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Space/Cosmology careers w/o a PhD?

  1. Aug 3, 2009 #1

    I am totally lost right now. I’ve tried to make myself desire a “sure thing” career – something like physical therapy or accounting, but it’s killing me inside. At one point I was interested in getting into astronomy or astrophysics. I really wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do in the field. Who isn’t interested in the Big Bang theory, you know? Lots of questions interest me: Is there other life out there? Just how similar are other earthlike planets to ours (for example, how is the chemical composition of their atmosphere similar and different, how far away are they from their star, etc.), life cycle of stars, solar system formation, etc.

    Michio Kaku’s books really interested me. Conceptually, all the stuff about inflation, black holes, M-theory, etc. is pretty interesting, but I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, so I really doubt I could handle a rigorous treatment of these ideas at the graduate level. Shoot, I probably couldn’t even handle the mathematical rigors of quantum mechanics at the undergraduate level… Plus, I’m not a young pup anymore (in my 30’s).

    I was an undergrad physics major for a while at the local state college. I got through about half of the upper division requirements. I went part time due to family, financial, and PT job reasons, but truthfully, I probably couldn’t have handled any more than 3 courses per semester even under ideal circumstances (I don’t know how some of the kids can handle 18 units loads consisting primarily of upper division physics and math – gifted, I guess). Anyhow, I took the standard calculus based introductory sequence and upper division courses in modern physics, math physics, mechanics, and astrophysics. My professors gave me pretty good grades, but I suspect a lot of it was based on sympathy or other motives (i.e. the department was pretty small – the professors needed to pass students in order to have students to teach and hence a job). Some of the grades might have been legitimate, but I know some of them weren’t (i.e. like when I got exam scores in the 50-68% range even with generous grading throughout most of the semester but still ended up with a B). Anyhow, I didn’t feel like I was really cutting it plus I had some conflicts with some people, so I dropped out.

    Anyhow, my question is, what are some career options for a person like me? My current dead end job makes me have spite for life. I’m just not PhD material plus don't afford the time or money, but I’ve thought about trying to get a master’s degree in astronomy or a related area and working maybe in some sort of assistant or technician capacity or maybe teaching at a junior college – anything that will allow me to focus on the universe even if I’m not actually doing the research/experiments/observations myself. Does any of this seem like a realistic possibility? If not, what other options might work for me? I’m a little concerned because I know I couldn’t handle the rigors of physics at the grad. level, so I’m hoping astronomy is more conceptual – is it? Do I need to finish an undergrad major in physics or astronomy or could I enter a program with my current level of preparation with any old major? I don’t want to teach physics to HS kids – I’ve been around them as a teacher’s aide in the past, no thanks! Maybe I should forget about a grad degree and be satisfied with my cosmology-for-the-general-public books and amateur star gazing? Thanks for your advice in advance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 3, 2009 #2
    There may be some options for you, but it depends on your skills. Specifically, your technical skills. Are you a machinist? A computer whiz? Electronics repair? Not everyone who works in astronomy is a scientist with a PhD. Technicians and operators are important too. An undergrad degree in hard science is pretty common for this kind of thing, but a Masters is probably overkill.

    Depending on where you live, you might look around and see whether a local observatory or university astronomy department needs techs/operators. This will involve legwork, since these jobs may not be advertised widely, if at all.
  4. Aug 3, 2009 #3
    Okay, first off, teaching at junior/community/etc. colleges does not allow you to focus on the universe. In fact, it'll probably allow you to focus on the universe a lot less than a job in accounting will. There's essentially no research done at those places - no funding, no experiments, no papers, nothing. People make this mistake all the time, where they think teaching the material they love will have anything at all to do with the material they love. It won't. It'll be all about the teaching, and will probably suck your soul out faster than a PT job would.

    Those jobs all require at least a masters degree anyways, and graduate level physics courses are orders of magnitude harder than any undergrad course. I don't see how you think you're masters material but not PhD. Astro tracks are, in my limited experience, easier in the courseload, but you'll still have to take some brutal classes. Mabye there's some easy masters program someone else knows about.

    Ben's suggestions about machinist, or other technical skills is a good one. Still, I don't see how most of those jobs will satisfy this craving you have. I've spent plenty of time in machine shops - they're for people who love doing machining (or at least don't mind doing it for a living), not for scientists.

    How about engineering? There are lots of engineers involved in the space programs, and most don't have advanced degrees. I'm not sure that's a great career route, but it's probably the closest to what you're looking for.

    One thing I want to stress is that liking the kind of, eh, novels that Michio Kaku writes and actually enjoying working in science are in no way related. You think working in a field you like is the answer. I think it isn't - it's not about the field you're in, it's all about the work you do.

    My less than humble advice: Forget working in science; find work you like to do and do it wherever you can. You can always read Kaku on the side.
  5. Aug 4, 2009 #4
    I took an MSc in Astronomy, and it was really brutal! A lot more painful than any "dead end job" I've been forced to take. Your experience may differ, but why take the chance? You won't get a job in astronomy with an MSc anyway, believe me, I tried!

    I don't see how any job can "make you" have a spite for life. People have worked in Nazi death camps and have survived without a spite for life. Try reading "Flow" by Csikszentmihalyi and see if you can covert your job into something you like, or can at least get through without pain. It may also get you away from your astronomy fixation, the science of happiness is the real fundamental science :-)
  6. Aug 4, 2009 #5


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    I might also add that astronomy is one of those fields where amateurs continue to make significant, publishable contributions all the time. So even if you don't end up doing it professionally, you can still enjoy the field as a hobby, make a contribution, and derive a sense of self-satisfaction from it.
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