Have you ever switched from one system or question to a totally different one? Or do you know someone who has?
Such switches are fairly common, especially in grad school. As a beginning grad student, it’s hard to know for sure whether you’ll like working on your chosen question or study system. And it’s impossible to know for sure whether there’s some other question or system out there that you’d prefer to your current one. So when students discover a new direction, they switch.*
My colleague Lawrence Harder works on the evolution of plant flowering strategies. But if memory serves, he did his master’s on beavers. I believe he switched in part because beavers are fairly rare, and he wanted to work on something where it would be easier to get data.
Dave Tilman worked on algae in chemostats before switching to working on grassland plants. But he was still working on questions about resource competition and its consequences, so that was only a big switch in some respects.
And of course, there are lots of people who switch fields. But I think for most folks who do that, there’s some continuity, often in terms of technical skills and in the kinds of questions you ask. For instance, physicists often switch into other fields where their mathematical skills and ability to spot analogies between physical systems and other systems come in handy. Bob May is probably the most famous example of an ex-physicist ecologist, but there are many others. Same for computer programmers–programming skills are very transferable.
So, have you ever totally switched what you work on? Why?
*Ideally, the time to switch is during your transition from one degree or position to another. For instance, finish your M.Sc., then for your Ph.D. switch to whatever it is that you’ve decided you’d rather work on. Or finish your Ph.D., then for your postdoc make the switch. Etc. Those are natural times to change directions, people do it all the time, and it’s unlikely anyone will think badly of you for doing it. But as Meg will be discussing, there are circumstances when it can be advisable to change direction mid-degree (though probably not so radically as to switch from, say, beavers to flowering plants). See also the comments on this post for more on the pros and cons of when and how much to change directions, research-wise.