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Specialization of Research

  1. Oct 21, 2009 #1
    When a professor specializes in a particular field of research, such as condensed matter physics, and wants to shift to a different field of research, such as String Theory, is it possible for him/her to just jump into the new field of research, or are there a few bureaucratic obstacles to go through?
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  3. Oct 21, 2009 #2

    Andy Resnick

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    There's no 'bureaucratic obstacles', but there's going to be a credibility problem until said professor publishes a few papers in the new field.
  4. Oct 21, 2009 #3
    I see...so its not so simple. I figured that since there was a lot of specialization of research these days, professors and maybe their grads/post-docs might be able to get around things by shifting fields...I'm assuming it depends more or less on funding issues?
  5. Oct 22, 2009 #4


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    It's not unheard of for professors to develope an interest in a new area. We're talking about physics research after all and that's how new fields emerge.

    When you start out in academia though, you will generally get hired on based on your research interests and proposed research plan/program. Experimentalists will set up labs with what is often very specific equipment. You will take on graduate students interested in that area and other researchers who have an interest in your field will contact you for collaborations. You will likely attend the relevant conferences in that area too on a regular basis. In short you will have a kind of figurative "research momentum" by the time you get on a tenure-track.

    You will also have or be expected to pursue funding opportunities. And that's where "credibility" comes in. It's a lot easier to convince someone to give you money to study something that you have a credible track record in.

    That being said, you don't always have to work on just one thing. If you have an interest in another field, you can start by involving yourself in some collaborative work with others in that field.
  6. Oct 22, 2009 #5

    Vanadium 50

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    It also helps if you have an "in" in the new field. I know some people who have moved from HEP to astrophysics. Initially, they made the move by using HEP instrumentation, which they were experts in, in a new domain: observational astrophysics. After a couple years, they had enough "street cred" with the astro community to strike out on their own.
  7. Oct 22, 2009 #6
    So there is some noticeable flexibility...I guess one cannot be sporadic about things, but it looks like a pretty good degree of flexibility.
  8. Oct 22, 2009 #7
    Probably early in your career it’s possible, but I don’t know if “flexible” is the right word. In fact, I’d say it’s the wrong one.

    I would instead argue that there are few hard barriers to switching, but the longer someone in academia works in their field the greater the inertia. I think the incentives for staying in one line of business are very large, and the opportunity cost of changing research areas becomes increasingly costly. The reality is that most physics professors at most colleges have been doing the same research their entire careers. Some have barely strayed from their grad thesis.

    Is it possible to switch? Yes. Is it flexible? I would argue not.
  9. Oct 22, 2009 #8
    There are some practical limitations. The big one is funding. If you switch to another field then you aren't going to have the social networks and credibility to do grant proposals. The other difficulty has to do with internal psychology. It's hard to switch from a field in which you are seen as a leader to one in which you have no experience at all. On the other hand there are some scientists that just get bored and do something somewhat different and are generally respected (Feymann, Kormogorov, and Chandresekar). Issac Newton did some spectacular work at the Royal Mint.

    There is also the case in which someone is respected in one field, then does a sudden change to a new on in which everyone there thinks he is nutty (Roger Penrose move into neuroscience is a good public example of this, there are a lot of private examples that I can't mention publicly).

    There is also the situation in which lots of professors in one field suddenly find their work useful in another and so there is a mass switch over. A lot of particle physics comes from condensed matter physics, and there are people that are really a bit of both (Goldstone comes to mind).
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