How much does your PhD constrain your research opportunities

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In summary, the conversation centers around the topic of how a PhD project can determine a researcher's future research opportunities, particularly in the field of physics. The individual in conversation is a student studying MSc Theoretical Particle physics and has been offered a PhD position in the development of novel particle acceleration techniques using fibre lasers. They are curious about the possibility of changing research fields in the future and potential limitations in doing so. The conversation also touches on the importance of skills and adaptability in the changing job market.
  • #1
Milsomonk
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Hi Folks,
I am currently an student studying MSc Theoretical Particle physics in the UK. For my undergraduate degree I studied Astrophysics. I have always been aiming for a PhD, but have struggled a great deal to tie myself down to a particular field within physics. I have been working as well, doing R&D for a company specialising in fibre optics.

Basically I have been offered a PhD position working on the development of novel particle acceleration techniques using fibre lasers, I have been to the uni, seen the lab and spoken to my future supervisor. I have accepted the position as it sounds like a super exciting project and I am 100% on board with it.

Basically my question is how much will my PhD project determine what research I am able to do in the future? So far I am used to being able to swap about, going from astrophysics to particle physics, experimental to theoretical without many problems. Of course I can see that it would be tough to do an experimental PhD and then do research in string theory.. but I'd like to gauge an idea at least of whether it is possible to change your research field at all?

Realistically I think its likely I will love my project and stay mainly around that field for most of my career, but I was curious anyway.. Many thanks for your responses in advance :)
 
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  • #2
This question is not easy to answer. You would hope that a potential employer would look at your resume to see what skills you have and to then see how well they match to what they are looking for. Often this strategy is a bit more complex than that where an employer is looking to add you to the team and looks at your skills and how they complement the team. From that he can do workload adjustments to make his team more productive.

However, even before the employer looks at your resume, the HR department has sorted and filtered your resume out into some category or categories sometime based on what type of jobs/projects you've done in the past. This scheme works the same in the academic world too.

So to take stock of your skills, you might need to evaluate and sell yourself saying while its true I'm a trained particle physicist, I have these specific skills and can do astrophysics work as well.

My simple analogy would be I am a Java programmer and so I can make the case that I understand OO concepts which are the same for all OO-based programming languages and that Java syntax is so similar to C++ that I can do C++ too with very little additional training.

One additional thing is that you get a free pass when you are younger and more trainable but as you get more experience in a particular area employers will be less interested in hiring you into something totally new. They figure you get more ornery and harder to train as you get older.
 
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  • #3
Thanks very much for your response, it certainly provides food for thought. I get the impression you are talking more about the working world outside of academia? This is quite an interesting viewpoint as I'd only really considered working in academia as a researcher/professor but it's definitely possible at some stage that I would want to enter an industry.
 
  • #4
There are a lot of cases of people who do a PhD in one area and then expand into other areas as they move through their academic careers. Studying laser particle acceleration does not mean you'll be limited to that for the rest of your life.

The limits tend to come in more or less in terms of time and demand. As I'm sure you'll learn, if you haven't already, it takes a lot of time to get to a point where you can make a meaningful contribution to a particular field. You have to do a lot of background reading and climb the learning curve on any experimental or computational techniques. So jumping into something new is not done too frequently. And on top of that, there is a question of what other people are expecting of you. As a post-doc, you'll be expected to work on a particular project, and even if you make it into a tenured position, you'll still likely be expected to contribute to a specific research group within the department. So it's very rare to have the opportunity to suddenly pour all of your resources into a new bucket.

Often what you can do though, is start collaborating with people who are working on something new that's of interest to you. You look for situations where you bring something new to the table and then learn about the new field as you work together.
 
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  • #5
Thanks very much for your input, It is greatly appreciated. This makes a lot of sense, and does put my mind at ease :)
 
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  • #6
It took about 2000 hours of effort for me to transition from atomic physics to ballistics and another 1000 hours to transition to blast physics. Transitions are possible, but labor intensive. The tricky part is keeping the money flowing into pay the bills during the transition, because one is unlikely to be paid well for something one is learning. In both cases, I kept the ship afloat by teaching.
 
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Related to How much does your PhD constrain your research opportunities

1. How does having a PhD limit my research opportunities?

Having a PhD does not necessarily limit your research opportunities. In fact, it can open up many new opportunities for you. With a PhD, you have acquired advanced knowledge and skills in your field, making you more competitive for research grants and positions.

2. Can I only conduct research in the specific area of my PhD?

No, having a PhD does not restrict you to only conducting research in the specific area of your degree. While your PhD may have provided you with specialized knowledge and expertise, you are not limited to only conducting research in that area. You can explore other related fields and collaborate with researchers from different disciplines.

3. Will I have to follow a specific research agenda after obtaining a PhD?

No, obtaining a PhD does not mean you have to follow a specific research agenda. As a researcher, you have the freedom to choose your own research topics and questions. However, your PhD research may have provided you with a foundation and direction for your future research interests.

4. Are there any disadvantages to having a PhD in terms of research opportunities?

While having a PhD can provide many advantages, such as higher pay and more job opportunities, there may also be some disadvantages. For example, some industries may view a PhD as overqualified and may not consider you for certain positions. Additionally, obtaining a PhD can be a lengthy and challenging process, which may delay your entry into the workforce.

5. Can I still pursue a career in industry with a PhD?

Yes, having a PhD does not limit you to only pursuing a career in academia. Many industries value individuals with advanced degrees and the skills and knowledge they bring. Your PhD can also open up opportunities for leadership and management roles in industry.

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