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Programs How difficult is it to change research area after a physics PhD?

  1. Mar 4, 2009 #1
    My question is the title of the thread. Am I locked into a certain area of research once I have done a PhD? My interest is in theoretical particle physics, but if I wanted, could I, for example, do a PhD in lattice QCD then go on to be a postdoc doing string theory (or some other area of theoretical particle physics)?
     
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  3. Mar 4, 2009 #2

    Choppy

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    You develop a lot of specialized skills during the pursuit of a PhD, but many of them translate over well into other areas within the discipline. It's quite common for people to jump from one area to another in post-doctoral work, I've found. I think it can be harder when jumping from one sub-field to another, but it's certainly possible.
     
  4. Mar 5, 2009 #3

    Andy Resnick

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    I am proof that one may jump about as you please- PhD in physics, now faculty in a Physiology department of a medical school. The real question is, are you willing to learn new things? Are you willing to go from being an expert to a novice?
     
  5. Mar 5, 2009 #4

    ZapperZ

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    You would be surprised at how frequent this has happened. Just look at the https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=293634".

    I did my ph.d and postdoc in experimental condensed matter physics, and switched field to accelerator physics where I've found my niche and career. As a physicist, you should have the skill to learn new things, even if it is far from what you specialized in. That, to me, is the most valuable skill that one can acquire as a physicist.

    Zz.
     
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  6. Mar 5, 2009 #5

    Vanadium 50

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    ZapperZ, how did you make that switch? You obviously didn't wake up one day and say, "Now I'm an accelerator physicist!"
     
  7. Mar 5, 2009 #6

    ZapperZ

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    No, I didn't. And to tell you honestly, I didn't even know that much on what an "accelerator physicist" did when I took the job! How's that for diving into something you know almost nothing about? :)

    What happened was that I was at the end of my postdoc and was actively looking for a more permanent job (who isn't?). Now, a friend who was at Argonne heard about an accelerator group looking for someone who has an "expertise" in material science AND photoemission proceses, because they need a person to start on their photocathode project and, more importantly, on high QE photocathodes that they will be needing for their accelerator upgrade. So they were not really looking for an accelerator physicist.

    Since I was in "material science" and I was doing my postdoc in photoemission spectroscopy, I kinda fit in rather well with what they wanted. I was quite heavily recruited by them, but still, I had to think twice a bit if this is what I wanted to do since it meant leaving my area of expertise. The saving grace was that, while I had to retrain myself in a whole new area of physics (I had to attend a couple of accelerator schools), I can use what I already know in a a different area in which someone with my knowledge isn't common. So I can, if I want to, blaze a new trail in directions that they never even thought of. That was one highly enticing possibility and one of the main reasons that I took the position.

    Since then, I know quite a bit more about accelerator physics, beam physics, and whole lot of other stuff. I've even become a "certified" accelerator operator. But still, my background as a condensed matter physicist gets called in very often, because inevitably, a lot of material issues crop up when dealing with high gradient cavity surfaces, photocathodes, multipactor, electrical breakdowns, etc. So while I'm officially an "accelerator physicist", I am still practicing what I majored in.

    Zz.
     
  8. Mar 5, 2009 #7
    The problem as I see it is that a university/research group dont have a good incentive to hire you if youre not trained in their particular area. If I applied to be a postdoc string theory researched having done a PhD in lattice, I would be missing all sorts of knowledge. It would probably take me several months to just get up to speed with current research. On the other hand if they hire a guy who did his PhD in string theory, he no doubt already has all the necessary tools to jump straight into research and probably a research plan to go with it. How can I compete with that?
     
  9. Mar 5, 2009 #8

    ZapperZ

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    Ah, but this is a different question entirely than your original question, isn't it? Your original question isn't about how easy it is to GET the job. It asked about switching field. This is an entirely different issue than "can I get a job that I didn't not specialize in?" This question depends entirely on (i) what the hiring person is looking for and (ii) the amount of competition for that job.

    Zz.
     
  10. Mar 5, 2009 #9

    f95toli

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    This is partly true. However, I don't think ZapperZ's experience is that unusual: research groups often look for someone that can bring in NEW knowledge to the group. Sometimes simply because they are moving into a new area, or because they've realized that the area they are working in could benefit from expertise from another area because e.g. the experimental methods used are very similar.

    I used to work on (and still sometimes work on) high temperature superconductors but more recently I have spent most of my time working on MEMS devices and soon I will start working on a project that involves III-V semiconductors; these are to some extent different fields (and different communities) but I don't feel like I have actually "switched fields" because what I do in the lab hasn't really changed that much; the samples are different but many of the methods used are more or less the same (which is why I was brought in to work on those projects). I obviously have to learn some new physics but learning new things is very much part of the job.
     
  11. Mar 5, 2009 #10
    This is a pretty difficult question to answer. It would obviously depend on the research area and the type of job you're seeking. Switching to a totally different field might be relatively easy if you're in academia, but I doubt it could be easily done if you're in the private sector. For instance, a physicist with expertise in theoretical high energy physics would have a hard time doing experimental condensed matter research at a semiconductor company.
     
  12. Mar 5, 2009 #11
    For argument's sake, lets say the specific situation is: Ive done a PhD in lattice QCD and want to get a postdoc position doing string theory. How difficult would that be?
     
  13. Mar 6, 2009 #12
    Just for curiosity's sake, does anyone here know a tenured faculty member who did a switch comparable to what Bobhawke is saying, i.e. did a thesis in lattice QCD, postdoc in strings and got tenure? I'm sure they are out there, but I'm wondering who in particular have done such a jump. Maybe this would be a good indicator of how difficult it is. Or perhaps some people just don't switch fields so quickly.

    My only problem would be that postdocs are there to contribute to research more so than learn the existing theory. I don't know how much lattice QCD and strings overlap, but I would imagine you would be at a disadvantage compared to postdocs who did their thesis in strings.
     
  14. Mar 6, 2009 #13

    Dr Transport

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    ZapperZ's experience is not out the norm of possibilities.

    My PhD is in Anisotropic Transport in Semiconductors (theoretical), I work every day in IR materials, both lab and theory.

    Since my degree, I have worked in IR materials, optical (visual) materials, RF design and integration amongst the high lights. So changing area of research or day to day work is not all that difficult.
     
  15. Mar 7, 2009 #14

    Vanadium 50

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    Matt Strassler (Rutgers) did his thesis in formal theory, worked in formal theory and strings, and is now a phenomenologist.
     
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