How To Successfully Start A PhD In A Different Field

Starting a PhD in a different field than your MSc can be tricky. Unless you know how to transition successfully between fields.

Here’s the situation: you’ve received your bachelors (or even masters) degree in one subject and along the way discovered that your interests lay elsewhere or you would like to tackle a problem from a different angle.

Completing a PhD in your new field of interest would require you to drastically change your research focus. What do you do? Do you ‘stick it out’ in your field and continue down this mildly interesting path towards an ultimately apathetic grad school (and career) experience? Do you decide to make a change, and pursue what truly inspires you?

Interests change with time and experience. It is only natural to discover your ‘true’ passion after months or years of intense work. A person can spend years in one area and then discover a whole other world of research they didn’t even know existed.

I came to this realization near the end of my undergraduate studies. I cannot say it was easy but I succeeded at the end.

Let me show you my situation. I think my experiences can help you make informed decisions about a potential ‘field switch’ between your undergraduate and graduate school careers.

But first let’s start with a simple question. There are many things you should know before starting a PhD. However, you decide to do a PhD in a different field. Why?

Doing a Phd in a different field

Why would I switch fields? Should I consider it?

Let me start with my personal story. This is why I switched fields in my PhD.

I received my BA in anthropology. I am now entering the second year of a PhD program in neuroscience. Yes, quite a change, but why?

The reasons behind my ‘field switch’ were less centered on a particular question than they were on how researchers in each field generally approach a given problem. As I progressed through my undergraduate years, I became more and more interested in factors that drive certain behaviors.

As an anthropologist, I was interested in the vast variety of traits within humans and across primates more broadly. I found myself reading obscure articles on different kinship organizations among Native American communities or the prevalence of Tay-Sachs disease in Ashkenazi Jewish populations. As you can see, I was not particularly focused during my first few years of study.

During my initial years as an undergraduate, I became engrossed in music, as I had begun to play the piano again after a 5 year hiatus from the instrument.

With my concurrent interests in human biology, I decided to complete an honors thesis on hormonal correlates of musical ability in men and women. This research was ultimately published in PLoS One. Yay!

In the lab, I would frequently ask myself questions like “How are hormones changing musical aptitude, if at all?” and “How do changes in physiology influence brain function, and how does this ultimately guide behavior?”.

Interested in both behavior and biology, I began to center on the link between the two: the brain.

It quickly became evident that in order to probe the questions I was interested in, I would need a greater understanding of the mechanisms of behavior at the most fundamental level.

Further training in anthropology did not seem to offer the most ideal route to achieving my goals. I needed to get into the nitty-gritty details of what drives behavior on a cellular or even molecular level.

In anthropology, the greatest strengths of the field (working with humans and non-human primates) also present some of the greatest drawbacks. Ethically and logistically, it was not possible to ask the kinds of questions I ultimately became interested in through the lens of anthropology. I would at most be able to examine associative relationships between behavior and biology.

In order to examine the proximate mechanisms of such phenomena, I needed to be able to ‘tinker’ with the underlying machinery (i.e. the brain), which is for the most part unfeasible in basic human research.

I therefore resolved to investigate alternative paths. Through extensive reading and a not so small amount of second guessing, I concluded that the most advantageous course of action was to pursue a doctoral degree in neuroscience. This would allow me to examine causal relationships between biological processes and subsequent behavior.

You can see the thought processes that slowly accumulated in the back of my mind throughout my time as an undergraduate, and just how much thought went into ‘making the switch’. It was not an impulsive choice, it all slowly came into place. I really wanted to do a PhD in a different field.

Do you find yourself constantly thinking about a problem that A) you can’t address in your current field or B) you can address better in a different field?

Then you may want to start thinking about a ‘switch’. However, if you are just unaware of the breadth of your field, you need to do a good amount of research before starting to think about switching.

Imagine you were interested in biological mechanisms of social interactions. How can you approach this topic from multiple angles?

First, you could examine humans and various species of animals in various social contexts. You could collect urine or fecal samples to ascertain hormonal correlates of these behaviors without disrupting normal social interactions.

You could also look at genetic variations and link them to differences in behavior. You would not, however, be able to manipulate these variables directly. In order to do that, you would need to control for environmental variables and administer pre-determined doses of a hormone/peptide of interest. This is very hard to do in non-laboratory situations.

Similarly, if you wanted to study environmental factors that influence sleep, you could examine sleeping patterns of different species in the wild and attempt to relate them to differences in temperature, photoperiod, or other factors.

You could not directly measure sleep (via EEG/EMG signals), or manipulate any of these environmental variables to actually determine causation in any relationships you may find.

Understanding disconnects like these galvanized my initial interests in switching fields.

Still with me? Good, that means you are considering changing fields for your PhD.

Don’t worry, of course I will tell you how to switch to a PhD in a different field. We are getting there.

Doing a Phd in a different field

How do I start a PhD in a different field?

Once you’ve determined that the only way you can really pursue your interests is to switch fields, you need to walk the walk. There are a few things you need to think about once (or before) your decision has been made:

1 . Talk to your current professors about pursuing outside interests

If you are thinking about graduate school, you likely enjoyed the academic life as an undergraduate. You probably formed at least one close or semi-close bond with a professor or mentor of some sort.

You may feel like you’re ‘deserting them’ when you begin to think about pursuing outside interests. If they are a true mentor and friend, they will be more than supportive of your new direction.

Mentors are there to facilitate your success, not hinder it. If that means switching fields, mentors should be proud of your determination and do what they can to make the transition as smooth as possible. However, in order to enlist the help of your current mentor(s), they need to believe that switching fields truly is in your best interests.

Early and frequent conversations about your research/interests are very important. Make sure your advisor knows what your interests are. This allows them to determine what the most beneficial course of action for you would be.

They may agree that switching fields is for the best. They may enlighten you to new avenues of exploration in your native field. Either way, they will help you accomplish your goals. It’s a win-win situation!

2. Initiate contact with professors/researchers in the new target field

So now you’ve done it, plopped yourself down into a brand new arena. You will (seemingly) have no allies, and no ties or experience in this new domain. Time to network.

Who do you contact to accomplish the goals that made you switch in the first place?

Your current/past professors can help you set up initial contacts in the new field, or get you in contact with those who can.

You’ve (ideally) done extensive background research to help you determine if you wanted to switch fields in the first place. This should already give you an idea of who you would like to work with in the future.

Several authors will author multiple papers within your field of interest. These are the people you should be thinking about as potential future advisors.

Send off short and to-the-point emails to those whose research you’ve found most interesting. Inquire as to whether they will be accepting graduate students in the coming year. Comment on a recent paper of theirs to show you’ve really been doing your research and are genuinely interested in working specifically with them.

If you’re feeling more confident, make a direct phone call.

If you want to follow the more formal rout, you wil have to send a CV, a statement of purpose and recommendation letters. If you don’t know how to write them, you can always use a template. Check these templates for a statement of purpose for graduate school and a recommendation letter for a PhD.

3. Begin to gain experience in your new field before applying to graduate schools

Do you still have a year or so at your undergraduate institution? Then you can reach out to professors in the ‘new’ field at your current campus. Inquire about gaining any relevant experience under them (wet lab work/field experience…etc…).

With a year left, you can also take some of the ‘intro’ classes for your new field, or if those are too broad (given your background), think about taking an upper level techniques class or a graduate seminar (even if it seems way over your head).

Graduate admissions committees want to see that you can conduct research, but also that you can ‘hold your own’ in a graduate level class. If you are able, get that experience.

If you are already out of school, think about working as a lab tech for a summer or longer to gain any necessary first-hand experience in the field. Choosing to wait an extra summer to apply to graduate school while gaining relevant experience can be especially worthwhile.

In my lab, three graduate students that received their doctorates this year completed the program in ~4 years. All of them have over 15 publications, and they all worked in a lab tech position prior to beginning the program.

They informed me that this experience helped them really understand what working in a lab entailed, and how to get work done in a timely and organized way.

These are valuable and transferable skills you will need in graduate school (and in life in general!).

How can you get a PhD position when you have no experience?

Don’t underestimate your aptitude. Laboratory managers or PIs are interested in hiring competent employees.

They care more about whether or not you have a good track record of showing up on time, getting work done, and listening to directions than how many digits of pi you can remember.

Your consistently good grades and recommendations from your current professors will more than suffice to put you in good standing with potential labs of interest.

You should mention that you’d like to use the laboratory experience as a springboard to higher education (i.e. graduate school). This lends more credence to your work; as you are more likely to do it well than if you are ‘just in it for the cash’.

You don’t need a mastery of the theories behind the work you’ll be doing to do it well. I know this because I’m still employed.

If you are interested in what you’re doing, you’ll do it well because you care about it!

how you feel when starting a PhD in a different field

What do you need to do when arriving in your new program?

You’ve gotten into a graduate program in your new field! Congratulations!

You may think that you are at a complete disadvantage and that you ‘don’t belong’ in this new field.

I felt that way when other students would talk about how hard organic chemistry or a related course was during their undergraduate years. I didn’t have anything to contribute to such discussions because I didn’t take any of those so called ‘pre-requisites’.

Just because you weren’t able to take the extensive amount of courses your peers may have taken in the field doesn’t mean you didn’t learn how to think as an undergraduate. You were still taught logical reasoning and how to deal with both abstract and applied concepts.

When entering a new program you need to first and foremost not freak out.

Remember that a committee of highly trained experts has deemed you worthy of continued education at their institution. More importantly, they believe that you can make significant contributions to the field.

Getting a PhD means that you will make the switch from a ‘knowledge absorber’ to a ‘knowledge creator’. Don’t be afraid to jump into research. Experts become experts through experience, and you need to start gaining that experience as soon as possible.

You have already been trained in how to fit (conceptual) pieces of a puzzle together. What’s new to you will be the types of puzzles, but not the concept of the puzzle altogether. You’ll just need to learn some new techniques, which lab techs, your PI, or other grad students can easily teach you.

Actively ask for help when you need it. Don’t feel ashamed to admit your ignorance of a technique. Research how to do something, and if you need further guidance, seek it out from other lab/group members. They will be thankful that you didn’t just ‘try it out’ and end up breaking equipment or losing data in the process.

Learn to speak the ‘language’ of the field. You may be coming from a field where you routinely used terms like ‘phoneme’ or ‘ethnologies’ in everyday conversation. You’ll have to learn a few new words and how to use them when entering your new field.

I had to quickly pick up words like ‘antidromic’ and ‘phosphorylate’ in order to follow and participate in normal day to day conversation.

The only way to really learn the jargon is through extensive reading, which is what you have been doing for quite some time at this point. When you come across a word or phrase you don’t know, look it up!

You need to read papers and learn the jargon. If you don’t want to loose track of the papers you read I recommend you three things:

  1. Use Mendeley.
  2. Use Evernote (and read Evernote Essentials).
  3. Write a literature review.

When I started, I was assigned to read the following paper: “Lipidomics identifies cardiolipin oxidation as a mitochondrial target for redox therapy of brain injury” (Ji et al., 2012).

I read the title of this paper about four times before I decided that I just did not for the life of me understand what it was saying. I understood ‘brain injury’…and had some vague idea of what mitochondria do, but even that was a stretch.

Learning to speak well in your new field is time consuming, but well worth it. When a speaker uses a word or phrase incorrectly in a talk, it knocks down their credibility. By being able to speak freely and eloquently about the material in your field, you come across as knowledgeable and credible.

What does my unique situation bring to the program? 

You may be the only ‘non-traditional’ student in your incoming cohort (I was), but don’t think of this as a disadvantage.

By having a unique background, you will be able to look at a particular problem through multiple lenses. You may be able to link lines of evidence together that elude your peers because they have only been trained to look at it from one perspective.

This is what happened to neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky from Stanford University. He received his bachelor’s degree in anthropology followed by a PhD in neuroendocrinology. His unique background allowed him to make new connections between social stress and disease. His research has helped cement the mechanisms behind brain cell death and a now famous ‘stress hormone’ — cortisol. Sapolsky would have likely not ever studied such relationships if it weren’t for his initial interests in baboon social behavior and his love of Africa.

Perhaps you received an undergraduate degree in literature or history or another related subject that required you to do a lot of writing. Likely, you are an above average writer. If you’re switching to a science-oriented field, you will have a sizable advantage. Scientists, in general, are bad writers.

I have been in many conversations where I confessed I didn’t know how to fix contaminations in my RNA yields or other related technical problems. These can easily be remedied by asking a colleague, or some internet sleuthing.

Other students seem to dread writing. Academic writing is an essential skill in graduate school. This is where you likely have the upper hand. While your peers take months to compile their thoughts and go through dozens of manuscript revisions, you likely have little trouble constructing a cogent argument and presenting your data.

Don’t underestimate the value of academic writing! Conveying your thoughts in a clear and concise manner is of paramount importance across all fields. Novel and important ideas can only have substantial impact if they are effectively communicated.

If you need some help with writing check this books on academic writing.

So, should you start a PhD in a different field?

The most important ideas to understand about starting a PhD in a different field are:

  • Switching fields is possible. In no way does it hinder your potential for success.
  • If your goals sit firmly within another field of interest, don’t hesitate to make the necessary change. You will be forever glad you did.
  • Make sure you look before you leap. Take the time to discover all your native field has to offer before you jettison it for something else.
  • There can be quite a bit of common ground between many fields, and it may be in your best interests to nestle yourself in one field and dabble in the other to reach your goals.
  • Finding the common ground between fields can help you make the transition smoother as well, if you’re not keen on jumping between polar opposite areas of study. Don’t hesitate to involve your current/past mentors at every step of the process as well.

Hopefully, this post has helped you in some way. If I managed to switch fields, you can do that too!

Please share with us your experience starting a PhD in a different field. 
Leave us a comment saying how you managed the transition.
About Jeremy Borniger

Jeremy Borniger is a PhD student in neuroscience at The Ohio State University. He received a BA in anthropology from Indiana University. Jeremy enjoys playing the piano, traveling, scuba diving, and running. You can follow Jeremy in Twitter @JBorniger.

  • http://twitter.com/BananaFurby Signe E. Åsberg

    Great tips!
    I’m about to change fields from plant research to (human) immunology.
    I chose my masters degree project based on the lab experience I would receive and the excellent communication I had with my supervisor. But throughout my degree I was constantly reading about immunology and medical microbiology – completely different from my own project!
    When the time came to apply for a PhD I began looking for options in immunology and somehow I got an offer (yay me!). I don’t start my PhD until August, but I’ve started attending the weekly meetings of my new group already. I love the project, but I’m very nervous, so thank you so much for telling me not to freak out!!

    • NextScientist

      Hi Signe,

      What actions did you take to “somehow get an offer”? Was there something that made a difference?

      Julio

      • http://twitter.com/BananaFurby Signe E. Åsberg

        I had already decided that I wanted to move on to something in microbiology and therefore took an introductory immunology course. The lecturer was really great and inspiring, so one day after the lecture I told her that I wanted to do a phd with her as my supervisor and asked if we could take a meeting. The meeting was kind of a job interview where we discussed my background and what I wanted to do. We agreed that we wanted to work together, but at that point she didn’t know what positions would be available when I finished my master.

        During the spring they got a huge grant and could hire several phds. I was asked to apply, did that and got one of the positions. I really think that asking for the first meeting was the most important thing I did, because that was how we came to know each other.

  • Halina

    Going from anthropology to neuroscience isn’t too drastic of a switch. My husband at the time went from a physics BS and MS to a genetics PhD. It was challenging because he knew very few of the basic biology tenets that support genetics. Lots of back-up undergrad biology classes had to be taken. But he eventually squeaked out with a PhD in genetics.

    • NextScientist

      Hi Halina,

      That’s the spirit. Doing everything to acquire the missing knowledge.

      Starting a PhD in a different field can be done. It’s not an utopia.
      If you are smart and motivated, you can do it.

      Cheers,
      Julio

  • P

    Any recommendations for wanting to switch when already committed to a masters program? I applied only to two schools this year (stupid me), one being a top school, and the other being my average undergraduate uni. My thought process was that if I didn’t get into the labs I wanted to at the top uni, I would just commit to a professor I worked with for over 2 years, who I’ve had a great relationship with, for my masters, pick up some essential skills, and then move on for my PhD.

    Having said that, with my masters about to begin in a couple of weeks, I feel anxious and depressed over my work in the masters, knowing it isn’t the work I would like to see myself doing. I’m thus contemplating about dropping out of the masters, taking a year off, and reapplying for next year for labs where I feel I’d be much happier with in regards to the type of work done. I just can’t see this sort of abandonment going well over with my current professor. I would imagine a potential reference from him when reapplying (if I go down this route) would not be worth getting, that’s if he was even willing to give one. Oh boy, haven’t even officially started grad school, and already the thoughts of dropping out are flooding my mind….

    • NextScientist

      Can’t you not stick to your current Prof, get the best out of the project, obtain a good recommendation letter from him and apply to your dream PhD?