be made about pursuing a math degree (which I did).

    To the OP:

    Since you only finished your first year of college/university, and presumably with limited experience in different fields of physics (or for that matter other fields), I think it is premature for you to dismiss other fields of physics, math or other cognate fields without at least getting some exposure to it. I would personally advise you to continue your applied mathematics major and take as wide a variety of technical elective courses as you can comfortably fit in your schedule (e.g. physics, statistics, computer science, economics, engineering, chemistry, etc.) to see what would appeal to you, and then decide what to pursue for graduate studies. It's possible that you may develop an interest (even a passion) in a field that you might never have thought of exploring.

    In addition, if you intend to pursue your applied math major, definitely learn at least the basics of programming (if you haven't done so already or aren't already skilled in programming), as this would be very useful for you in your future research and work, whatever you decide to do.
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2014
  12. Jul 7, 2014 #11
    You are quite right. I should have written that better. My point is that the OP is interested specifically in astrophysics, not some offshoot with similar skills. However, your claim that we can all drift from our primary field of study to find other interests with similar skill sets is quite reasonable; provided that you can convince someone in a Human Resources department that your studies are worthy of consideration based upon what you can do, not what you studied.

    (This is one of my recurring rants: The ignorance regarding actual qualifications at most HR departments, and their capacity for processing such candidates even if they DO understand the qualifications, is hurting businesses and job seekers alike.)

    That said, no matter what endeavor you seek, you'll need to be part salesman, part manager, part technocrat, part visionary, and have the drive to make things happen. You don't have to be good at all of these things, but at the very least, you do need to be aware of them.

    The choice before you, is how to focus for these skills toward a goal that we all seek: that notion of having a career.
  13. Jul 7, 2014 #12


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    I wouldn't necessarily say "drift" to find other interests, more "actively seek other interests" but point taken.

    Now as far as convincing HR departments -- with all due respect to people who work in HR (I had worked in an HR department of a large bank prior to going to grad school, btw, and many of the people are intelligent and capable people) HR professionals do not have the training or understanding to assess the qualifications or qualities of those who graduate from STEM fields. HR people in large firms essentially do what they are told by senior executive management (from the CEO down to the VP level) on which candidates they can or can't assess -- senior management sets the parameters, and HR implements the recruiting/hiring system, on top of arranging for compensation and benefits. There is no point in convincing them because HR people cannot act independently.
  14. Jul 8, 2014 #13
    I'm currently taking an Introduction to Abstract Mathematics class right now, and I'm not enjoying very much. Were learning logic, proof methods, induction, basic set theory, etc. and it's kind of dry in my opinion. I always found pleasure in finding out where theorems and equations come from, but proofs are a little too much for me. I love math, but I need to be very applied, which is why I'm thinking of doing physics.

    If I could be like Tyson, of course I would do anything to do so. But is selling ideas to the public easier than obtaining a professorship in astrophysics?
  15. Jul 8, 2014 #14
    Uh, no. It's harder, MUCH harder. It requires a great deal of luck, an interesting life story, and great personality. It requires a strong understanding of the humanities in addition to the sciences. People like that are indeed rare. In addition to deGrasse-Tyson, there are luminaries such as Hawking (he writes children's books about astrophysics).

    People don't set out to become this sort of leader. An opportunity presents itself, it goes well, and then things snowball in to the sort of career that they have.

    In other words, it's a combination of luck, salesmanship, timing, and many other things.
  16. Jul 8, 2014 #15

    George Jones

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    Yes, I agree, but this is what you actually wrote previously.

    Please be careful with what you write, and the way you write it. Sarcasm in internet discussions is much easier to miss in internet discussions than it is in face-to-face discussions.
  17. Jul 11, 2014 #16
    Speaking of memes, here is Jim Carrey to advise you, from his somewhat unique perspective atop millions of dollars.

    This ought to annoy the self-styled guardians of pragmatism round here :)

    And if it doesn't here's this: my entire life I found school easy but boring, except for drama, at which I excelled outside school and in, getting good regional reviews for theatre work and so on. But it was not a very sensible choice and as I grew older I was convinced by others and myself not to pursue it.

    The only other thing that ever - literally - kept me up at night was philosophy. So after years of hating different jobs, thinking about philosophy the whole time, I took undergraduate and graduate degrees in it. I had interviews for funded positions but by mid financial crisis everyone and myself had convinced me this not-very-sensible pathway was a pathway to certain death so I decided not to pursue it.

    Now I no longer have quite the vitality I did when younger, nor the freedom of being in university or living at home, and my networks have diminished as have my skills, in both my passions. I have a very dull job for a less-than-graduate salary and am back in school for the third time.

    My only regret is not pursuing these two passions to within an inch of my life. I've ended up where everyone prophesied I would anyway, but without ever even trying. Not really, not properly.

    My advice? Do Astrophysics. It is a life choice, not a life sentence.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  18. Jul 12, 2014 #17


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    Thanks for the perspective. How did you get back in school for the third time, and what are you doing now?
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  19. Jul 12, 2014 #18


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    Engineering is always a great fallback position. Physics talent translates well to this pursuit. Most physics degrees are only a semester or two short of qualifying for an engineering degree. That was the path I chose.
  20. Jul 12, 2014 #19
    There are fields where self-actualization happy talk works better than others. For example, in Jim Carrey's case, being an actor means projecting an image. You have to believe in that image to project it well.

    Conversely, I have rude things to say of any engineer or scientist who practices such self-deception.

    Can you do this? Yes, you need to believe that you can or you won't give it your best effort. But to practice happy talk to convince yourself that this is something you can do, no matter what? That's a recipe to crash and burn.

    You have to listen to the advice others give you and use it as feedback to improve. Mother nature will not be fooled by the self image tricks you play on yourself.

    All that said: building a career based upon being a better employee is no guarantee of employment. You can always be laid off, no matter how well you do your work. It happens to almost everyone in their career at some point. His point is that fail is always possible, so you might as well take risks. Using that logic, one should play the lottery every day, because you might beat the odds.

    You have to take a cold, hard look at the odds of achieving a goal and to decide whether you still want to take that risk. For every wild success like Jim Carrey, there are many more who don't make it.
  21. Jul 12, 2014 #20
    JakeBrodskyPE: You are entitled to your opinion and while my happiness does not hinge on what you think of me, I would prefer if you would not refer to my advice - which is honest, well meant, and borne from my own experience that you have not lived (as I have not had yours) - as "happy talk" and "self deception". As one who appears to be a self-styled pragmatist, you may find it better to avoid saying "rude things" of engineers or scientists who practice "such self deception" (as Jim Carrey does in his speech, or I do in my post?) since you are unlikely to cure a person of such cognitive illness with rudeness.

    Unless of course your aim is not to help self-deluded engineers or scientists to see the light, in which case I wonder what your goal is in saying rude things about people. Certainly, it does not appear to be in accord with PF rules so I am sure no such rudeness will be forthcoming.

    I do admit your advice is pragmatic - not least because you have hedged your bets by supporting both "self-actualization happy talk" [in some fields] and also advising that one should not try to fool Mother nature by "the self image tricks you play on yourself." This, while also conceding that "You can always be laid off, no matter how well you do your work. It happens to almost everyone in their career at some point" And finally, ending by telling the OP what they already know, namely: "You have to take a cold, hard look at the odds of achieving a goal and to decide whether you still want to take that risk. For every wild success like Jim Carrey, there are many more who don't make it." This does in fact, merely restate OP's problem, that was already raised at the start of the thread.

    Maybe your advice was no so pragmatic after all ;)

    If you wish to respond, I invite you to have the last word on this as I am sure we both have better things to do than a forum squabble with a stranger on the internet.

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