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Question for the readers

April 27, 2009

Today I received an email from a former astronomy and math major who went on to do other things with her life.  She’s now looking to get into the field, but she’s unsure if it’s an approachable goal.

Roxanne writes:

Where can I get advice about going into the field at my “advanced” age (43)? I’ve had my children and am ready to do something more with my life, but I’m hesitant to go back to college if I’m just going to face too many barriers to success (age and gender).

What would you tell her?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. ninebabies permalink
    April 29, 2009 5:45 pm

    Thanks Susan K and geochem-mom!

    I was worried about the “mommyism,” too. I’ve already faced that in my military career, and I am not looking forward to facing it again.

    My husband’s birthfather is trying to convince my husband to move to Houston after retirement, so there’s a good chance that we’ll be close to one of NASA’s main locations in a few short years.

    After a great deal of thought, I think I’m going to finish my liberal studies bachelor’s degree, then pursue a master’s degree in science and mathematics education. It’s not exactly my dream job, but I think it will be a good compromise between my current situation and what I’d truly like to do.

    I appreciate all of the advice! Now, I just need to figure out how to balance college with young kids and a deployed husband….

  2. Roxanne permalink
    April 27, 2009 9:30 pm

    Thank you, Susan N (for posting this question) and Susan K (for replying)!

    This is something that I’ve wanted to do for my entire adult life. I have always been interested in astronomy, particularly planetary astronomy, and my dream job would include working on some sort of mission relating to another planet or moon in our solar system. I was sidetracked by motherhood, and while I don’t regret that at all, I do want to explore my options for the future. My children are no longer babies, and it’s time to see what’s out there for me.

    Obviously, I know that I’ll need at least a graduate degree (if not a PhD) in order to even have a chance at my dream job. My big question is whether or not it’s too late for me to try. If it is, then yes, I can get involved with science museums and public outreach. If it’s not too late, then I plan to go back to college as soon as possible and get the degree I wanted to earn years ago.

    Thanks again for any advice you can give me!

    • Susan K permalink
      April 28, 2009 8:37 am


      Well, you are never too old to go back to school – that has been proven over and over again (though personally, the thought of taking an exam or writing a paper at this point of my life (about same point as yours) is quite horrid!) I would be very cautious, however, about what your terminal degree is.

      There has been a discussion on this page about PhD or no PhD. In a lot of ways, a Masters is a more “useful” degree – especially for people who decide that, you know what, research at a big university is really not for me. So start out slowly. Graduate school is very different from undergrad. It is active learning, rather than passive, and not everyone loves it the way they loved school.

      There has also been a lot of discussion on this page about the two body problem. So if moving is not an option right now, you’ll need to pay a lot of attention to where you are – would there even be a place for you to DO your dream job where you live?

      NASA science missions (at least those in planetary) are all required to have a significant educational component. If you are interested at all in education, rather than scientific research, you should investigate the possibility of getting involved in a planetary science mission as an educator, rather than as a scientist. An undergrad in science with a Masters of Education might be a clever way to go actually… You will be exposed to the science, you will understand it (at least partly) because of your undergrad background, but you might not need to do the whole PhD thing in order to get involved.

      • April 28, 2009 11:03 am

        If a PhD is your dream-degree, then go for it, but do it because you love the science and the process of science, not just because you want a Ph.D. behind your name.

        Perhaps you can try to find a Ph.D. program where you can work on mission-related data for your dissertation. However, be prepared that being a Instrument Scientist or similar role on a mission takes many years of networking, proposal writing, and travel. The path is often circuitous and undefined as we have discussed before on this blog.

        Also, as cynical as this sound, “mommyism” may be a far larger issue than ageism or sexism in science these days. Be prepared with answers to statements like ” I know you have kids, so I thought it might be better to send childless grad student X to important meeting Y”.

  3. Susan K permalink
    April 27, 2009 11:16 am

    I think it depends on what she means by “get back into the field”. I’d say to start by looking for volunteer opportunities – to get feet wet, to get known, to remind yourself if you really DO like this field. Talk to an area museum. Talk to area schools. See if there is a local astronomy club. Buy yourself a $15 Galileoscope ( and do something for your neighbourhood/church group/local school.

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