In order to gain a better understanding of what science beyond undergrad looks like, Prof. Johnson told us to go talk to one (or two, or three) professional astronomers or astrophysicists. Earlier today, I had a chance to talk with Fabian Schmidt, a postdoc in cosmology at Caltech, about his career path & what it's like to be a professional astronomer.
I should first note that Dr. Schmidt is a physicist more than an astronomer. He works on theoretical cosmology, although he has worked on experimental high energy physics in the past. (I swear, I didn't know that until I interviewed him! Although his research
is really cool, and is, in fact, why I emailed him.)
What struck me the most as I was talking to Dr. Schmidt today was the flexibility available, and the number of times he had reinvented his career. I tend to think that I need to decide my subfield now
, and that I can't change my mind. Wrong! Very wrong! Dr. Schmidt did start out in physics (unlike our guest in class today), but didn't realize that astronomy was a real career choice until he was 20. I'm just 20 now; clearly I can still change my mind!
Dr. Schmidt did his undergrad in Germany, and did his undergraduate thesis on a cosmic ray experiment. Rather than staying in Germany, he decided to come to the US for graduate school, because German graduate schools make you choose an adviser right away, and if you change your mind, you have to start your whole PhD over again, basically! He wasn't completely sure what he wanted to do, so he didn't think that was a great option. Many of his colleagues in Germany are still working on what they decided on when they first graduated from undergraduate. He, however, chose to go to cold and snowy Chicago, where he transitioned from working on a cosmic ray experiment studying ultra-high energy cosmic rays, to working on theoretical astrophysics.
He described graduate school as being completely different from undergrad. Instead of focusing on classwork, you focus on your research, and only take a few classes. I knew that, but I didn't realize just how little you took class-wise -- he said that he only spent 15 hours or so a week on classwork. He did, however, spend another 15 - 20 hours a week on TAing. Since he went to Chicago, where most of the students are not science majors, he spent a lot of TAing for people who didn't know much about physics. He particularly recommended this -- not only did it reinforce his knowledge of basis concepts to teach them over and over again to people, he really enjoyed being able to pass on his interest in astronomy to students who might not otherwise care much about the subject.
We talked briefly about graduate school admissions -- while he agreed it's really hard to deal with senior classes, writing a thesis (which I really want to do!), and applying to graduate school, he didn't suggest the usual Caltech option of delaying for a year, and working at a lab. If you're in graduate school, you get your own project; at a lab, you have to work on someone else's. This is possibly more of an issue for theorists than experimentalists, though, because experimentalists are (obviously) not going to all have their own experiments, so you end up working on someone else's project. I'm not quite sure -- clearly I need to find out more about the advantages/disadvantages of taking a year off between grad school and undergrad.
Interestingly, he didn't feel like I was out of the running for being a theorist, even though I have a much weaker math background than many other Techers. He thought that it was enough to have a reasonable math background -- which I do, with calculus, linear algebra, vector calculus, differential equations, and complex analysis -- but you needed a strong physics background. I was somewhat encouraged by this statement. I'd pretty much given up on being able to do theory by this point, because I'm terrible at pure math. ... all right, so I don't particularly want
to do theory, but it's nice to know I might still have the option! However, he did say that he felt this was not always the case in high energy physics, my prospective research area, and that astro was less strict about keeping theory and experiment separate.
He also thought that I shouldn't worry too much about graduate school, despite having a highly questionable GPA. Since I have good recommendations, especially since I have recommendations from a couple of the schools where I plan to apply (Harvard, Stanford), he told me I shouldn't worry too much about it. That's easy for him to say -- he's long-since done with the process! He even said that applying to graduate school was the most stressful thing he's ever done -- which, I suppose, is heartening in a way. If I can get through that, I can probably get through the rest.
That sounds more negative than I actually feel about doing physics professionally, I think. I am worried about getting into graduate school, but I really love physics, and want to do it for the rest of my life. Fortunately, it sounds like graduate school will be right up my alley, as I both enjoy and am very good at research. (I am decidedly less good at classwork, making the next couple years a bit more of a challenge.) And being a postdoc sounds like a ton of fun: you get to do science! All the time! And have your own projects and budget and be only nominally under anyone else's supervision, and SCIENCE. That, I think, is a job worth striving for.
(more of this series to come when I have a chance to talk to another astronomer or two.)