Should you pursue Astrophysics?

It's been awhile since I last posted something on this blog. However, I need to post something as writing can be quite therapeutic for me. As I have felt kind of stuck lately, especially due to chaining events in my life, I really think I need that therapeutic relief.

The Beautiful Campus of Cornell

I am a currently a PhD student at Cornell University studying Astronomy. It is an absolutely stunning campus, with big Victorian buildings that are covered in ivy.

I recently bought a DSLR camera and have been snapping some photos. As such, I want to show some off. To start, my walk to Cornell take me along a very pretty trail called Cascadilla Gorge

This is Cascadilla Gorge which I walk every single day. It's one of my favorite parts of the morning and I do everything I can to make sure I get up early enough so that I can take this walk through nature. I am going to be very sad when it gets closed for the winter (as ice forms on the rocky trail).

I also get to be a teaching assistant for the experimental astronomy class here at Cornell. Almost every chance we get we are at the observatory taking exposures using the telescope.
The view from the Observatory that I get to help teach students at. It is in the middle of a bunch of farms here and has a very calm and scenic atmosphere. It is one of my favorite parts of TA'ing getting out here and helping students learn astronomy.

In fact, while out here I've taken up photographing even the wildlife. The other day I found this really interesting looking caterpillar called the wooly bear caterpillar

This is a wooly bear catapillar. I loved the furriness and contrast of the black and brown stripes on this bug. Rumor has it that the stripes are supposed to predict how intense the winter is going to be. I think with this caterpillar a standard or even milder winter is predicted. Even if they don't hold such predictive power, I still contend that they are quite charming little bugs.

Astronomy at Cornell

Cornell is a powerhouse when it comes to Physics and Astronomy. The graduate school rankings of US News, as well as other ranking websites, often put the Physics/Astronomy department near the top. When it comes to applied physics, You would be hard pressed to find a department with a better reputation.

The astronomy department has many ties to NASA, the European Space Organization, many many other universities. They are even building their very own Cosmology space telescope that will be one of a kind.

It is even home to the Carl Sagan Institute, an outreach institute that was in part inspired by Carl Sagan, an astronomer who taught at Cornell who happened to be one of the most inspiring astronomers I've ever heard.

There is a lot of opportunity to do space science at Cornell and many students would metaphorically kill to come here.

So why do I say I feel Stuck? 

I go over some of the things about Cornell not to brag about how amazing I am, or something dumb like that. I do it to make the point that simply being at such an university doesn't necessarily mean that you feel motivated, that you feel smart, that you feel successful, or even that you have a future.

Take it from me, a student that came from an unknown but awesome school called Utah Valley University. I even wrote about getting into Cornell here. The environment at Cornell is different from ones I have previously experienced, with some good points and some bad. Generally, even though I was quite successful before coming here, that doesn't necessarily mean much if you don't keep the success going. 

I am also having to look for a new advisor. I won't go into details since that's not the point of this post, but this has been very difficult for me. I really enjoyed meeting with (even looked up to) my previous advisor and they were one of the most consistent things I had here at Cornell during the pandemic. 
This has led to a difficult search for a new team, which has caused cascading difficulties with my PhD plan. 

During this, I started getting cluster headaches (possibly due to the stress), which if you don't know what they are, they have the nickname of suicide headaches. I can attest that the name is fitting. 

Finally, to top it all off, I recently had a good friend of mine pass away unexpectedly, which has definitely not been helping. 

Life just kind of sucks. I feel stuck because honestly, it feels like the same old story over and over.

I started in astronomy by switching from Political Science to Astrophysics at an open enrollment university. I started with a GPA that was so low most graduate programs wouldn't even look at my application. I was literally at rock bottom and I had nowhere to go but up.

From there I spent 6 years getting a bachelors of Physics and a Computer programming certificate, with a more detailed account you can read about here

During that time I had an amazing experience at an astronomy conference meeting one of the scientists who originally inspired me.

I then had my father pass away during an incredibly difficult semester, which I still have not gotten entirely over.

I then got a Research Internship at Cornell and did some incredible research with my old advisor, feeling on top of the world.

During my last winter at UVU I totaled my car avoiding 2 pedestrians due to black ice, leaving me quite shaken for several months. I then got rejected from every single Graduate program I applied too.

After getting rejected, I ended up going on top of a mountain doing astronomy research which you can read about here. During that time I published (and coauthored) 3 papers and 1 outreach article in 4 different journals. This again put me above the clouds, metaphorically and literally.

I then get accepted at Cornell, which was awesome at the start. But the classes were not only intensive, but they were also over Zoom. To say Zoom classes aren't ideal would be an understatement. 

After almost a year, me and my advisor abruptly part ways, forcing my PhD plans into flux. Because of this I have to retake some exams. I also start having super headaches with my friend then dying.

What is this? Is life just some masochist making sure that everytime I succeed, I get dragged back down into despair and pain?

What is this field (I mean the field of astrophysics)? Everyone seems friendly and inviting, but the cold reality has been that for many, even at an university like Cornell, there is no clear path forward, even if you have proven talent. 

Hell there is not even a guarantee that you will be able to get a job after you graduate. I have literally met cashiers with PhD's. 

Honestly, I have no idea what the future entails for me at this point. 

The Academic Root of the Problem

Whenever astronomers talk about how to be more inclusive and inviting, ESPECIALLY in academia, as long as there is a culture which perpetuates unclear futures, unclear objectives, and unclear requirements, such outreach feels so empty to me.

This culture isn't confined to just one University either. As far as I can tell it's pervasive in academia with many of my friends from other universities expressing similar frustrations. 

This culture doesn't just affect students either.

After you finish your bachelors and PhD (both of which you had to apply for and just hope you were accepted, taking about 10 years), you get to become a post-doc (which is a strong maybe). Hopefully after 3 or 4 years, a University somewhere will take pity on you and 'hire' you for the 'up for tenure assistant professor' position. Up for tenure means that still have no guarantee that you are going to have a job until they make a final decision 6 years after.

In other words, no matter how good of science you do, no matter how smart you are, there is no guarantee that you will obtain the future job that an ordinary physics/astronomy degree and grad degree prepares you for, for nearly 20 years after you start at university. Especially if you don't come from an 'elite' university, your hopes of getting into academia drop to even lower probabilities.

Honestly, beyond trying to make ourselves feel better about the situation, what is the point of preaching about inclusivity and diversity, when for every academic hopeful, there is nearly a 20 year barrier with plenty of subjective obstacles which is required to be crossed, before you are allowed any sense of security? 

One can always try to redefine what being inclusive means (which many universities certainly may try to do), but without changing the core of how academia operates, it will always be a nearly impossible journey for those without a multitude of outside resources at their disposal.
This entire debacle just seems ridiculous to me.

Ending with a bit of Hope

Thanks for reading about my mid-education crisis.

I don't think that this story has to end with sadness or despair, because that would just be a bummer. I think Carl Sagan put it well

Sometimes even I need to take a step back and look at the big picture. This video helps put things into perspective, especially considering the events of today.

I really believe that things can change and maybe I need to take a break. Regardless of how things turn out, I strongly feel that I am going to keep trying to make this work. 

My father believed in me even on his deathbed and my family still supports me. Some may not even have something like that. I know that through my efforts in outreach to others that I have been able to help them, like my father and family helped me.

If I quit now, I feel that many of my efforts could turn out to be in vain and I really think that many in Academia (including many at Cornell) would like to see things improve.

I also encourage anyone who wants to get into astronomy to do so, just be prepared for one Hell of a fight. Also make sure that you have a backup plan, in case you decide trying to deal with the bureaucracy of Academia isn't your thing.

Honestly, do I know the answer? Nope. Do I even know what to do besides writing a blog? Nope.

But I feel if anything is going to start changing, especially when it comes to inclusivity, acknowledging the real issue, which is the unreal, extremely subjective, and artificial barriers erected within academia is where we have to start.

My opinions are controversial, but c'mon, let's be real now, many a cashier has more job security than an astrophysics post-doctorate.

For as smart as some in academia think they are, being in charge of such a system is kind of dumb.


  1. Hey Jonny, Jonny... Great thoughts. You're an amazing guy. You and I have different opinions on a bunch of stuff. Our backgrounds are so different. Performing arts and science. Interesting bed fellows. I sense your struggles. I've been there, only in a different arena. Similarities abound. I often think of you with great admiration. You've been through a lot. And you're right... your family does support you. I am not, technically, a member of your family. That being said... in some very real ways... it feels like I am. (Barbi just walked in as I was writing this. She sends her love and wants me to tell you that you're in her prayers.) So... carry on, Jonny. We're all pulling for you. You've accomplished so much. Bright days ahead. Take care. Be well. Love... Michael

  2. Don't quit now Jon! Astronomy/Physics PhDs can do lots of different kinds of jobs, but the options are generally more limited without the degree. You don't have to go into academia to make good use of a PhD.


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