Is it too late for me to become a scientist?
June 6, 2009 1:37 PM   Subscribe

Can I still have a career in science? This economy caused both my spouse and I to lose our jobs and to relocate to find new employment after a 10-year corporate career. Thing is, I hated that career and only loved the money. Now, I am at a crossroads in life.

I love science. But, at 41 with a family, is it not too late to go down this path? All I know is that starting my business career all over again is crushing my soul, and yet I spend weekends reading books about string theory.
posted by UseyurBrain to Science & Nature (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
if string theory is what you want want to do, and if you don't have a PhD, more school sounds like a good idea.
posted by chicago2penn at 1:47 PM on June 6, 2009

There is plenty of business involved in science, couldn't you find a way to somewhat meld your talent and training (business) with your interest (science)?
posted by Think_Long at 1:53 PM on June 6, 2009

Do you know any scientists? Day to day doing science is boring and unglamorous. You should probably at least determine what you'd like out of a day to day before jumping into something that probably requires another 4-8 years of school.
posted by shownomercy at 2:30 PM on June 6, 2009

The answer to your question depends on how much if any background you have already in science, and what exactly you see yourself doing in a scientific field.

If your goal is to be a principle investigator (have your "own" research, lab, etc.) you will probably need to go back and get a lot more schooling. If you would be happy as a lab technician working under a PI and actually doing the grunt work of experiments and such, it might require considerably less additional training. In either case, your age is not an obstacle per se, other than in the sense that it may require a prolonged reinvestment in education and large opportunity cost (forgone income you might have made in another field).

Could you still support your family on a poverty-line salary of a grad student for 5-7 years with your current savings? Would you be happy ultimately making $40,000 a year a lab tech? Unless you are independently wealthy, the salary at virtually any level in a scientific career will be less (perhaps much, much less) than what you may already be accustomed to, especially with jobs outside the tech/pharma sector.

Do you have a good sense for what science as a career really means on a day-to-day basis? As shownomercy notes, it might not be as glamorous as what you envision.
posted by drpynchon at 2:34 PM on June 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Day to day doing science is boring and unglamorous. You should probably at least determine what you'd like out of a day to day before jumping into something that probably requires another 4-8 years of school.

Speaking only for myself, I don't find what I do on a daily basis boring or unglamorous, but the advice is good—you should know what it is you are signing up for.
posted by grouse at 2:54 PM on June 6, 2009

A two year electron microscopy degree will get you interesting work. It won't make you rich but you'll make a living. :-)
posted by ian1977 at 3:31 PM on June 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

In follow-up to the previous posters, research science can be a rewarding career, but a momentous decision like this is obviously not one to be made lightly.

Some types of laboratories get frequent "cold-call" requests from people looking to volunteer. This is a good way to get a (comparatively) commitment-free, part-time stint to see how things work on a day-to-day basis for people in various positions.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 4:06 PM on June 6, 2009

Can you be a little more specific as to what kind of job you'd be interested in doing? There are a lot of careers in the sciences, including stuff on the business side that might let you hit the ground running.

That said, your title asks if it's too late to "become a scientist", so I'll assume your talking the traditional Ph.D.-to-research career path. It's definitely not too late. I've worked with people who started grad school at an age near your own, and I've known them to be happy and successful graduate students. Some of these people had families.

There is a lot of school involved, but graduate training in the sciences has the advantage of being free to the student; Ph.D. students are even supported with a stipend (~$25,000/year). Plus, graduate school in the sciences isn't just (or even mostly) classes and lectures; you spend the vast majority of your time doing actual scientific work.

You might have to do some preparatory schooling if you don't currently have an appropriate undergraduate degree. But I don't think your age will count against you in applying to grad school. It might even be a plus; most professors treasure maturity as characteristic in their prospective students...
posted by mr_roboto at 5:51 PM on June 6, 2009

Rereading your question... If string theory is what you're really interested in, you should be prepared for the fact that there are vanishingly few jobs in that field, and it is extraordinarily competitive.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:54 PM on June 6, 2009

First, thanks for all the responses. There is much food for thought. To clarify a few things:

1) I was using 'scientist' in a general sense. I do like cosmology, geology and weather if that narrows it down any. I just mentioned string theory because I am reading a book about it this weekend.

2) I do understand that I will need more school. I just wondered at my age if it’s worth it. Also, I have a family to feed. (Thanks for your feedback about my age mr_roboto, that was exactly what I was hoping to hear) I realize I won't make the money I make now and I realize that working in science can be as much drudgery as what I do now. I guess I just want to do something more meaningful than making a large corporation money.

3) Great ideas on researching the work environments and careers before committing myself. What is a good approach to do that?

4) My business experience is actually in statistics and analysis. My hope is that these would be good skill sets for moving into a career with science.
posted by UseyurBrain at 6:36 PM on June 6, 2009

Oh, if you have a stats background, you are in great shape--pretty much any scientific area needs people with those skills.

Frankly, if I were you, I'd approach this just like you'd do any other sort of career change. Start networking and see what that gets you. Find people in your area in the field you'd like to end up in, see if you can meet them, offer to take them to lunch for an informational interview.

Being a full-fledged adult who knows how to be responsible and take work seriously is a huge bonus. College teachers love returning students because they don't mess around. So do PIs and research labs: grown ups know how to get stuff done.

I say, go for it! Science is terrific, and it really is a great pleasure and privilege to be a part of it. Heck, you might even make money while you're at it!
posted by Sublimity at 8:05 PM on June 6, 2009

You age is not a problem. While it might be a little weird to enter a situation where your 'peers' are 20-30, your peers shouldn't have a problem with your age (at least in my experience in bio sci).

School sucks. Although you may draw a stipend between $15-30k (depends on school and department, some scholarships are a little more), depending on your institution you may still have to pay tuition (which can be a lot) and very likely have to pay student fees (which are really annoying).

I guess I just want to do something more meaningful than making a large corporation money.

... does it matter if you're making a corporation money, or helping a PI publish journals? I did a couple of years as an associate with a BA (triple major, two were sciences) and went back for a MSc and now doing a PhD. Working in industry let me not take work home. There was still a little room to try new things, but mostly, it was following the roadplan of the chief/lead scientists. Seeing technicians (academia tends to call anyone without a PhD a tech and PhDs working for PIs associates) in academic labs... the work and the importance are about the same. There are less meetings in academia but bosses in industry seem to be a little more reliably professional than academic bosses.

Statistics and analyses? Learn mathematica or SPSS. You can probably get right into work right away.

If I was in your shoes, I'd check the department that you're interested in at your local university (they have department listing of faculty webpages) and see if anyone if doing research that you think is interesting. On those pages, they typically list a bunch of their published papers. Read those (or at least the abstract if they aren't open access papers or you can't score a university library proxy - although you could go to the university library and pull the hardcopy for free).

Cold email PIs who interest you, say why and about what you're interested in their research. Tell them your situation and your skillset (statistics and anything else) and say that you'd wish to volunteer.

Check with everything who you're interested with; and even with some who's only marginally interesting - getting your foot in the door and having the community know that there's someone with a particular skillset who wants to enter the fray is definitely in your favour.
posted by porpoise at 8:06 PM on June 6, 2009

Going to throw a couple ideas to you UseyurBrain...I do have a PhD in a biological science, although at this point I don't do research.

Anyway, if you have a background in stats and analysis, you may already have very strong skills that with an additional bit of training may still allow you to study science yet have a lucrative amt of $ for your family. A couple that I am aware of include statisticians for pharma companies and biotech companies. These individuals are part of a time and analyze the results of the clinical trials. They get a lot of benefits (besides $, their names go on all the papers, etc.). Most of the statisticians that I have known that work at pharma companies have a masters degree - so perhaps you may need a bit of stats (for the sciences, study design) and can complete a masters -- but it won't be as demanding as a PhD at this point. Also, another job in high demand are epidemiologists (public health). Oh wait, one more -- there are now areas of research in oncology that involve the use of mathematical models to predict -- why does a medical benefit a particular group? etc., but that may be an area you could move into with your aptitude.

Re:researching work environment/career -- I am going to nth the suggestion by nucleophillic attack; get thyself to a lab and volunteer! You can have a chance to work in the lab, do a small bit of bench science, read the papers, listen to the presentations, blah blah blah, but that will give you a taste for research. Do you live near a univeristy? Go online and read about the various faculty members' area of research. If possible, set up an appointment, go in and ask questions and about the possibility of doing research in the lab on a voluntary basis. If you plan to go back to school, this may be a good start, as you will probably need references, etc. Another approach if you start to take classes part time -- why not treat each semester as a mini-lab rotation? Perhaps for a semester or year, volunteer a day a week in a lab -- next year try a new lab.

Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 8:24 PM on June 6, 2009

My comments may be relevant if you want to do cosmology.

I knew three people who left industry to study in my astronomy PhD program. One of them was about your age, and one of them had a family. They all did great. I know one professor who thinks everyone should get a job in the "real world" for at least a year or two before pursuing their PhDs because industry teaches you to get stuff done. Once you get into grad school, you'll be judged on your performance, not your age.

Do you have a physics degree? If not, that will be a bigger barrier than your age to entering a physics or astronomy department. I suggest doing really really well on the physics GRE. Also, apply widely, as some departments are more accepting than others of students with "nontraditional" backgrounds. That said, your statistics skills will be invaluable in observational cosmology, so that is definitely something to play up in your applications should you choose to go that route.

People above have suggested you make cold calls to volunteer in a lab. That may work in some fields, but I've never heard of it happening in a cosmology group. Pre-grad students are often seen as a time sink, and are trained out of a sense of obligation to the institution. If you are not affiliated with an institution already, it may be hard to get someone to commit their time to you.

Most larger institutions have a weekly colloqiuium or seminar series. If you live near one of these universities, I'd start attending. This will help you see what the field is like. It'll help you learn the lingo. You might meet some grad students, postdocs, or professors at the coffee or tea time that precedes it. If you show you're really interested and serious, who knows where that could lead?

Oh, and if you want to read the cosmology literature, you don't need a proxy server because of this lovely site:

Beware that observational cosmologists typically spend ~6 years in graduate school (~$25K/year), and another 3-6 years in postdocs ($45K/year) before going on to a faculty position ($70-100K/year to start) if they are lucky enough to get one (the job market is tiny). That typically means moving 4 times, without much choice in the locations unless you are a superstar. This can be hard on families, especially if both partners are career-oriented or you have school-aged kids. Other than the dismal job market, this "N-body problem" is probably the biggest source of unhappiness among my colleagues.

Good luck!
posted by pizzazz at 12:39 PM on June 7, 2009

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