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Other Transitioning from PhD to a different type of research position

  • Thread starter rwooduk
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I'm currently in the process of applying for research positions in my field, unfortunately it's somewhat niche and research positions rarely become available. When they do they tend to go to those who they know already.

So, I'm having to look at different research fields, which is kind of daunting since I am confident in my current field and to change fields would mean I have to research that area for a long time first before even starting the project.

Does anyone here have any experience of moving to a very different field? How did you get accepted for the position with them knowing that it wasn't your field of research? Is having a PhD enough to show a propensity to learn and develop in another field of research? What would be the view of those who you apply for a postdoc with when they know you know little on the subject?

I could go back to my physics roots, I have a BSc. Class I in physics from a good UK university but to be honest I've forgotten much of the content, so a physics postdoc may not be suitable.

Any advice would be appreciated.
 

Choppy

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In my experience when people are hiring post-docs, they often have the project well-defined already and therefore have a specific skill set that they're looking for the post-doc to bring to the table.

When someone who doesn't have any experience in the field is considered, it's because that person brings a certain skill set to the table. They have experience working with a particular software package, or running specific equipment, or in performing a certain type of analytical technique, etc. Otherwise, they tend to go to the bottom of the pile. Depending on the details of the project, being outside the field (depending on how far outside) isn't necessarily an outright disqualifier, but because there tend to be more graduating PhDs than there are post-doctoral positions, the candidate is often in a position of having to explain why he or she should be chosen over other more qualified applicants.
 

Dr. Courtney

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I've made three moves to radically different fiends.

After a PhD in AMO Physics, a company hired me for R&D in wireless communications. I wasn't competing with other Physics PhDs in the applicant pool, and they (rightly) figured I could come up the learning curve quickly. I did.

The next move was a move into ballistics after 9/11/2001. By then I had left the wireless communications company and was teaching at a community college. They didn't really care what I did for research or outside the 25 hours a week teaching requirements of the job. Certain circumstances caused my wife (also a PhD) and I to realize we were very well positioned to address some critical questions in ballistics relevant to counter terrorism. We were mostly self-funded for the first few years, but after our first few papers were published, we had the attention of most of the players and plenty of funding. In hindsight, I never had a doubt we could do productive research, but I doubt we could have scored much funding before our first published papers.

The next move was into blast physics. By then, my wife was on the Physics faculty at West Point, and blast-related TBI was widely regarded as one of the biggest issues facing the Army. Teaching only took up 20 hours of her time per week, so when she pointed out how we could leverage our ballistics work for tangible progress in blast-related TBI, she was given permission to use all her available time on the project. I essentially donated my time to the project, since our consulting company made all our money in ballistics at that time. But the first blast project yielded a very important paper in blast injury physics that remains the most highly cited paper of my career.

But the bottom line is it takes a few thousand hours to become an expert in a new field. It can be tricky to pay for all that time without knowing whether your work will ever be productive. As in my case, I think most new PhDs have a better chance getting a private company to pay for it if you show lots of promise or doing it as a side project when you are really earning your keep as a teacher. Or, you could earn your keep consulting in an area people are willing to pay for and bet on yourself in new areas where you really believe you can succeed.

Always remember that Einstein entered new fields, but he put food on the table with a job at the patent office in the process.
 
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Thanks very much for the reply and helpful insights! I think you are right in regards to having company backing and I have had some good replies from companies I have applied for work with, even though I am outside their research area, who were more concerned about my lack of work experience. So, I have decided to look more at industrial research, for now. That’s a fascinating work history, you have done extremely well for yourself! I guess it all comes down to hard work and perseverance, thanks again for sharing.
 
711
45
In my experience when people are hiring post-docs, they often have the project well-defined already and therefore have a specific skill set that they're looking for the post-doc to bring to the table.

When someone who doesn't have any experience in the field is considered, it's because that person brings a certain skill set to the table. They have experience working with a particular software package, or running specific equipment, or in performing a certain type of analytical technique, etc. Otherwise, they tend to go to the bottom of the pile. Depending on the details of the project, being outside the field (depending on how far outside) isn't necessarily an outright disqualifier, but because there tend to be more graduating PhDs than there are post-doctoral positions, the candidate is often in a position of having to explain why he or she should be chosen over other more qualified applicants.
Sorry, I missed your comment. Yes, I am trying to have at least something to offer which is more common, such as experimental techniques, reactor design (chemical engineering), even my teaching experience. Thank you for your take on this, I tend to agree!
 

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