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The Intimidation of Retraining to a Career in Physics

  1. Jun 15, 2013 #1
    Hello, all.

    I'm new to the forums but thought this might be the venue to ask a question I am pondering.

    I'm looking into the possibilities of returning to academics and pursuing a PhD in physics with an emphasis in astronomy and cosmology or possibly theoretical physics (haven't narrowed that one down much). I'm wondering, however, the feasibility of the course of action given my background and goals. Any advice folks out there have for me, please pipe up.

    A little about me:

    My undergrad is in Aerospace Engineering, and I have learned that I'm not terribly interested in that level of practicality; I believe my desires lie more in the realm of theory. I have a Masters of Arts in Administrative Leadership (think leadership theory and organizational behavior). I completed my undergrad in 2006 and have since been an officer in the US Air Force. I am a pilot in said organization, first as a mobility pilot (KC-10 air refuelers) and currently as a combat pilot (MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft). While this is clearly a practical and operational application of both my undergrad and Master's degrees, I will mostly likely be leaving the Air Force upon the completion of my commitment in a few years.

    I've done some research into the prerequisites required for most traditional physics PhD programs, and am becoming slightly intimidated that I will have to start from scratch on this path. My desire would be to transition directly into a physics PhD program. Would that even be a possibility? I'm also afraid that my experience would not bring anything to the table, so to speak, and would feel like wasted time.

    I'm sure I'll have more questions, but if anyone knowledgeable has advice for me, I would be grateful.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 15, 2013 #2


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    Welcome to PF, pilotofphysics!

    Your degree, since it's at least in engineering, isn't a total waste. You'll make good use of the math you learned.

    Here's a thread about going to grad school in physics when your degree isn't physics:


    That's full of good information, I advise reading it from the beginning.
  4. Jun 15, 2013 #3
    Head over to PhysicsGRE forums, this is a great resource to prepare for the PGRE which you're no doubt going to take if you want to get a PhD in the US, and you'll find many cases of people in your situation going back to grad school coming from a variety of backgrounds. I would get started preparing for it ASAP, enrollment for the exam opens up in about a month.

    I remember seeing a case this year (see the 2013 results thread) of one foreign chemical engineer who worked for a few years, managed to do some physics research on his own time and later applied and was accepted into almost every program he applied for (research emphasis on relativity/numerical relativity). Also several cases of former military officers who got into very competitive schools.

    I gather coming from Aerospace your background is even closer to a Physics bachelors than Chem E. so I'm sure you would have no trouble academically speaking. If you get some good scores on the GRE's and get rec letters from people who know your research/work and/or academic capability (profs), I think you would have a really good chance of getting into almost any school you apply to, if you do make sound, thoroughly researched choices of grad schools. Things like making sure the departments you're applying for are active and well-funded in your chosen research field. You could also narrow it down a little more than just cosmology or theory: observational/survey work? CMB? Solid state theory? Cosmological modeling? You'd have a list of different universities for each. You'll find most of the gritty details on grad schools, their research activity, endowments, and number of students enrolled and graduated each year at the American Institute of Physics webpage and gradschoolshopper (which gets most of their data from them, apparently).
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