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Switching to a vastly different field for postdoc

  1. Jun 5, 2009 #1
    This is probably going to sound like a ridiculous question, but I'll throw it out there anyway. I'm a third year PhD student in particle astrophysics (experimental). As such, almost all of my graduate coursework is in physics (quantum, E&M, stat mech, nuclear, particle, quantum field theory, etc.) rather than astronomy. However, my research is heavily astronomy and high energy based. Let's say I wanted to do a postdoc in experimental condensed matter physics, specifically something relating to superconductivity. Is this reasonably possible, or am I locked in to high energy physics for life?
     
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  3. Jun 5, 2009 #2

    ZapperZ

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    It is possible, but this is the case where it is not just the probability of tunneling across a barrier, but also the probability that the state you are tunneling to is unoccupied.

    I switched fields in going from a postdoc to my employment. But that is because the field that I went into was looking for someone with my expertise, i.e. there was a specific need for what I have the skill for in the new field. So you can't just say that you want to go into so-and-so. You need to see if there is a niche there where someone with your background can fill, or if there is a job or postdoc in which someone with your background has a unique and distinct advantage. There has to be a two-way handshake here.

    Zz.
     
  4. Jun 8, 2009 #3
    Thank you ZapperZ. I suppose my next question should logically be: what can I do to increase the tunneling current? My first guess is to say that I should take a graduate course in condensed matter. However, my fellow experimentalists keep telling me that the "physics" is for theoreticians, and that we only care about how to detect things. In particle astrophysics I've had a decent amount of experience with experimental methods (high energy data analysis, electronics, and other related things). Should I instead be focusing on instrumentation?

    Obviously I know that all research groups are different and that you can only give generalized advice. But any suggestions would be helpful.
     
  5. Jun 8, 2009 #4

    ZapperZ

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    Physics is for theoreticians?

    That makes no sense whatsoever. As far as I can tell, experimentalists outnumbered theorists in physics (it is probably true in the APS). In my small accelerator group, we are ALL experimentalists technically, not a single theorist among us. Yet, we still do a lot of numerical modeling, etc., something that theorists would do. But we still build stuff and run experiments!

    S.C. Zhang at Stanford went from elementary particle theorist to condensed matter theorist. However, he has the advantage in which many of the same field theoretic method applies to condensed matter, and he's able to use many of his expertise in group symmetry, etc. (something that a CM theorists would also know) and his insight into elementary particles and apply it to CM.

    You need to figure out if you have that kind of unique knowledge that you can bring over to CM. If not, put yourself into the shoes of someone looking to hire... why should he/she hire you when there's someone behind you who has the expertise in the very field that the job requires?

    Zz.
     
  6. Jun 11, 2009 #5
    Yes, I've thought about that. Which leads me to my next ridiculous question...

    Assuming I finish my particle astro PhD and decide I'd like to make this career change, would it be feasible to do a 1 or 2 year MS in CMP, solely for the purpose of publishing a few CMP papers and getting research experience, so that I could apply for a postdoc in CMP?
     
  7. Jun 11, 2009 #6

    Andy Resnick

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    Speaking as someone who made a switch to a vastly different field (and is now 'coming back home'), if you want to do a postdoc in CMP, simply find a sponsoring faculty member. Whom have you contacted already? Who would you like to work with?
     
  8. Jun 12, 2009 #7
    Well I haven't talked to anyone in my department yet. I'm only starting third year next fall, so I figure I've got plenty of time to think about this. But indeed I have been planning to chat with a few professors in the near future.

    If I may ask, what did your career during and after grad school look like? I'd be most interested to hear what kinds of switches you made.
     
  9. Jun 12, 2009 #8

    Andy Resnick

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    If I had to summarize my recent career path here, I'd say that 5 years ago I was lucky to get a NIH training grant that I used to learn physiology. Going into the grant, I considered myself an optical physicist. Coming out of the grant and into a tenure-track position in Physics, I feel a bit like Marco Polo, who ventured into the badlands and came back with lots of amazing new toys and ideas.

    Your path is entirely up to you, to make your own. Don't let small-minded people keep you down.
     
  10. Jun 12, 2009 #9

    Moonbear

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    My suggestion would be to attend some of the conferences where people present the type of work you're interested in doing, even if you have to pay your own way. When I was finishing up my Ph.D., I wasn't 100% sure of which of two directions I wanted to head for a post-doc...somewhat related, but not entirely, to my Ph.D. work, so that's what I did, I paid my own way to some different conferences. Why? Because I had the opportunity to meet the people I would be applying to for post-doc positions, so I wasn't just a random application showing up in their mailbox, and because I got to see what current work they and their students/post-docs were doing to decide if it really did interest me.

    I got lucky that THE person I wanted to work with who had research that fit both of those fields had a position open and funding available. I had to beat out three other people in interviews, but that was relatively non-competitive at the time.

    And, in the irony department, the other person who I had really wanted to meet while at one of the conferences, but was a no-show (I met and partied with several of his students, but didn't manage to meet him...his students were there on their own that year) ended up being the person who hired me as a research asst. professor in his lab a few years later. I was unaware of it at the time, but he was also a former student of my post-doc mentor, so we ended up eventually meeting through that connection, and doing research together anyway. It ended up the best of both worlds...both people I was interested in working with I ended up working with (I joke that it was a rather incestuous research family).

    Anyway, the moral of the story is that if you want to work with people who are doing research substantially different from yours, you will have the most success if you find ways to meet them before applying to work in their labs. It is very common for people to change fields between a PhD and post-doc, and I would in fact encourage it as a way of broadening your background and seeking bridges between those fields as a potential niche for your own independent research when you are looking for a faculty position.
     
  11. Jun 13, 2009 #10
    Thanks everyone for your input so far. These stories of changes in specialty are rather encouraging. I'm certainly going to try to spend the next couple of years meeting some condensed matter physicists, in case I want to work with them (shouldn't be too hard, since my department is fortunate enough to be across the street from a national lab that specializes in CMP).

    If anyone has other advice or suggestions for me, please let me know!
     
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