The Journey I've Had Thus Far in my Attempts to Get Into Astrophysics

Hi there! My name is Jonathan. Currently I'm an intern for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, working as an observational astronomer in Arizona. If you want to get more information about what that job is like, check out my other blog post here.  I'm writing this particular blog as a therapeutic session for myself so I can get the motivation to reapply to astronomy graduate programs.

Even though I have truncated some parts, It's still a bit longer of a post, but it really gives a fairly good picture of what the experience has actually been like pursuing astronomy. I also hate truncating myself too much, as I like to write (one reason why I think grad school statement of purposes are the worst!) and this is my blog, so I'm going to write as much as I damn well please ;). Hopefully it might help someone else along the way as well (and that I made it entertaining enough to keep your attention)! I'll also do my best to keep names and such anonymous.

My Clueless Beginnings

Anyway, to get started, I have recently graduated with a degree in physics. I actually started my college career in political science, not physics, as I enjoyed debate and writing came somewhat natural to me (scientific writing is a whole different story though!).

However, studying astronomy inspired me so much more than what I was doing previously in Political Science. It's inspired me since I was 10 years old when I first saw the Hubble Deep Field

This is the Hubble Deep Field which inspired me when I was 10 years old. In order to obtain this image, they basically zoomed in as far as the Hubble could, at a part in the sky that looked fairly dark and void of objects. Doing a rough calculation using numbers on the Hubble site, I found this single mosaic represents around 1/120000000 of the total sky, which is insane. To top it all off, nearly each one of these objects is not a star, but a galaxy, each one containing billions of stars! Here is a link to the original press release if you are interested

Credit: R. Williams (STScI), the Hubble Deep Field Team and NASA/ESA

I even remember watching a Nova episode which detailed theories of how the universe was created around when I was 16ish, one of the ideas being 'eternal inflation'. I won't go into what that is here, but at the time I remember thinking to myself

"this is so fascinating, but honestly I'm not smart enough to really ever truly understand those types of things".

 So, if you can imagine someone that had this mindset, hadn't taken a math class in years, spent most of his electives in high school in creative writing classes, being utterly clueless about where to even start in astronomy, at an open enrollment, teaching university, aka Utah Valley University (a school I'm proud to come from!), you'll have an idea of my position when I started learning about physics.

A picture of part of the campus at Utah Valley University that I took one morning as I was walking to class, as the sunrise was so gorgeous.  Even though the physics program was relatively small there, it was about as accepting, helpful, and non-elitist as you could possibly get. Open enrollment I strongly suspect made it such a welcoming place (naturally being way more diverse relative to many universities). Many of the physics professors were truly next level when it came to teaching and supporting students, something that helped me stay with the program.

It was brutal. When I switched to physics, it was like I decided to move to Japan, not speaking the language, while simultaneously being tested on how fluent I was in the language (and culture) where if you fail too much, you get kicked out. When I started my first real physics semester, I didn't fail, but I didn't do astronomically well either (pun intended), getting around a B average (anything below C was a fail, so a B was about average). Being average means it would be hard to get into grad school, especially as I was coming from a not super well known program. This nearly crushed my determination to pursue astronomy, especially with how hard I tried to do well and couldn't even muster above average.

While I was working my way through the math pre-requisites, I was also obtaining a computer programming certification (it's not like I had anything else to do) which is about a years worth of computer science (CS) classes. After the crappy physics semester, I decided to try a semester of just CS courses. Honestly, I could have slept through those classes and still have gotten straight A's. That's not to say they weren't rigorous, it's just that I understand how computers work and they make a fair bit of sense to me; being easy for me because I was so much more fluent in the language of computers, having grown up fiddling with them.

But on the inside, I felt terrible. Even though I had gotten an internship at a large organization (earning way more there than I have anywhere else), CS being ridiculously easy for me, with co-workers saying I was Google employee level of good at solving CS problems (no less using Swift, a coding language I learned at the internship), it wasn't what I dreamed of doing. I was running away from what I knew was my passion, not because I didn't want to do it, but because it was much harder then I expected. It was even difficult for me to look at my physics textbook as it just reminded me of my cowardice!

The cover of the book that I used in my introductory physics course. The memories I have when I looked at this while I was doing CS, are something along the lines of "AGHGHGHGHGHGHGH!!! NOOOO! I can't, I just can't!". Even though it caused such an emotive response, I never removed it from under the desk and it sat in a spot where I could plainly see it,  my sub-conscience secretly motivating me to go back to physics. Luckily, I did go back into physics as I go on to explain ;).

A Yin and Yang Astronomy Experience

A day came while driving home on the freeway and I thought to myself,

"I'm doing physics, I don't care how hard it is. I don't care how many times I fail, I'm following my dream!"

while simultaneously realizing that if I ever had to explain what I did with my life to my kids, it's way more inspiring a story to say that I refused to give up, then saying I abandoned my dreams because they were hard. It was quite an emboldening experience!

The quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen

describes fairly well the things that happened next. An amazing new professor got hired at UVU who needed someone on their team, who posted that they needed someone to help with their research. It turns out all the experience that I had gotten while an intern and from the CS courses I had taken fit perfectly with what they needed in an assistant. Getting this position changed nearly everything about the experience I was having, the pay being good enough that I could quit my drivers ed job (a relief as that job was stressful!), I would be doing work in the field I dreamed of doing work in, I would be learning what real astronomy was, and I would be able to focus much more on my studies, it being a university position. In my calculus II class (calculus I nearly killing me), they had hired a tutor for the class. This tutor was one of the best teachers I had ever had, the way she taught making so much more sense to me. The position I got, along with the incredible math tutor, made my grades rise significantly to an A- average. I even got to go to the 230th American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin Texas to present a poster on the research that I was doing with my professor.

A Panorama of Andromeda which was set up next to a wall at the 230rd AAS meeting in Austin Texas. An interesting experience happened when I was admiring this poster. One of the hotel guard/assistants in a bright red hotel uniform, came up to me and started chatting. I saw a viscous, beer colored fluid, in a water bottle he was holding and was very likely completely slammed, judging by the smell. He eventually started going off about how the moon landing was faked, that everything was just a giant conspiracy. I just nodded and listened for a bit, as he seemed very passionate about the whole ordeal. I knew simply disagreeing and trying to provide evidence to the contrary would lead no where and so I took a different approach. I told I sincerely believe we landed on the moon. I didn't actually see it happen, I didn't see those astronauts walk on the moon, but I know of the evidence we have, which does indeed lead me to believe that it did happen. This definitely caught him off guard (pun intended), he chatted for a bit more but eventually just walked off, cause at the end of the day, it's difficult to disagree with a belief (especially when it is well founded belief ;) ).

I got to see some of the coolest things, actually seeing the presentations that made up the astronomy stories I would read about in the news. Nearly every day while I was there, they would announce that people should go check out the bats that fly out from underneath the Austin bridge. I decided the last day there, after all the presentations were over, with some fried chicken in hand, to go check it out. Sadly, the bats flew out on the other side of the bridge, which was a bummer. But, I did happen to start chatting with this guy in a green polo and it turns out he was there for the AAS as well. It also turns out that he helped take the original Hubble Deep field, the picture that originally inspired me. I let him know and it touched him that he was able to do that for someone else. He ended up giving me his card and let me know that he would do what he could if I ever wanted to go work in astronomy.

This was an incredible experience, one that really helped me to go on, something that I would really need because life was about to get sanity breaking. The coming semester was going to be hard, and I knew it. I was taking Astrophysics I, Ordinary Differential Equations, Modern Physics I, Intro to Experimental Physics I, Mathematical Physics, Undergraduate experience in research, and to top it off the Physics seminar, putting at a grand total of 17.5 credits, all of the classes being core physics classes. It was easily 60+ weeks of homework every week, just to keep up. On top this, half way through the semester, my father, the greatest supporter in my decision to pursue astronomy and often my only support outside of my physics life, had a stroke. The stroke compounded complications with his heart and this lead to his death. He was my best friend, and someone I loved with all my heart. To top it all off, the girl I was dating at time dumped me! I nearly lost it and TBH I probably did! Nobody sane would keep on going. But I kept on going. I sorely miss my father to this day and honestly, if I ever do anything cool enough in astronomy where I get to name something, it will be named after him.

Shooting for the Stars and Actually Hitting One

I survived the semester, some of my professors taking pity on my situation, averaging A- grades again. The next semester was still hard, but not nearly as crazy. During this time, I knew I needed to apply to REUs (Research Experience for Undergraduates) which are very helpful if you want to get into grad school. I applied to a bunch, most them the being the less competitive ones (or so I thought). However, there was one that I applied to that was quite competitive, being the astronomy REU at Cornell University. It also happened to be the only one I got accepted too.

Yes, the same Cornell that Andy Bernard from the Office went to. I literally googled 'astronomy REU' and it was like the the first actual link to an official REU to pop up. I was like "what the heck! Why not?" and so I applied. It was an incredibly beautiful place as you can see from the photo, taken from the outreach observatory they had on campus. Carl Sagan worked here, which blew my mind that I even getting to go to such a legendary place for an internship.

While I was there, I saw tremendous natural beauty, I met some tremendous people, and just had an incredible experience overall. UVU is one of the most utilitarian universities possible, basic and compact in its design. Cornell was basically the opposite, the architecture being so, grand, expansive and artistic. It like the Tajma hall of Universities, with acres upon acres of building as well as farms being used in agricultural research. It took me nearly 4 times longer to walk anywhere there than places did at UVU. I even lost weight when I was there, probably due to all the walking I had to do. It was a much needed boost to my mood, given the experiences during the previous semester, while simultaneously providing an escape, helping me take my mind elsewhere.

I worked for a cosmology professor there. She needed to have someone re-code some cosmology software she used in her research. It was a FORTAN 90 (a code language) program which I like to refer to as the spaghetti ball of doom. Just to give an idea of the level of math that this program was doing, here is the craziest equation from the paper that I was supposed to replicate in code

One of the final equations that I was to implement in code, kind of being like the final boss of the whole experience. I was basically handed a bunch of these types of equations and told to replicate the results of the entire paper. It was nuts. The program used like 10 other equations that all went into each other to calculate a theoretical cosmology that could basically determine how strong dark energy was, how much dark matter there is vs light matter etc. I never thought I would ever be doing theoretical cosmology but there I was!

But I wasn't going to fail. This was my chance to prove myself to a professor that was basically the big cheese in her field. At week 4, I was pretty stuck. I couldn't figure out why the code was not producing the same thing as the previous code. So, like any insane individual would do, I stopped the code mid-computation, splayed open the contents in memory, analyzed step by step what the code was doing, and you know what, I did it. Not only did I get past that first part, I actually finished a huge amount of the project, almost completely replicating the entire paper within 10 weeks, while simultaneously algorithmically improving the software, taking the runtime from hours down to minutes.

The professor I worked for was so impressed with what I had done that she called me exceptional, that I could succeed at the top universities, that I would get a strong letter, and that I had far exceeded her expectations, succeeding where other students had failed! My reaction to this was,  in a none sarcastic fashion.

"NANI? I'm actually good at this stuff!?!?!?!?!?"

It changed my outlook on myself, completely disproving my previous notion that

 "I'm not smart enough to really ever truly understand those types of things"

Even though I came from a tiny physics department, I was able to accomplish something others hadn't been able to, in theoretical cosmology, at a blinding pace no less, due to my skill in computer science. The entire experience ended on this positive high note with the professor telling me that she would like me on her team.

The Somewhat Sadistic Nature of Grad School Applications

Sadly though, life is often cruel. The coming semesters were good, hard but not unbearable and I started applying to many different grad schools, even with some professors at universities other then Cornell telling me my application was a 'shoe in' and that I would be able to easily get in. Sadly, it seems none of these professors were on the applications committee. I got on the wait list at Cornell, even getting an email saying all the faculty had a very positive view of my application. But, in the end was rejected from all the places I applied.

Here's a metaphorical picture of how I felt about getting all those rejection letters. I was in a very high place emotionally after Cornell, but was about to fall a very long way down and have a very hard landing. Image from

It didn't matter that I had the skill, it didn't matter that I had proven myself, it didn't matter that I worked as hard as I had, it didn't matter, everything that I had done just didn't seem to matter. Literally zero of the grad committee's would give me any information on what I needed to do different either. I had zero feedback and no where to go. The University at Austin Texas even sent two rejection emails! Why is that necessary? When I got the second email I thought to myself

"Maybe, just maybe, I was on some type of list and they had some people turn them down and now they changed their mind."

But nope. Apparently, they just wanted to really let me know that they did not want me at their school. TBH It was probably just a bug in their email service, but it still really sucked nonetheless.

I was also graduating, meaning that I would no longer have my research position at UVU. I was also teaching labs at UVU which I could continue to do if my position hadn't been filled. The department, understandably, were planning on me getting into grad school (so was I) and thereby filled it in preparation. A job offer at a government research institute fell through, as the offer was contingent on me getting into grad school. Even the guy I had met at the AAS meeting was unable to help me much. Things looked bleak to say the least. At this point it would have been easy for me to get a job in a computer industry. I had an incredible amount of coding experience, had made powerful software, with a physics degree and a computer programming certification.

I, Jonathan Davis, Have A Dream

Yes it's true, I have a dream.

No sane person would keep going and luckily for me I had lost my sanity awhile ago. My dad, before he died let me know he loved me and that he was so proud that I hadn't quit, so there was no way in Hell that I wasn't going to quit now.

Luckily I contacted someone I knew at the University of Utah who took pity on my situation. He gave me a job to help with some Stellar Intensity Interferometry research he was doing, and it turned out they needed some observational planning software. Me being me, wrote the whole thing before the end of the summer.

After the end of the summer, I had some time left to work on the research I was doing at UVU. I was working on an incredibly hard problem and had been stuck on this one part for nearly 1.5 years. I finally found a solution to the problem, which honestly was completely different than how it was being done before. I also noticed a bunch of zeroed pixels that I didn't account for in the images I was working with. When I accounted for them, everything started to work the way I expected it too, go figure. Maybe I'll go into more detail another day, especially since it was an interesting problem, but it would be too much for this post. The point is, the problem I solved was something that was like, thesis level of awesome. Basically I had found something that allowed me to make measurements in seconds what had originally taken hours, meaning I could process way more information than what any previous methods could do. Hopefully, completing Phd thesis levels of work before I even get into grad school will help me get accepted lol.

I also did well with the observational software, even winning a small prize from the University of Utah. They ended up sending me to Arizona as an intern for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which has been an awesome experience. Here's a selfie of me after running to the top of the mountain where I'm staying.
Me at the top of the mountain. I'm kind of sweaty, but that's to be expected after one runs up a fairly large mountain. You can read more about what it's been like to be a long term observer from another blog post here.

I still don't know if I will be able to get in this time around. I also still have to re-write a bunch of these applications, something I hope writing this blog will help motivate me to do. That metaphorical fall was hard and it hurt. But I know I can do it. I've vastly improved my application since then, with the research I've done, the presentations I've given, the prize that I won, and the papers that I can now publish.

I hope if you are in the graduate application process, you are in a similar situation, you dream of doing astronomy, or anything else for that matter, that you follow your dreams! It royally sucks when you fail, but I would not have seen any of the success I've seen if I let my failures and fears keep me down. Regardless of where you are, keep on going. It will be worth it in the end, something I know has been true for me thus far.

Also thanks for reading. It was a long post to be sure, but you're a champ and you must've found it worth it. I'll be posting more stuff in the future, doing my best to update it on a weekly/bi-weekly basis so if you liked this be sure to check back periodically, follow the blog, and such! Thanks again ;).


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