Why Astronomy and not Physics?

A post on the Women in Astronomy blog caught my eye today. It posed a simple question: why do people choose to pursue a PhD in astronomy instead of another physics-related field? The post includes a survey link aimed at PhD candidates like me, so I decided to weigh in. But once I started writing, I realized there was more to my answer than I originally thought. So here, dear readers, is my response.

The night sky as it should be as seen from Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, in 2012.
The night sky as it should be seen from Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, in 2012.

After writing a very lengthy reflection below, I realize my answer to this question essentially boils down to three letters: GRE. Or, more generally speaking, physics exams. Though a passion for astronomy and the night sky was certainly a contributing factor. Please do read on…

I went to Harvey Mudd College as an undergraduate because I loved science, and was lucky enough to be admitted. The choice between Harvey Mudd and Swarthmore was very difficult. Early on, I decided to major in not-math, not-chemistry, and not-computer-science. This left biology, engineering, and physics. I likely could have succeeded in any of these, but in the end, the demanding course sequence for engineering left the least room for other courses (like music or a foreign language) and the biology major required too much chemistry (which I felt underprepared for and disliked the most). Physics seemed a happy medium: plenty of room for electives and many career paths available upon graduation.

During my second semester freshman year, however, this plan almost fell through. I bombed two midterms in the intro physics class and was hovering between a D and an F. I felt like a failure and like the physics program might not be right for me. But I decided to give it my best shot and not drop the class, because it wouldn’t be offered again for another whole year. If I dropped or failed I wouldn’t be able to major in physics and graduate in four years. I spent lots of time in office hours and somehow managed to get a D. I’d never gotten a D before, and it shook me; it turned out to be one of two D’s I’d get in undergrad, and thankfully I was stubborn enough to plow ahead.

In my sophomore year, a friend and I decided to take an easy non-major intro astronomy course at neighboring Pomona College. We both were interested in astronomy, had taken the more math-intensive “intro” astronomy course at Harvey Mudd, and wanted a broader perspective (plus an easy A for a change). We enjoyed the class, and the professor singled us out quickly as STEM majors who were over-qualified. During an evening lab, he asked if either of us wanted to do a research project with him. I said yes, and that eventually became my senior thesis about a cataclysmic variable star. That led naturally into taking all of the astronomy classes jointly taught between Harvey Mudd and Pomona, and declaring my official major as Physics with an emphasis in Astrophysics (and a Humanities Concentration in Music, of course). I suppose I had always been interested in astronomy, looking back; many of my grade-school projects had a space or solar system theme, and I was obsessed with Star Trek from middle school on. I lived in a small enough town that I could see lots of stars, and like many astronomers I have countless fond memories of being blown away by the night sky.

As my senior year of undergrad began, I realized that if I wanted to continue doing astronomy in any way, I would need to go to graduate school. This sounded appealing, because I liked school—I enjoyed taking classes and solving research problems, and it was a familiar structure. There were no jobs for college graduates that were even remotely astronomy-related at career fairs. If there had been, I might have strongly considered that option, because my GPA was barely 3.0, I didn’t have a strong idea of what I wanted to research, and I did not feel well-prepared for the Physics GRE. I’d learned by then that exams were my weak point. Sure enough, I got an absolutely terrible score… 9th percentile, later downgraded to 8th. I was concerned I wouldn’t get into any grad schools in spite of an otherwise-strong application. I applied mostly to schools with astronomy-only programs, instead of physics-astronomy combo programs, because I thought I had a better chance of success with my terrible GRE score. I also was not particularly keen to revisit difficult subjects like E&M or Quantum again, and doubly so if exams were involved. I was slowly rejected, one after another, and left hanging on two wait lists. After graduation I worked at a summer camp I have loved my whole life, but my future was a big question mark. Finally, in July(!), San Diego State University emailed me to let me know I had a spot off their waiting list if I wanted it. I jumped on the chance, sight-unseen, to move to a new city and get a Master’s degree in astronomy, dragging my then-boyfriend (now-husband) along with me.

My first taste of grad school wasn’t bad. Compared to the extreme workload of Harvey Mudd, San Diego State wasn’t a shock at all, and I quickly started a research project with a professor there that would become my Master’s thesis. But as I worked through the program, watching some of my peers take much longer than two years to finish, I decided I didn’t want that to be me. I was determined to graduate in two years and apply for PhD programs, because surely THAT was the way to eventually land a career in astronomy. So I did my best to study and re-take the GREs. My Physics GRE score was still abysmal, at 12th percentile. I didn’t even consider applying to physics-heavy grad programs, and targeted only astronomy programs. But now I had both research and teaching experience in astronomy under my belt, as well as classes and strong recommendation letters from astronomers, so surely I’d get into PhD programs this time around?

Once again, March came and went and I was either rejected or on waitlists. It was a very frustrating, discouraging time, as I worked hard to finish my Master’s thesis. Finally, two days before the nominal April 15 grad school decision deadline, New Mexico State contacted me with an offer of admission from their waitlist. I accepted sight-unseen yet again, and eventually dragged my then-fiance along to another new place. As it turned out, I didn’t have much of a leg up on the other first-year students, even with my Master’s degree. I still had to take all the same classes and exams. It took me longer than I anticipated to identify a thesis project, and I didn’t actually begin work with my current advisor until well into my third year. I’m now a fifth year candidate and plan to defend my PhD in the spring of my sixth year.

I know now that no level of education in astronomy is sufficient to land a job in the field. I find this immensely frustrating. But my husband and I are tired of relocating, and want to move back near family in the Pacific Northwest. I intend to focus my upcoming job search mostly in that area, and only consider other areas if something extremely appealing becomes available. I have gotten lots of excellent teaching and outreach experience during my many years of grad school, as well as enough programming experience to be really dangerous, so I am confident I will be able to land a decent paying job in a city like Portland where I want to live. I am saddened, though, by the reality of the funding situation for astronomy, not to mention how one must fight to have teaching and outreach efforts valued (or funded) on the same level as research. Over time I have grown somewhat disillusioned, and while I would probably do it all again, hindsight makes me wonder if I would have been better off (in terms of sanity, career prospects, living where I want, etc.) if I had left the field after getting my Master’s. It’s impossible to say. I wish I lived in a world where young graduate students like me were encouraged at every turn by an overabundance of exciting astronomy-related career prospects. But I love astronomy enough that I’m glad to have devoted some third of my life to it, and I know I will carry it with me wherever I go and whatever I do.

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2 thoughts on “Why Astronomy and not Physics?

  1. Wow, I admire your perseverance in pursuit of your dream. Thinking back on my own studies, I’m guessing I might have given up at some point before you did, though I surely do love what I do. Your dedication is inspiring, and I wish you success from here forward!

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