On switching fields.
On my last post, someone commented that they really can't relate to my statement about how money matters more than ideas, but proposed that it could be field-dependent.
I think there are a lot of differences among different sub-fields of science. I find it odd that no one seems to care if other fields are unfair or corrupt, so long as their own field seems okay.
This person also suggested that I should consider switching fields.
I have. It's a little more complicated than it sounds. There are some times in your career when it will make sense to switch fields, or migrate, or straddle multiple fields. There are other times when it is virtually impossible.
Let's say you did your PhD in one or more fields, and now you're debating about what to do for your postdoc (this is geared toward what I think is my demographic of readers- mostly PhD students and early postdocs).
It's perhaps a little-known fact that NIH postdoctoral fellowships are preferentially awarded to people who switch fields- or at least appear to switch fields. (Note that this is not generally the case for other funding sources or non-postdoc-fellowship types of grants.)
I can state for the record that I met someone who served on the review committee and he confirmed for me that this is true, and that it is an unusual feature of the postdoc fellowship funding level. The belief system of this review committee is based on two main assumptions:
1) Switching geographical location is good for scientific training/career experience.
2) Switching scientific field is good for scientific training/science in general.
However, it is also very beneficial to have preliminary data for even a postdoctoral fellowship application.
There are a few ways to get this.
1. Bring something with you from your PhD. This only works if you stay in the same field or if your PhD advisor let you go off on a tangent at the end of your thesis work. I think this scenario is probably rare, but I'm sure it happens sometimes.
2. Use data your postdoc PI had lying around, for example from their R01. Think you can't use the exact same data in two different grants reviewed by different committees at NIH? Why would you think that? I know of multiple examples where the PI offered/insisted and the postdoc agreed. In none of those cases did anyone ever get caught for plagiarism or simultaneous submission.
3. Work hard and fast your first few months in your postdoc lab, and then apply. If you do this, there are three ways to get enough preliminary data to get funded:
a) Join a good lab where they will train you in their techniques and help you get up and running
b) Be a genius at the bench and work wicked fast (not me)
c) Do something related to your PhD experience, because you can do this quickly thanks to all those years of training.
d) Some combination thereof.
All of this sounds great, very simple when you break it down like this into pieces.
Now here's where it gets interesting. Let's say you get the money. Then what do you do?
1. Work on what you proposed.
2. Work on something other than you proposed.
For both of these scenarios you could say the following:
If it a) has something to do with what your current lab does, you're probably in good shape. You can rely on their existing reagents and expertise, and your advisor will happily supplement anything else you need because it overlaps significantly with his/her R01s.
If it b) has very little to do with what your current lab does, congratulations.
You're now straddling fields, whether you meant to or not. You may or may not get as much support from your advisor as the postdocs in your lab who work on sub-aims of the lab R01s. You may or may not have the resources you need. You will probably have to make and/or buy new reagents and you will probably have to hard time paying for them. It will take you longer.
The good news is, you might go outside your main lab and find other mentors in other labs. These contacts should be useful to help you get a job later, especially if you want to migrate over to this other field.
The bad news is, your advisor most likely will not understand what you're working on, and more importantly, he/she won't care very much, because you're going to take it with you when you go.
So now you're like a hairdresser renting out a chair in somebody else's shop. Everyone knows that's not a permanent arrangement, so they don't have to be nice to you, and in fact might be deliberately not nice to you, in an effort to hurry you out.
But I'm going off on a tangent.
Now let's say you're farther along in your postdoc and you've been straddling, as a tenant-hairdresser, for a while now.
You'd like to switch fields entirely but you can't easily do that, because your advisor is not an expert in your field of interest (and maybe people in that field have never even heard of him/her).
So although you've done work in this new field, it's hard to make the connections you need since you'd have to pay to attend meetings out of your own money, and do your own PR (since your advisor isn't do it for you). In order to get a job, you also have to publish in this new field, which again is hard since you and your advisor are unknown in this area. Your collaborators try to help, but it's not enough. You've even thought about switching to join your collaborator's lab, but for various reasons that didn't seem like it would work out.
And you're too expensive at this point for anyone to want to hire as a postdoc in your field of interest (and frankly too tired).
You have a blog where you occasionally write about these things, where well-meaning but clueless people occasionally comment with suggestions as if you haven't thought at all about how you're living your life.
So, to sum up: if you're going to switch fields for your postdoc, beware. One of my friends took the easy way out. She wrote her fellowships on a project unrelated to her thesis work, got the money, and then she didn't do what she proposed. She went back and worked on a followup to her thesis project, and got a faculty position BY STAYING IN THE SAME FIELD.
Newsflash: search committees are not impressed when you switch fields, unless you become a star in the new one. Oh and you better do it ultra-fast.
Even worse, if you're straddling fields, departments don't want you because they don't know where to put you. There's a lot of lip service about 'interdisciplinary' and 'cross-departmental partnerships' and yada yada, but in reality most departments are still very old-fashioned and provincial, and they want candidates who are that way, too.