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I've been spending the past three years as an autodidact for computer science and physics, in lieu of a degree. Main reason for this being that high school classes bored me, so I did poorly in them, and there were no CS classes available at the time. I decided at the age of seventeen to begin learning CS and pursue an equivalency instead, which I have.

However, now I am starting to see that I'd like to branch into observatory astronomy and integrate my data-science knowledge, as I notice an ever increasing necessity for people with both these skills. However, the space community seems to feel a lot more strongly about having a degree, more specifically a PhD (which I personally disagree with but that's getting off topic).

My question is, what possible options do I have? Should I continue being an autodidact and try to prove myself without a degree? Or suck it up and pursue one? If lack of a doctorate is out of the question, what's the most efficient track to a university with the competency level appropriate for me? My biggest problem is time. I want to do as little side tracking as possible, and stay on track with my current competency level.

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    what possible options do I have? — Option 1: Get a PhD. Option 2: Don't work in astronomy. – JeffE Jul 2 '16 at 22:50
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    Suck it up and pursue a degree. You may not agree with the current status quo, but on that same token, you will not be able to single-handedly change all of academia by yourself. – J. Roibal - BlockchainEng Jul 2 '16 at 23:12
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    I don't mean "what field of astronomy", I mean "what job title." You might be able to e.g. get a job as a lab tech without a PhD, but you won't be doing terribly interesting work. You should edit your post to explain what kind of career you are looking for. – ff524 Jul 3 '16 at 3:12
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    You are seriously handicapping yourself by not earning (at least) a BSc degree. A simple look on your SO profile (something that most employers do anyway), shows only elementary understanding of Java. That reveals three unfortunate things a) that you are very far from having the knowledge of a mediocre CS BSc degree holder b) that you do not have the necessary tools / preparation to deal with data science (even average CS BSc holders do not) and c) you are vastly overestimating your own abilities (a common issue for autodidacts). Please, for your sake, get a degree to advance your career. – Alexandros Jul 3 '16 at 15:36
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    @Alexandros I am not sure you can judge computer science knowledge that way. I've asked some basic questions when learning a programming language, even with decades of experience and a computer science PhD. – Patricia Shanahan Jul 3 '16 at 21:09
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The problem with academic outsiders is that you cannot judge their abilities. Having a Ph.D. does not mean that you are good, and having none does not mean that you are bad, but there is a strong correlation between degrees and competence. If you have neither a degree nor published work I have only your word that you actually know anything about CS or astronomy. At the same time for every position there are dozens of applicants with a degree, publications, and recommendations, so your chances of getting this position are practically 0.

So the first question is whether you need the income from a position, or do you have some other job providing you with a sufficient income? If you need the money, you almost certainly need a Ph.D. The only exception I could think of would be that you publish remarkable results. But then you can turn these results into a Ph.D. at no further costs anyway.

The second question is how much resources you need for your research. In mathematics and CS a lot of serious research requires nothing but a computer for typesetting. In astronomy you might be able to run over existing data or do simulations without much costs, but it is more likely that you need computation power beyond your financial means. If you need access to observatories, you run into serious trouble.

So if your planned research requires some outside input, and you do not get a degree which allows you to successfully ask for this input, you have to become known in some other way. Start with problems which require no resources, publish results, give talks at conferences, talk to people privately at conferences. Once you earned some respect, it should be a lot easier to get help with your projects.

  • Thank you, I appreciate some insight aside from an expensive piece of paper looking fancy. I found it odd that you could prove yourself as an autodidact programmer, but not an astronomer, but I guess the observatory point makes sense. I'll just take the PhD route and start off with a community college and work up from there. All my CS knowledge is still very much useful, so it doesn't put me behind, plus nothing is to stop me from studying the normal subjects I am currently doing anyways. – Neuromeda Jul 3 '16 at 17:31
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There is another aspects of degrees that drives the need for a PhD. This has to do that the main property of a PhD is that it is a philosophical doctorate, it teaches you how to think and approach problems in a very particular, highly structured way. Masters and BSc degrees do this somewhat, but to a much lesser degree.

While it is reasonably easy for someone very talented to learn to think in a BSc way, it is much harder to do so independently for a doctorate. It is possible, but uncommon, and most cases involve people who dropped out rather than never started.

Note that this says nothing about subject skills. Subject skills, such as programming, can very well be self-taught, although guidance is very helpful, especially to gain more conceptual understanding faster. Data science often involves a large amount of trial and error with well-defined tools. Large aspects of that are primarily skills (but do require some degree of advanced understanding).

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I agree with the prior answer, but have some further points on the relationship between programming and astronomy, and on the community college route.

If you wanted to do paid, supported research in computer science, you would need a PhD just as much as to do paid, supported research in astronomy. A PhD is the easiest way both to learn to do research and to demonstrate that you can do research. Programming in itself is different because it is a practical skill distinct from research.

After retirement, I took a community college Latin 101 course just for fun, and I volunteer with a community college robotics group. The good news is that you will have some bright, motivated, fellow students. The bad news is that you will meet some students who are just going through the motions, and are not really trying to learn.

You may find some of the courses you have to take boring, but you are presumably more mature now than when you were in high school, so you should cope better. Aim to do work at a much higher standard than is demanded for the course. That will help you concentrate, and equip you for transfer to a four year school.

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