You used to work on WHAT?!

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.

Rich Lenski’s PhD was “pure ecology”; he didn’t get into evolution or microbes until his postdoc.

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.

18 thoughts on “You used to work on WHAT?!

  1. maybe “off topic” since hew was an evolutionary biologist and not an ecologist, but can’t resist: John Maynard Smith went from aeronautical engineering to genetics to evolutionary theory…

  2. Does switching from building computer simulations of sorting mail in giant postal facilities to doing macroecology count? Because that is my career in a nutshell (although granted it is not after starting my ecology PHD). During my PhD I wrote my proposal on using optimal foraging to build realistic foodwebs and then simulating them. By the end of my PhD 3 years later I was a confirmed macroecologist looking at species ranges and species abundance distributions.

    In general, I am a scientific nibbler. I seem to rarely do more than 2-3 papers in a topic before moving on. On my website where I describe my research interests, the best I can say is well, hopefully its a topic that has at least 2 of the following 4 features. While I get bored easily and cannot imagine being any other way, there is definitely a cost of switching. Primarily in that it takes time to establish a reputation with a given set of reviewers. I find this is more of a challenge than actually learning the new subject area. I would argue that science is innately antithetical to switching/generalists.

    • Wait, you sorted mail for a while? I didn’t know that.

      “By the end of my Ph.D. three years later”

      Wait, you finished in 3 years in the US? Wow.

      Even though you did all this switching before you started your PhD in ecology, I’d still think of you as someone who switched fields. Clearly, you acquire a lot of programming skills in your “previous life”, on which you still draw heavily.

      I’m a scientific nibbler too.

      • Hi Jeremy – guess I was too elliptic – no I never sorted mail, although I knew more than you ever wanted to know about how it was done. I was a business consultant and we modelled the process to understand the effects of introducing automation (optical character readers, bar code sorters and other machines you don’t even want to know about).

        And no – I just meant it was about 3 years from when I wrote my proposal and passed comps to defended my PhD. I had a good 3 years before passing comps too (or maybe it was 2 before and 4 after – I can’t honestly recall now and to think it was such a big event in my life at the time)

    • I second, there are unsuspected costs to switching. Though they may not relate linearly with switching history or opportunities.

      Establishing reputation with regard to reviewers is one of them.

      If you’re early career, switching to very different fields may have another side effect: you may not be recognised as a specialist in any field, and people won’t associate yourself with anything familiar when they only read within their own (sub)field. Bad prospect if still looking for academic position more often than the reverse.

      If you’re willing to keep up to date with too many different fields, it’ll be more difficult at the end. You would really have to drop out carefull reading in several of your lovely research themes. Chosing which one may be challenging.

    • I’m similar to Brian. Computer programming to telecommunications (and briefly to farming and then non-profit data management) to ecology. In my case, I told everyone in no uncertain terms that I wanted to learn ecology related skills in my PhD and not sit around programming, modeling, and otherwise using the skills I already had. Probably not the most efficient course, but I’m glad of all the other skills I learned. My dissertation is all over the map — a chapter on beef production, one on disease in lions, and two that were local grassland experiments — one following up a long-term Tilman plant experiment, one of my own design involving insects. Now I’m doing plant phenology and citizen science in a forest lab. Ha!

      I would qualify that it’s not science, but the academic institution, that is antithetical to switching. When everyone works in a silo, exchanges of ideas and methods slow down. I see a lot of reinventing the wheel going on among science disciplines and sub disciplines. There obviously need to be some fraction of specialists, but I doubt the best science is done when everyone is one. Better to have some switchers/generalists who can bridge silos.

  3. Not quite what you’re looking for, but people tend to be surprised to learn that I was in Jeff Conner’s lab (he was my PhD co-advisor) because he is known primarily for his work on plant-pollinator interactions. I suspect I know more about floral traits than the average aquatic ecologist!

    Not a drastic shift, but Jeff sort of fits: his PhD work was on beetles, but he now works primarily on radishes.

  4. Ah, the perfect topic for the ADHD-afflicted.🙂

    Just before grad school I was working on the genetics of ethylene effects on flowering in cotton. My first potential PhD topic was on the genetics of glutenins/gliadins (the proteins that make bread rise) in wheat. But then I decided to can genetics altogether and went back to ecology, costing a fair bit of time in terms of course work. My first PhD attempt therein was a tree-ring-based analysis of demography and growth rates in red fir in the Sierra Nevada, before I settled on the landscape scale analysis of forest community change in the Sierra over the 20th century. Even on that, I switched from a heavily field-based approach to one that was entirely number crunching of existing data sets.

    So, all over the map for me.

  5. My M.Sc. was in a applied fisheries lab, where I researched factors affecting the vertical distribution of larval fish in Lake Michigan using a mix of experiments and field work. My PhD thesis was aimed at linking properties of individuals (growth and fecundity) with their consequences at the population level, with an applied goal of using data from individual toxicity tests to predict the population-level response to chemical stress. In contrast to my M.Sc. project, I did no experiments or field work, only modeling.

    The switch was initiated about 1 year into my MSc at the beginning of my first field season. During the second trip out in Lake Michigan our research vessel, our only one that was big enough to do the offshore work for my project, broke down. By the time the ship was repaired a month later, the window for collecting larval fish was over, and I would have to wait another year for data. So with essentially nothing to do for 9 months, I figured I could try out modeling, because at least I wouldn’t need any data to get started. After the next (successful) field season I realized that I was more interested in the modeling side project I was working on then my thesis, which motivated the PhD switch.

  6. I have already done a fair amount of jumping from one topic and model system to another. All within the field of ecology, though. As a teenager I wanted to work on dung beetles, but then I got to aquatic insects. As a student, I began with field studies on community structure and temporal dynamics and then switched to laboratory experiments on predator-prey interactions; all with aquatic insects. Then I started to work on mathematical models of food webs and later on field research of plant-pollinator networks.

    Currently, I am combining food web modelling with laboratory experiments on protists and research on plant-pollinator networks. There is however a fairly smooth development of my theoretical interests and questions behind these changes of systems. As an undergraduate, I was thinking about questions that I can answer using aquatic insects while now I am thinking about general questions first and then I jump at a study system which seems particularly suitable for answering them. I am obviously losing a lot of time by learning to work with different systems, but I would get bored after working on one thing for many years. I was worried about these jumps at first, but there is a lot of potential for transferring insights from one area of research to another (even within ecology). I also feel that I am converging to something diverse but coherent; so, I do not intend to change topic again in the foreseeable future.

  7. I don’t think it’s well known that Tom Eisner, “father of chemical ecology,” did his PhD thesis on the anatomy and function (and supposed phylogeny) of the midgut structure in ants.

  8. Pingback: The mid-grad school doldrums | Dynamic Ecology

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