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Advice on Midlife Career Change?

  1. Aug 21, 2008 #1
    So, I have a Ph.D. in computer science and a lot of programming experience in industry, but I would like to be working on condensed matter physics instead. To that end, I'll be getting an M.S. in physics next spring... but my question is, then what?

    My advisor in the M.S. program tells me that I should be looking for a post-doc... he says that I already have a Ph.D., so there is evidence I can do research, the M.S. shows that I have physics knowledge, and I have a few papers in collaboration with my advisor that show I can do research in physics.

    I'm not really convinced though... I don't feel that I have enough physics knowledge in general, and even with the M.S., I'm not convinced that I would be competitive for physics post-doc positions.

    On the other hand, applying to physics Ph.D. programs at my age seems like madness.

    Suggestions, comments, and/or ridicule would be welcome. :smile:
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 22, 2008 #2
    I've many years programming experience in universities. I've met many PhD students in their fifties. I'm in the UK though, so I'm not sure if things are different 'cross the pond. If your advisor thinks your suitable for post-doc then why not accept his views? Or at least test it out! Why not just apply for both and see what happens? Is your advisor dropping a hint that he might like you to apply to be his post-doc? A couple of papers from an MS is impressive.
  4. Aug 22, 2008 #3
    He's definitely not dropping a hint... he doesn't have post-doc money.

    I probably *will* try both to see what develops... I'm just really skeptical about the feasibility of finding a post-doc position. Most of them seem to want a Ph.D. *in physics* (surprise!) who has actually done in-depth research in a particular field. As I said, I've done *some* research, which is a good for only being an M.S. student, but I feel like I lack the in depth experience I would need.

    Thank you for your reply.
  5. Aug 22, 2008 #4
    He's right in that you have every bit of classroom experience in physics anyone is ever going to, and the degree to prove you can do research.

    What you don't have is experience doing physics research, which will probably make it harder to get a post-doc than it would be if you were just a run-of-the-mill Physics Ph.D. instead. BUT...it's still what you should be looking at. Depending on the type of research, your CS background may help more than hurt.
  6. Aug 22, 2008 #5
    Are you to specialize on the experimental or theoretical side of condensed matter physics? If your interest lies more in the theoretical side, you might be able to leverage your Ph.D. in computer science to get a postdoc developing or refining simulation codes for condensed matter physics.
  7. Aug 25, 2008 #6
    Perhaps you can ask your supervisor if there is anyone in particular he would like to recommend you to as a post doc.

    Are there other professors in the department who know you well enough to dispense advice?
  8. Aug 25, 2008 #7


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    This sounds like a confidence issue to me.

    What do you think you will learn as a physics Ph.D. student that you will not be able to learn as a post-doc?
  9. Aug 26, 2008 #8
    I'm definitely trying to leverage my CS background... up to this point, I've been doing data analysis of some experiments, but I would be quite happy to move into more theoretical simulations.

    As for who I'm asking for advice... well, just from the fact that I posted here, I think it's clear that I'm pretty much asking anyone who will listen to me, in person or otherwise. :smile:

    Finally, perhaps it *is* a confidence issue, but I honestly don't feel like I know anywhere near as much as a Ph.D. would know. This is really not terribly surprising, since I really *don't* have that level of experience. I think overall, my background knowledge is good, but I just haven't drilled deep into any topic yet. This strikes me as a major shortcoming that will be difficult to overcome.

    Thanks again for your replies.
  10. Sep 3, 2008 #9


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    Post-docs, in general, are a viable way to change research focus. What you need to do is sell yourself well enough to convince someone you are prepared for the steep learning curve to come up to speed on their research area when it is a new direction for you. A good way to do this is to meet them in person and talk to them about what you've already accomplished.

    One way to meet such people and sell yourself and your experience is to attend conferences and present your research at the conference. Then, walk around and meet the people doing work you're interested in doing. You'll learn more in a few days than a month of reading articles just by talking to them in person, it shows you're interested, and since you'll have your presentation there too, you can invite them to see your work too...this shows them both your enthusiasm and how much you really understand of your own projects.

    I'm not in physics but have a biological background. I've always felt that people got the most scientific training in their post-docs, not their Ph.D. programs. You may need a slightly longer post-doc if you're coming in with very little background in the field of interest so you have time to get up to speed, but that's really where you learn the most to be able to do your research undistracted by coursework and other commitments.
  11. Sep 4, 2008 #10

    Andy Resnick

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    I'm not sure I qualify as middle-aged yet, but I made a big switch about 4 years ago, from doing orthodox experimental Physics research to doing orthodox Biomedical research. I'll be honest- it was a very painful at first. It's better now.

    I don't think you will have a problem making the switch, especially if you are going to do computational research. Don't bother with getting another Ph.D.- I agree, go straight for a post-doc.
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