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RoJL55
2015-Feb-03, 02:58 PM
Hi all,

Has anyone here struggled with this decision? If you pursue the PhD in astronomy/astrophysics etc, you will sacrifice many years of your life to education and might have dim job prospects and have to repay student loans. But you would at least have a chance to be paid to do what you love. Then again, you can do something else for a living and keep astronomy a hobby, getting to choose and own your own equipment and work on whatever projects you choose. You wouldn't have the official creds, but you can network with thousands of other hobbyists online and probably make contributions.

I think I was born loving space. I got my first telescope when I was 10 and was deep into Kip Thorne by the time I was 13. But somewhere along the way, I got sidetracked - maybe it was a lack of confidence - but I did not pursue astronomy professionally and wound up getting my MBA. I'm 30 now, and again wondering if it isn't too late to take the plunge. I am not terrific at math, I'm decent but I can't eat physics with a spoon, so I'd worry about the challenge of the education.

I guess a few specific questions I have are:
How involved can an amateur astronomer be in discoveries and research?
Does the math-intensiveness of the graduate program necessarily carry over into a professional career in astronomy? By that I mean, can you be a successful astronomer due to your extensive knowledge, understanding of the concepts, and passion, without having to deeply understand the equations that you used as a student?

ngc3314
2015-Feb-03, 03:48 PM
Hi all,
I guess a few specific questions I have are:
How involved can an amateur astronomer be in discoveries and research?

Deeply - thanks to the electronics and network revolutions, anyone can be involved in unprecedented ways. For a research presence, many amateurs (both observers and data-devourers) have found important niches (as you can see around here or in the Zooniverse constellation of projects). Finding asteroids and determining their orbits, following variable stars, detecting dim outer extensions of galaxies, filing the gaps between observatories in coverage of gravitational-lensing events, classifying galaxies[1], finding hitherto undetected planets in Kepler data... the sky is not the limit.

[1] Anybody notice my forebearance in not putting that first?




Does the math-intensiveness of the graduate program necessarily carry over into a professional career in astronomy? By that I mean, can you be a successful astronomer due to your extensive knowledge, understanding of the concepts, and passion, without having to deeply understand the equations that you used as a student?

To be blunt, one is unlikely to pass a graduate program without being comfortable enough with the math and physics to get past some kind qualifying exams (this is the most common kind of shipwreck I've seen in astronomy grad students). One reason for the stringent preparation is that one never knows what will be useful, or indispensable, later in a career. (And I can hear the arguments now about whether there is any intuitive understanding of many of these processes without going through mathematics). Of course, there are may career paths that do very different things day-to-day (or night-to-night).

On yet another hand, mathematical prowess is to some extent a skill which an be cultivated, not just an innate talent and you may well have learned a lot in the last decade about your own thinking and learning styles.

(BTW, on student loans - many, perhaps most, astro grad students in the US get tuition and modest salary from teaching or research assistantships, so it doesn't dig one in as deep a hole as you might think.)

Amber Robot
2015-Feb-03, 06:01 PM
I have many, many thoughts on the subject -- too many to fit into a single post here. I've made some comments on another thread about "citizen scientists", so I recommend looking there.

I will say that I have seen a few older, "non-traditional" students in graduate school who have been successful, i.e., gotten through graduate school and gotten a job as a professional astronomer. However, they have had to make a full commitment, i.e., working full-time, the same as for any of the traditional students. If you can afford that, both temporally and financially, then I don't see a priori any impediment to you becoming a professional astronomer.

The challenge of the education will be highly dependent on the program you enter. Some are more rigorous than others and have a varying degree of requirements. Also, the quality of teaching varies a lot from school to school and some programs may expect you to do a lot of learning on your own. Luckily grad students tend to stick together and give each other support.

As for your question about math intensiveness: I would say that it depends on what kind of research you do whether your work post-graduate school will be math intensive. I would say that even though I did a full compliment of math in my undergraduate and graduate careers, in my time working as a professional astronomer I primarily used nothing more complex than trigonometry. I occassionally needed to do derivatives and integrals, but those are pretty basic and can often be looked up. However, having taken all that math prepares you for understanding much of the research that is being done in the field and you need to be comfortable with it because you may need to work through other people's work to understand your own.

As for the difference between being a professional and being an amateur: there are definitely areas in which amateurs can contribute to the field, but unless you really have the time to put in, i.e., equivalent to being a professional, you'll always bit on the edges of current research. There's a ton of publicly-available data, but being able to know what research is interesting and new and being able to put that research into a broader scientific context that makes it interesting to professionals takes a lot of effort and familiarity with the literature that an amateur is just not likely to be able to accumulate unless they work full-time at it.

If you have any specific questions or seeking advice feel free to contact me.