Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Too Late?

  1. Mar 15, 2008 #1

    I have a definite interest in mathematics and physics...it has long been a dream of mine to become an astronomer instead of an astronaut. But I wonder if it's too late for me to do that.

    First you should probably have a little background information. I'm a 20-year-old highschool dropout. There are hundreds of reasons I made that decision, but I will spare you the details...suffice it to say that while in school I failed almost all of my classes while passing the yearly standardized tests in the upper-90 percentiles. My family and my school weren't supportive of my intellect, and I became incredibly lazy. When it looked like I would be repeating the 9th grade a second time, I decided to stop wasting my time.

    Since then I've taught myself elementary algebra, and I am embarking on a quest to attain skills in differential and integral calculus by one year's time from now. I also work full time (my job allows me to study while I work most nights). I am planning on getting a GED as quickly as possible.

    Is it too late for me to build on my foundations in algebra, to be able to keep up with the course load of a mathematics-physics double major in University? Is it worth the time and effort and money that such a task would take?

    Any response is much appreciated,

  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 15, 2008 #2
    man, there is at least one 40 year old guy in each of my classes. Sure their stories are somewhat different from yours(usually they are immigrants from 3rd world countries) but it put them in the same position you are in right now, having to get a GED to get to college. Hell my dad came from Nicaragua at age 30 to the US and raised a family while becoming an engineer. If you're intelligent and dedicated im sure you'll be great.
  4. Mar 15, 2008 #3

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I'm a little confused by the "astronomer instead of an astronaut" line. You surely don't think you are on the path to being an astronaut now, do you?

    Astronomy is a very competitive field. Typically, to get a potentially permanent job, you need a PhD + two postdocs - i.e. high school + 15 years or so - and probably something like 25% of PhDs actually get such a position. So you have to be going into the process recognizing that the most likely outcome, even if you spend 15 years at it, is not to get a job as an astronomer.

    If your reaction is "I know I'll make it - I'm dedicated!", that's not realistic. Everyone in that pool is dedicated too.

    How do you improve your chances to be in the 25% and not the 75%? It helps to have good postdocs, where you can shine, and (as importantly) be seen to shine. To get good postdocs, it helps to get into a good graduate school. To get into a good graduate school, it helps to get into a good undergraduate college or university. And now we run into your next problem - a GED by itself is not going to get you into a top notch college or university. You will need to ace the SAT, and you will need to find someone to write you bang-up letters of recommendation.

    What I have seen so far is not impressive. What you've told us is that you're lazy and when people around you are not properly supportive of your intellect, you quit. You will need to make sure that your letter writers make it very clear to the admissions committee that this is in the past. They don't need to hear it from you. They need to hear it from them.

    I'm also not really impressed by your choice of major. It's common to major in physics as an undergraduate to go on to astronomy (and many departments are physics and astronomy departments), but why do you want to double major in math? Why add more work for yourself that doesn't get you closer to your goal? Especially as you are 6 or so years behind? Worse, it makes you look unfocused, which is the last thing someone in your position needs.
  5. Mar 15, 2008 #4
    No matter what, a college degree is necessary for almost anything you'll want to do. Get you GED and then get into the best college you can. While you're working on your bachelor's degree you'll have time to decide what the best path is afterwards. No point making a commitment now to something 10-15 years down the road - take one step at a time.

    And good luck!
  6. Mar 15, 2008 #5
    I don't understand this either!

    Wow! I didn't know you needed to be that good!
  7. Mar 15, 2008 #6
    Unless you are a multi-millionaire that buys their way to go into a space, an astronaut sponsored by the government/NASA is extremely difficult and requires at minimal 4 years of college education. I'll say it's harder than become an astronaut, unless you are going for a Ph.D in physics. Even then, you'll have a better shot at finishing your Ph.D within 6 years at MIT than becoming a full sponsored NASA astronaut.

    You'll need at least a bachelor's degree and years of flight training. My uncle has a Masters in Physics/EE and served as a Captain in the USAF for 15 years. He was consistently denied from NASA for training and candidacy to be an astronaut/going to space.
  8. Mar 15, 2008 #7
    I interpreted the "astronomer instead of an astronaut" line as, "many little kids want to be astronauts but I was interested in actually understanding the universe".
  9. Mar 15, 2008 #8
    Most kids want to be astronauts when they grow up. I wanted to be an astronomer. The former is most definitely unattainable to me for a multiplicity of reasons. Thanks for spelling out the specifications for the latter below.

    I plan on attending a community college either as a requisite for taking the SAT's or as an entry int college (I'm in Canada, where the SATs aren't weighted nearly as heavily as I understand). I'm also an American citizen, so I have the potential to get into MIT if I can work hard enough.

    I know I have a lot of ground to cover.

    As you said, it is very difficult for me to become a full-time astronomer or astrophysicist. Since any reputable physics course will have most of the math required for a mathematics degree, and doubling in math will (as I understand it) open more doors for other fields to work in. It's all very flexible right now...I know I can change majors up to the second semester of University, but obviously I won't do that unless I have a drastic reason to.

  10. Mar 15, 2008 #9
    It is never too late to start your studies again. In actuality, I don't think a person ever stops studying in their life (other than the ones who actually do). But what I want to say is, as a researcher especially you have to be constantly on the top of your field by reading many different articles, and learning of new techniques and methods. So I would say you should for sure go at it, and try to get in.
  11. Mar 15, 2008 #10

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I think you might suffer from some misperceptions of the MIT admissions process. I happen to know a wee bit about it, so let me try and clear things up.

    First, they do accept international students.

    Second, scoring in the high 90's on a standardized test won't impress them as much as it's apparently impressed you. Hundreds of thousands of students also score this well, and MIT can only take about a thousand. I would suspect that if you look at the pool of MIT applicants who were not offered admission, you'd get in the high 90's.

    Third, whether they admit this or not, one factor that they pay a great deal of attention to is "how well has the student taken advantage of the opportunities that he/she has had?" I'm afraid based on what you've told us, you will not look very strong in this regard. Remember, you have to not just look pretty good to the admissions committee - you have to look so good that they offer you a spot over a half-dozen other students who didn't fritter away their high school opportunities.
  12. Mar 15, 2008 #11
    But my being an American citizen would render the international question irrelevant, and remove another hurdle from my path.

    I scored that high on the yearly tests with no preparation, no study, just osmosis from sitting in the classroom environment and other experiences. Now I am studying, hard, every day. Now that I know what's at stake I have motivation and desire. Is that enough?

    MIT, or any other non-Canadian institution, would come for graduate work. MIT is a possible goal of mine, something I'm aiming for. Before I would even submit myself for consideration, though, I would have to have a Bachelor's degree or two already under my belt.

    Thank you for the content and tone of these responses; I hold no illusions that it's going to be easier for me now than it would have been if I had managed to apply myself like this five or seven years ago. From your and other replies, I believe that my goals are attainable--not easily, but nothing worth doing ever is.
  13. Mar 15, 2008 #12
    Go for it, don't let the past bring you down on decisions. We all change, if we didn't we'd have backward views. It's better to do this now and not do anything at all, then when you're much older look back and think what more you could have done knowing your potential. Prove all those who didn't support you, wrong.
  14. Mar 16, 2008 #13
    I think what vanadium is trying to say is that you don't know what you don't know. There are people competing against you to get into MIT that have been doing absolutely amazing things for their age, or heck any age. One thing that I saw a lot in my peers in the hs level was that accomplishing something with little effort was interpreted as a sign of brilliance rather than a sign of the ease of the material. Standardized tests are to prove minimum competence, not to discern an average student from a brilliant one. You must not take standardized tests to mean much if you're serious about going to a top university at some point. When I was in high school, I applied to MIT with a 99.9%ile SAT score among other things and I was rejected outright. My friends that got in were simply amazing, one-of-a-kind individuals (though not in the sciences :smile: but that's another story).

    Even if you go to community college, if you excel there, get a good GPA, don't take summers off and engage yourself to the fullest you can get in anywhere, but you must learn humility and accept as a truth that you know nothing compared to the whole and that even if you're in the top 0.01% of intelligence in the world, that still means there are a few million people with more.

    Oh, and 20 isn't too old at all. I know a couple professors who didn't get their PhD's until their 40's due to various reasons like war. I saw people up to 60 years old in my classes as an undergrad. Said 60 year old was telling me once how he was competing with his daughter for who would graduate first!
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2008
  15. Mar 17, 2008 #14
    But if he has made the steps to go back to school, college and graduate school surely that speaks in bounds about his motivation and lack of lazyness ?

    Couldn't that be a good sign ? I find it impressive that he is taking the steps to go back.
  16. Mar 17, 2008 #15
    umm, MIT is not the only college in the world that is accepting physics students. There are plenty of other great schools that are not so selective in admitting a student. People tell me that MIT is not always the best environment for a physics undergrad to grow and mature as a physics major because professors often do not attend to individual students needs that a student may be lacking thats needed for a physics major to obtain. A smaller school , may be more appropriated for those kinds of instances.

    IMHO , a student who is already talented would not need to necessarily apply to a top-notched university for that student's talent to unravel . I think they be successful at anyschool. IMHO , 50,000 for an undergrad education is a complete waste if other colleges offer the same degree programs elsewhere for lower tuition costs.
  17. Mar 17, 2008 #16
    is that $50,00 per year ? lol ?
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook