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Any astrophysics academics? (Slightly long post)

(14 Posts)
TwoLittleBlooms Mon 29-Aug-16 04:26:06

I am about to embark on a degree with the OU - currently enrolled on Natural Sciences specializing in Astronomy and Planetary Science. My plan is to get my degree and in the last year take a PTTLS (or the current course equivalent). I then plan to follow this with a masters in Astrophysics (LJMU), and then a PhD with an aim to pursuing a career in academia.

My concern is my age. I am just turned 37, so therefore graduation from Bsc is going to be at youngest 42 (probably 43 though). I have no problems working well beyond current retirement age (in fact I most definitely plan to - assuming I am in the career I want!). Have you come across anyone entering this field this late on in age? Do younger people tend to get favoured? I don't have a career at the minute - I am currently a SAHP and prior to that have worked various minimum wage jobs (Admin, Customer Service and was also a home educator/SAHP in the past). My application will rely on impressing with my degree results (and possibly undergraduate publishing).

My other alternative is to take a Physics and Maths degree instead which would likely give me more options if I am not successful in securing a Phd position. I have a year to decide (modules for the first 120 credits are going to be the same - but if doing Astronomy/Planetary Science then I can likely take 90 credits next year instead of 60). Both degrees interest me but the modules on the Astronomy route really excite me as does the final research project module (which isn't an option on the physics degree). Any advice at all would be most welcome!

haybott Mon 29-Aug-16 07:32:01

Leaving aside you age, have you looked into the statistics of how hard it is to get an academic job?

To get a PhD position you need strong results in your undergraduate programme. Traditionally there have been a reasonable number of Astro PhD positions for those with firsts but Brexit may well affect this - a fraction of the current positions are EU funded and those which are not come from STFC whose budget is going to fall through Brexit (currency issues, plus decreased funding).

After a PhD position it is usual to do 1-2 postdocs before being competitive for a permanent position. There are relatively few postdocs and you have to be willing to move around the country and ideally around the world to get them. There are few permanent (lecturer) positions and the hiring pool is international and very competitive. Typically somebody who went to university at 18 wouldn't get a lecturer position until early 30s and the fraction of UK Astro PhD students who manage to stay in academia is small.

On the other hand there are many possible careers after a physics masters/PhD, so many possible exit routes at every stage.

As for whether there is ageism - this is hard to tell, because there are very few mature students in maths or physics. But the difficulty of the early career stage - long hours, being flexible about moving around, lots of travel to telescopes/conferences - does put many people off.

haybott Mon 29-Aug-16 07:36:10

BTW I would tend to advise against narrow degrees. A degree in astrophysics is not necessary to get an astro PhD position (physics would be fine) but an astrophysics degree doesn't have the same breadth as a physics degree and thus excludes you from other areas of physics.

Before starting a degree it is also hard to know what modules are actually the most interesting - many physics students like the sound of particle physics and astronomy modules but don't actually enjoy them when they have to study the material in detail.

Bountybarsyuk Mon 29-Aug-16 09:33:14

Haybott's advice is excellent. I think there's a danger in planning to do a PhD from this stage, you have no idea how much you will like going back to study, or indeed the subject. I would pick options as Haybott says which keep your jumping off options open as well as the track you think you want to be on.

Being older is a disadvantage in that you tend to be less flexible in where you can go and what you can do, work-wise. You can't just up and go to that post-doc in Australia for a couple of years. But I have known older students do very well, I know one who finished her PhD at around 60 and now works as a consultant in that field. I think as a family you have to be committed to it as it will require others to support you and make sacrifices, including possibly moving.

I think your plan to take the initial degree sounds great, but agree a more general one might be better- dip your toe in the water of astrophysics and see if it is for you.

YawningKasm Mon 29-Aug-16 09:53:08

I'm in the humanities, but in terms of getting a funded PhD studentship - which is important as the first demonstration of ability to win external funding - it's important to have 1st Class Hons from a tough university,and a Distinction at Masters , again at a tough competitive university. Research-intensive (which doesn't necessarily mean Russell Group!)

So be aware that OU may not be seen as competitive as, say UCL or Imperial. Ditto a Masters at LJMU. Is this the best place for Astrophysics research? For your Masters, you should be trying to get into the best university in the country for the research area of your PhD.

In my field, what I've noticed is the way students from less research-intensive universities (generally post-92) come to us (one of the top 10) in order to upgrade their UG CV, as it were.

So you may have to work backwards from your PhD - what are the best places to do a PhD in astrophysics in the UK? How do students get funding there? Usually you can see a sample of PhD students on university websites.

And in the sciences you'll need to move around a bit.

But what you might also look for are special schemes for women re-entering academia after child-raising etc. These could really suit you, I think.

But I'm in the humanities, so my perspective may be slightly different.

HapShawl Mon 29-Aug-16 10:00:22

I have done the 120 compulsory credits that you are about to do, though I'm not following the astrophysics pathway. The first 120 credits are very broad in scope so you can keep your mind open and work out what and how you enjoy studying. I changed to a different pathway as a result during the course of those modules

The OU is very well respected for astrophysics (see involvement in Rosetta/Philae missions etc)

NotDavidTennant Mon 29-Aug-16 10:03:00

I agree with the others on here that getting a long-term career in academia is difficult, so you should try to keep your options open up as much as possible.

YawningKasm Mon 29-Aug-16 10:05:43

The OU is very well respected for astrophysics (see involvement in Rosetta/Philae missions etc)


Also agree with others about open pathways. Maths & Physics would seem to be the foundation.

haybott Mon 29-Aug-16 10:33:44

OU research on astrophysics is well respected. However, OU degrees would not be as competitive for getting PhD positions as degrees from the very top institutions. This doesn't matter if there are plenty of PhD positions around but it's unclear to what extent PhD positions are likely to be affected by Brexit.

On the one hand, there will almost certainly be less money for science overall (STFC funded research is likely to be particularly badly hit). On the other hand, if UK universities are forced by immigration rules to hire mostly UK candidates, it might reduce the pool of PhD applicants. (Right now we take better EU candidates over weaker UK candidates but this works because we only have to fund maintenance while fees can be covered by RCUK funding.)

TwoLittleBlooms Thu 08-Sep-16 11:37:37

Thank you all for taking the time to reply. I appreciate it and the information and advice has been really helpful. I have had a chat with the university and have actually switched to the Maths and Physics degree (going to do it over four years).

I have done some studying in the last 7 years, but didn’t mention as I didn’t feel it was relevent . I took a foundation year (A-Level equivalent) in science as I never did A-Levels. I also then progressed to a first year ug in computer programming and left with a Cert of HE with Merit (69% overall – web design killed my score). Reason I took this was astrophysics or physics wasn’t one of the progression options and I thought I would do programming in the field (I had a lecturer who had done this and it sounded interesting). But the decision to leave came after doing a 1st year research project (free choice as long as it was relevant to computing) and I did mine based on the astronomy apps available for mobile devices – trying to combine my real interest with what I was studying – it just cemented the fact that I was not going to be happy if I didn’t at least try to get where I wanted to be. Astronomy and astrophysics are fields that I have had a long-term interest in – albeit as an amateur and tried to stay relatively update with what is occurring in that field – well as much as a layperson can.

With regard moving about it won’t be a problem – have discussed this with my husband (his job gives him some leeway with regard transferring where he works from) and my eldest will be off to uni when I graduate and the youngest will still be quite young so not at a pivotal point with her own education (I have family who have moved around for work and it hasn’t affected the children – they are all well rounded youngsters). I hadn’t actually considered moving other than for PhD and then job – hadn’t considered post doc positions – naively thought I would be PhD followed by job – so just two moves! That is basically why I chose LJMU for a masters in astrophysics as it is another distance learning degree (though admittedly not the best). I am however within reasonable commuting distance for Manchester and Lancaster both of which have very good physics/astrophysics departments (I believe both are also members of Athena Swan).

Again, thank you for taking the time to answer my post.

YawningKasm Thu 08-Sep-16 15:13:26

If you want to do a PhD and work as an academic, you really can't choose your postgraduate degree for its proximity or convenience. Whatever the discipline.

There's a HUGE difference between LJMU and research -intensive universities such as Manche and Lancaster.

haybott Thu 08-Sep-16 15:29:06

(I believe both are also members of Athena Swan).

What is the relevance of this?

Most UK STEM departments have Athena SWAN awards or are working towards them. Neither Manchester nor Lancaster are exceptional in this regard. Nonetheless, physics/astronomy is still a very family unfriendly career.

user1471428657 Thu 08-Sep-16 20:39:29

YawningKasm I agree that people shouldn't choose their postgrad degree location for its proximity or convenience. However LJMU is one of a handful of ex-polys that have decent astronomy/astrophysics groups (Portsmouth & Hertforshire are two other examples). For astronomy/astrophysics research I'd rate LJMU more highly than Lancaster.

YawningKasm Thu 08-Sep-16 21:34:01

Oh, I stand corrected (am not an astrophysicist, but I do know Lancaster U well).

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