Re-applying from a PhD program (changing fields)? Need advice.

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amyludeng
Posts: 3
Joined: Sun Sep 27, 2015 1:10 pm

Re-applying from a PhD program (changing fields)? Need advice.

Postby amyludeng » Sun Sep 27, 2015 1:50 pm

To what degree is it frowned-upon or damaging to re-applying to PhD programs while already in a well-regarded PhD program in a different field?

I'm asking because I want to change fields from theoretical astrophysics to something more applied, in particular renewable energy, materials or bio-engineering. Unfortunately I'm in the astronomy department so it's not like I can just switch labs while staying in the same program. My school is ranked roughly top 10 in physics although I'm familiar with ranking of astronomy departments...

I'm asking not because I'm unhappy with my current program or school or anything, I just started the PhD two months ago but I'm already doing research and liking my current adviser and the program. However, during the summer before graduate school while I was traveling it began to sink in how much of a threat climate change poses and how many challenges humanity faces right now. I'm really unsatisfied with how abstract and useless my subject of study is, it feels like I'm just playing a game in my head while there are real problems in the world. I feel guilty about studying neutron stars when I could be studying something tangible towards real issues, like climate change, renewable energy, materials and biotech. I wish I was in a lab doing something cutting edge that would make a dent to all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere...

I haven't spoken to anybody in my program about this yet and am turning to online forums as a first resort, I'd really appreciate some advising on how whether I should re-apply given my circumstances, who I should talk to, and what I should be mindful of when I re-apply? Will I burn bridges by making this move? The prospect of losing friends who are professors in this field is the main reason why I'm so hesitant and feel guilty about even asking. On the other hand, I don't feel any burning passion towards researching purely theoretical problems anymore, I just feel numb towards it, even if I finish the program I think I would still end up in another field or working in industry. I'm really lost and feeling guilty and neurotic at the same time and need some perspective. Thanks.

TakeruK
Posts: 813
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Re-applying from a PhD program (changing fields)? Need advice.

Postby TakeruK » Sun Sep 27, 2015 6:52 pm

I think if you withdrew now then it won't be a huge deal. You will certainly burn bridges in astronomy and it would mean you would never have the opportunity for astrophysics that you have now. But if you let your school know now that you don't want to leave, it will do the least amount of damage (maybe they will have you stay until the end of the semester if you are a TA etc.). Also, it will be okay that you won't get any reference letters from your astrophysics program since you were only there for a few months.

Leaving a graduate program so early would certainly raise a few eyebrows at whatever school you are applying to, but if you truly have a change in what you are passionate about and if you are qualified to do the kind of work you are interested in, then it should be okay. Changing fields is an okay thing to do--it doesn't mean you are a bad person. You just have to show that you are going to be committed to the new program when you apply to them so that they don't think you'll "flake" on them too.

I have a few questions for you though:

1. Are you qualified for bio-engineering programs or environmental science programs? I don't mean to question your qualifications but usually, the courses one takes as an astrophysics/physics BSc does not qualify us for graduate work in these fields.

2. Are you willing to quit your current PhD program before getting into a new PhD program? If you aren't, then this would make everything a lot harder as you will have to continue doing one thing while trying to get into another. And, it may call into question how serious you are about the field-switch if you are still trying to pursue astrophysics research while telling environmental science schools that you want to be doing that instead.

3. Finally, although I put this last, I think it might be the most important: have you considered what good you can do as a scientist in astrophysics with a passion and devotion for improving our environment? There is more than you can do for the environment than just researching solutions. Environmentalists need allies everywhere--we need it in astrophysics to help us be mindful of the carbon impact of our research. You can be involved with your campus' sustainability groups to reduce usage on campus and increase awareness for conservation.

Also, as a scientist, you will be an authority figure in the public (in some places more than others). You can help with outreach and communicate science and science education to the public. This will help others understand and be more likely to "believe" scientists when the science behind global warming is presented. I think it also helps when all scientists, from all fields, are united in saying that "we need to do something". Together, we can all put pressure on our governments, our universities, our research societies, and the public to act in ways that are better for our planet.

amyludeng
Posts: 3
Joined: Sun Sep 27, 2015 1:10 pm

Re: Re-applying from a PhD program (changing fields)? Need advice.

Postby amyludeng » Sun Sep 27, 2015 11:22 pm

TakeruK wrote:I think if you withdrew now then it won't be a huge deal. You will certainly burn bridges in astronomy and it would mean you would never have the opportunity for astrophysics that you have now. But if you let your school know now that you don't want to leave, it will do the least amount of damage (maybe they will have you stay until the end of the semester if you are a TA etc.)


Sigh, this is exactly what I'm most afraid of, and the reason why I don't even know if I can mention this to anyone in real life. Not only will I burn bridges with my current adviser, but also the professors closest to me in undergrad, as they encouraged me to do astronomy and are well connected with my current professor. I haven't talked to anyone yet, but it's highly unclear how strong of an application I can put forth in the new field. Also, I have two first author papers in astronomy, I don't know how transferable that is... I could be looking at attending much weaker programs than my current one. I feel a bit trapped.

To answer your questions though:

1. With my BS in physics and some freshman/sophomore level coursework in chemistry and biology (all A's), I at least seem to meet the requirement of most biophysics, BME and material science programs I've googled. But whether that makes me competitive, I don't know.

2. Yes I'm willing to quit, although my fellowship might require me to stay for the semester or the year. I wouldn't mind quitting immediately, I can make that clear.

3. I have thought about this a little bit, doing outreach and joining various clubs and public activities. However, it also bothers me that the very profession I'm in is so utterly useless to humanity's most pressing problems. I feel little personal connection to the field I'm in.

You seem to suggest I quit asap, possibly immediately, this is a possibility I'm considering. It doesn't seem like I have enough time to make a strong application to schools by this fall. I could quit and wait a year, although it seems like a very risky move at the moment.

astroprof
Posts: 95
Joined: Fri Feb 15, 2008 4:47 pm

Re: Re-applying from a PhD program (changing fields)? Need advice.

Postby astroprof » Mon Sep 28, 2015 4:48 am

It is fairly common for students to change research directions during graduate school. Sometimes it is a relatively minor change, other times it is a complete change in direction, as you are proposing to do here. It is important that you talk with people at your current institution to learn what your options may be. In particular, are there any research groups on campus that are currently working on projects that are now of interest to you? If you talk with the graduate students in those groups, you may learn that their day-to-day life is quite similar to yours, and that when lifted out of the lofty description of "helping the planet," their work is just as mundane and prosaic as your work on neutron stars. By talking with other students doing this research, you will also learn whether or not you have sufficient background to succeed without further training at the undergraduate level. Armed with this information, if you are still interested in changing fields, you should approach your current research advisor and the director of graduate studies to learn about what options you may have at your current institution. For example, it might be possible for you to transfer to the relevant department, or transfer to physics (since, as you note, astronomy is a less generic degree) where you might be able to work in a non-physics lab for your dissertation research. In either event, you may be able to start taking the relevant coursework next semester, so that you are better able to transfer/apply to other programs in a year, if you still wish to do so. You should also know that while your professors' initial reactions may be 'why do you want to leave astronomy?' almost no one wants students to stay in a program if they are not happy with their research project - this just leads to unmotivated students and can be a cancer for the department. So I expect that your local professors will be happy to help you figure out what you should do next.

However, because you may find the solution to your problem within your own institution, I strongly do not recommend that you quit your graduate program at this time. It is not clear what that would gain you in any event. At the moment, you have the opportunity to network with people in (at least) related research programs, you may be able to take courses that will help bolster your transition, and you are gainfully employed, doing productive research. Quitting the program simply makes you unemployed and without the educational opportunities to re-train into your new field of interest. This makes zero sense to me. It isn't even as if you are taking a spot from someone else - your department will adjust its enrollment numbers next spring, for the next entering class, but they will not admit someone else now to replace you if you quit now.

Also, while it is common for students to change research directions, I also wonder whether your urge to change fields has a more pernicious underlying cause: impostors syndrome. It sounds like you have been highly successful in the past (2 publications, enrolled at a top-ten graduate program, etc). It can be scary to try to keep performing at this level, and the first semester/year of graduate school is often an unpleasant realization of how difficult it can be to stay on top, particularly if you don't think you should be there. If this is a case of impostors syndrome, you may anticipate failing and think (unconsciously) that It will be easier to "fail" if you set up a situation where you do not have the relevant background. This is not to say that you don't have a rational reason for changing fields (particularly if you were singularly focussed on getting into astronomy graduate school and thus did not have time to consider other options until this past summer). Rather, you may want to question whether changing fields will be sufficient, or if you will find yourself in a similar place in a few years, once you have demonstrated excellence in this new research direction as well.

Finally, yes, if you change research directions in this way, one or two professors (who are clueless) may hold this against you, and, yes, it would be difficult to switch back to astronomy after the fact. However, you should not "feel guilty" or worry about losing friends in the field. This is your life, your career, and your choice. If these people are not happy that you have found a research project that is of interest to you, then how good a friend are they, really?

TakeruK
Posts: 813
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Re-applying from a PhD program (changing fields)? Need advice.

Postby TakeruK » Mon Sep 28, 2015 11:59 am

amyludeng wrote:You seem to suggest I quit asap, possibly immediately, this is a possibility I'm considering. It doesn't seem like I have enough time to make a strong application to schools by this fall. I could quit and wait a year, although it seems like a very risky move at the moment.


When I wrote the part about leaving sooner rather than later, I mean this only if you are already certain (like 100%) you don't want to be pursuing an astrophysics PhD and will be changing fields. I was also responding to the feeling I sensed that you did not feel like anyone in your current program would understand. And finally, I wrote it with the impression that you want to be applying this fall for new programs starting Fall 2017.

However, astroprof is right to point out that you will likely find more support than you might expect from the professors in your department and especially the professors that helped you get to where you are today. Of course, no one can guarantee that all of your professors will feel this way, but the ones that actually care about you as a student and as a person would want what is best for you.

astroprof is also correct that you should definitely talk with students who are working in the groups that you are interested in. I'm actually in an Earth Science department (I study planetary science in a subfield that can easily be in astronomy or earth science), not an astrophysics one, and environmental science is part of my department. I have friends who are working on helping humanity through environmental problems. However, I think their passion and their biggest impact is not through their research work but through their involvement with sustainability groups on and off campus. But you should certainly talk to people yourself and find out more information.

I agree with astroprof that I think the best thing to do after you are satisfied with the amount of feedback online is to talk to your professors. Maybe you can start with the ones from your past institution first and they might help you find a good way to bring this up to your current professors.

Perhaps the best course of action is to actually keep working in astronomy for at least another year and see how you feel about the field. At the same time, you can do what astroprof suggests and find out a lot more information about life in the other field to see if the grass is really greener on the other side. You can also talk to the other department and find out if you would actually be competitive as an applicant in that field.

I can't really say what's best for you because I don't know you. But if you were a friend of mine that I knew well and someone I knew that worked hard to get into an Astronomy grad program and then my friend told me this, I would also wonder if changing fields after only a few months is the "best" thing to do. Grad school can be a big change and usually, it's worth staying at least one year to fully evaluate how much you feel like you belong/fit into a certain program. I feel a little bad saying this because in doing so, I am dismissing your own opinions without even knowing you. But I have to say that the first few months of grad school is a big change and that it is perfectly normal for us to question our own choices to choose this program/field. I started grad school twice (in Canada, you do separate programs for MSc and PhD) and both times, I spent the whole first semester wondering if I made the right choice. And then even after the first year, self-doubt occasionally creeps in! I just wanted to say that it's normal to wonder if you are doing the right thing for yourself and that maybe even staying for a Masters in astrophysics before switching might be the best route instead of leaving right away. However, as I said at the beginning of the paragraph, I don't really know you and all your circumstances so perhaps it's inappropriate for me to assume that all of this applies. If that is the case, I apologize!

amyludeng
Posts: 3
Joined: Sun Sep 27, 2015 1:10 pm

Re: Re-applying from a PhD program (changing fields)? Need advice.

Postby amyludeng » Wed Sep 30, 2015 6:02 pm

astroprof wrote:Also, while it is common for students to change research directions, I also wonder whether your urge to change fields has a more pernicious underlying cause: impostors syndrome. It sounds like you have been highly successful in the past (2 publications, enrolled at a top-ten graduate program, etc). It can be scary to try to keep performing at this level, and the first semester/year of graduate school is often an unpleasant realization of how difficult it can be to stay on top, particularly if you don't think you should be there. If this is a case of impostors syndrome, you may anticipate failing and think (unconsciously) that It will be easier to "fail" if you set up a situation where you do not have the relevant background. This is not to say that you don't have a rational reason for changing fields (particularly if you were singularly focussed on getting into astronomy graduate school and thus did not have time to consider other options until this past summer). Rather, you may want to question whether changing fields will be sufficient, or if you will find yourself in a similar place in a few years, once you have demonstrated excellence in this new research direction as well.


Dear astroprof, I just wanted to say thank you so much for this line of advice... Somehow I had been suffering from impostor syndrome for the past few weeks without even realizing it, and it took you to point this out. This is indeed something I'm going through, although it's not the only thing bothering me, I realize now there are many subtle things that I'm unhappy about without even realizing, but it's making me really yearn for a change.

It's inspirational to me how despite having all the responsibilities of a faculty member you still find the time to emphatically counsel and inspire students on the internet.

TakeruK wrote:I agree with astroprof that I think the best thing to do after you are satisfied with the amount of feedback online is to talk to your professors. Maybe you can start with the ones from your past institution first and they might help you find a good way to bring this up to your current professors.

Perhaps the best course of action is to actually keep working in astronomy for at least another year and see how you feel about the field. At the same time, you can do what astroprof suggests and find out a lot more information about life in the other field to see if the grass is really greener on the other side. You can also talk to the other department and find out if you would actually be competitive as an applicant in that field.

I can't really say what's best for you because I don't know you. But if you were a friend of mine that I knew well and someone I knew that worked hard to get into an Astronomy grad program and then my friend told me this, I would also wonder if changing fields after only a few months is the "best" thing to do. Grad school can be a big change and usually, it's worth staying at least one year to fully evaluate how much you feel like you belong/fit into a certain program. I feel a little bad saying this because in doing so, I am dismissing your own opinions without even knowing you. But I have to say that the first few months of grad school is a big change and that it is perfectly normal for us to question our own choices to choose this program/field. I started grad school twice (in Canada, you do separate programs for MSc and PhD) and both times, I spent the whole first semester wondering if I made the right choice. And then even after the first year, self-doubt occasionally creeps in! I just wanted to say that it's normal to wonder if you are doing the right thing for yourself and that maybe even staying for a Masters in astrophysics before switching might be the best route instead of leaving right away. However, as I said at the beginning of the paragraph, I don't really know you and all your circumstances so perhaps it's inappropriate for me to assume that all of this applies. If that is the case, I apologize!


Dear TakeruK, thank you for all your help as well. I can tell you more about my situation but at the moment I'm still uncomfortable with losing the anonymity. In any case making a switch like this will take much time, effort and heart, I think I need to reflect on it more calmly before making any decisions. Do you mind if I contact you again sometime later once I have further questions? Thanks so much and I understand if you are too busy with your PhD studies!




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