Online MSc Astrophysics options?

RelevantJesse
Posts: 6
Joined: Mon Jul 31, 2017 10:37 am

Online MSc Astrophysics options?

Postby RelevantJesse » Fri Aug 04, 2017 11:20 am

Hello all, hoping for some advice here.

I'm currently living in eastern Georgia with my military wife, so I'm not able to relocate for school for the next 3 years. After that, I would like to pursue my PhD in Astrophysics.

My undergrad degree is in Computer Science, so it would be a bit of a transition. I figure for the next few years, I can do some work towards my profile to be able to get into a PhD program.

There are no schools near me that offer physics or astrophysics. The University of Georgia has a MSc in physics, but A) I probably couldn't get accepted, and B) it would be at least a 1.5 hour commute each way.

So that narrows it down to online options. Two options I've found are University of Southern Queensland or Swinburne University of Technology, both in Australia. Does anyone know anything about these programs? Are there any better options? Is it worth it to get my master's through one of these schools, and would it help me to get accepted into a PhD program?

I'm currently going through the physics course on Khan Academy, and I purchased Conquering the Physics GRE and plan to master that material as best I can over the next few years. I figure with my low undergrad GPA (~3.2) and it being a non-physics degree, I'm going to really need a near 4.0 through my MSc and a 90-ish percentile on the PGRE to even think about getting accepted anywhere.

Any other tips on improving my profile would be greatly appreciated, too :)

Thanks!

TakeruK
Posts: 907
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Online MSc Astrophysics options?

Postby TakeruK » Fri Aug 04, 2017 2:15 pm

Hello,

To get a better sense of how well these programs could prepare you for Astrophysics PhD work in the USA, I tried to find the online programs you mentioned, but I couldn't find them. Do you have a URL directly to the description of these programs?

That said, maybe you don't want to hear this answer, but the reality is that an online Masters program won't really help very much in getting you towards admission in an astrophysics PhD program. So, even if the online programs you mention are good, it might not be worth the cost.

What are your long term career goals for the PhD in astrophysics? What would you like to do with it afterwards? This affects what kind of PhD schools you would want to apply to, which also affects what kind of preparation you would need to get into the PhD program.

If you cannot find a MSc program in physics or astronomy close to where you live, are you able to find a school nearby with an undergrad physics or astronomy program that you could attend? You don't need a Masters degree in order to get into a PhD program. But as you point out, your undergrad degree is in Computer Science, which could be quite different (depending on your specific research interest). This means that you probably want to have some foundation in physics and astronomy before applying to PhD programs. A MSc is one option, but it could also be possible to meet this by taking undergraduate physics/astro classes as a non-degree student at a school close to you, if taking a second undergrad degree isn't an option.

At the same time, research experience will also be important for admission to a PhD program. If you are not able to find research experience in a University setting, are you able to find work that develop your computational skills that will make you more desirable when you apply for astrophysics research programs? I don't know what your undergrad skills are and what kind of work experience you might have had since then, but it might be a good idea to aim for PhD programs that intersect computer science and astrophysics.

Finally, if you are really far away from any schools that could help you, would you consider waiting 3 years before applying to a Masters program in the US? Perhaps the next 3 years could be used to find work that will develop skills relevant to research and also save up money for the costs of grad school (especially if you are thinking of an unfunded Masters program).

RelevantJesse
Posts: 6
Joined: Mon Jul 31, 2017 10:37 am

Re: Online MSc Astrophysics options?

Postby RelevantJesse » Fri Aug 04, 2017 3:32 pm

Thanks so much for your insight!

First of all, here's the links to the programs:
https://www.swinburne.edu.au/study/course/Master-of-Science-(Astronomy)-MA-SASTRO/international
https://www.usq.edu.au/study/degrees/master-of-science/astrophysics

And yes, while that wasn't the answer I was hoping for, it is the reason I was asking. It is a lot of money to complete the MSc program, and if it won't do me any good, I'd much rather save that money :p

As far as what I want to do with it afterwards, I'd love to be a researcher, but I don't know in what specific area yet (I figured I had some time to figure that out lol), but currently, my biggest interests are stars/galaxies/black holes, etc.

I actually did find a local school that offers a Bachelor's in Physics:

http://www.augusta.edu/scimath/chemistryandphysics/physmajor.php

This would be pure physics and not astronomy. Do you think this would be a better option? It does kind of suck to go for another undergrad degree when I already have one. Feels like I'm moving sideways instead of moving forward. But if it's the best option towards my PhD, then it is what it is :D

TakeruK
Posts: 907
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Online MSc Astrophysics options?

Postby TakeruK » Fri Aug 04, 2017 6:58 pm

No problem. Here's what I think of these programs (note, just my opinion):

Swinburne: This is a program for people to develop interest in astronomy, but it is not going to help you get into an astrophysics PhD program. The description says, "It equips students with an overall understanding of modern astronomy, rather than training as a professional astronomer", and looking at the coursework, I see that this is pretty much an undergraduate astronomy major (or minor). It doesn't have any research components that would be useful to help you get towards a PhD program. It will also cost you 24,000 AUD total, so perhaps a better route would be a US undergraduate program. The program outcomes mention that it would be great for people who want to do work such as science/astronomy research communication, rather than research work itself. Based on your career goals, I don't think this is the right program for you.

USQ: This one is a little closer to your goals than the first program. It has a one year long research component, which is nice, but I am not sure how effective this will be to do online without in-person interactions with other scholars and your advisor. It costs 20,000 AUD per year for 2 years so it's not cheap either! I would say that if you are going to do an online program, find one like this one in the USA.

However, with that said, since you say that you want to be a researcher then you really will not get much value out of these online programs. For both of them, you see phrases like "Many graduates use this qualification to begin or enhance opportunities in teaching, working in observatories, science centres and museums, and science/astronomy education, public outreach and communication positions" and "Designed for those already in an educational or science communication career, you will undertake a professional development component in science, as well as gain a specialist foundation relevant for further research". These phrases, to me, suggest that the programs are more geared towards people working towards careers outside of astronomy research but need to have some sort of in-depth knowledge about astronomy in order to do their jobs. So, these types of programs, I think, are better for people who want to do things like work in planetariums, specialize in astronomical science journalism, teach astronomy, etc.

I think something like the Augusta program is going to help you a lot more towards a PhD program than these online MSc programs. I understand that it doesn't feel fun to stay at the "undergrad" level, but as I wrote above, the two MSc programs you mention are very similar to the type of coursework you would do as an undergrad in astronomy. There's no sense paying a ton more money for essentially the same stuff.

However, before you sign up for Augusta, I think it's worth thinking further about your plans. You say you want to be a researcher, but have you had much research experience in the past? I don't mean to doubt your dreams, but it wouldn't be great to invest a ton of time and money into this path only to find out you don't actually like it. If you have already considered all of this, sorry for assuming otherwise! Then, I think you should think one step ahead: first, figure out what PhD programs you might want to apply to (i.e. know your goal). Find out what kind of qualifications you might need in order to get into their program. You can email or call them and tell them about your undergrad experience and whether or not they would want you to actually enroll in a new undergrad program or just take the undergrad physics/astro courses.

Then, you should also talk to Augusta. Since you already have a CS undergrad degree, would they award you another bachelor's degree? Would they do so while waiving the "breadth" and elective courses so that maybe you can finish in just 2-3 years? I think your best path towards a PhD is to 1) get formal training in physics/astro (maybe you already have this if you chose lots of electives in physics during undergrad) and 2) be physically present at a brick-and-mortar school so that you can interact with researchers, and maybe have a chance to do some research too. The second one might be harder at Augusta, but if you are willing to apply for summer research positions such as REUs and be away for something like 10 weeks, then it could really help. Georgia Tech has a pretty decent program with hopefully lots of opportunities---it is probably too far to commute for school, but living in Atlanta for 10 weeks or a summer term might be doable? That's up to you to decide though.

Finally, if you want to know more about what it's like to be an astronomer, what it's like to be a PhD student in this field, and what applying for jobs etc. is like afterwards, I'd be happy to chat with you. Send me a PM :) I just finished my PhD and started a postdoc research position.

RelevantJesse
Posts: 6
Joined: Mon Jul 31, 2017 10:37 am

Re: Online MSc Astrophysics options?

Postby RelevantJesse » Fri Aug 04, 2017 7:39 pm

So, I did a bit of digging to try to find out how many people are going on to PhD programs after these online programs, and I can't seem to find much of anything, and they seem to be more "terminal master's" programs, as you suggested.

To your question of if I have any research experience, I do not. So am I sure that this is what I want? Well I can say that it is now, but you're totally right, I could try it and completely hate it, and I know that. With the prep work needed to become "grad school ready", though, I feel like I will figure that out along the way. I figure if I take 2 courses, find I don't enjoy it or lose interest, there isn't much harm done. Just out a couple thousand dollars and a few months of my time. Now if I had to write a check for $50k on day one to even get started, that would be a different story!

What I do know is that I've spent the last 10 years not enjoying my programming career, and I had to ask myself how I want to spend the next 10 years.

I'll certainly send you a PM to hear about your experience!

Thanks again.

ckitc
Posts: 24
Joined: Mon Jan 09, 2017 4:52 pm

Re: Online MSc Astrophysics options?

Postby ckitc » Mon Aug 07, 2017 3:10 am

OP: Are you anywhere near Atlanta? GSU has robust astro research going on even at the undergrad level, AND recently hired a few professors (with a few more to come) to form an astroinformatics group which, given your CS background, may be right up your alley.

RelevantJesse
Posts: 6
Joined: Mon Jul 31, 2017 10:37 am

Re: Online MSc Astrophysics options?

Postby RelevantJesse » Mon Aug 07, 2017 7:51 pm

ckitc wrote:OP: Are you anywhere near Atlanta? GSU has robust astro research going on even at the undergrad level, AND recently hired a few professors (with a few more to come) to form an astroinformatics group which, given your CS background, may be right up your alley.


Unfortunately not. I'm near Augusta, so that's about 2 hours from Atlanta.




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