Further to a conversation we had in the comments yesterday: it’s rare, but far from unheard of, for scientists and other scholars to switch fields. For instance, I know more than one person who switched from physics to ecology. But the ex-physicists in ecology whom I know all made the switch right after their PhDs, or maybe after a couple of years as physics postdocs. So they were pretty early in their careers when they switched. Thus raising the question: what’s the latest field change any researcher has ever made? I’m particularly interested in cases in which late field-changers went on to make important contributions to their new fields.
Offhand, I bet that many candidates will be mathematicians, or scientists with a lot of mathematical training. Mathematics being a very “portable” tool that’s useful in many fields. Bob May for instance got a PhD in physics in 1959 and became a full professor of physics before switching to ecology in 1972. Similarly, commenter Andrew Krause points us to James Murray. Murray got a PhD in mathematics in 1956 and held positions in applied mathematics and mechanical engineering for at least a decade after that, before becoming a leader in mathematical biology. Andrew also points us to Michael Reed, who got a PhD in mathematical physics in 1969 and worked on quantum theory for at least a decade before switching into mathematical biology. And commenter Ric Charnov notes the Geoff West, of metabolic theory of ecology fame, was a particle physicist in his late 50s when he started working on metabolic ecology, in collaboration with ecologists Jim Brown and Brian Enquist. So maybe a second question to ask is, what’s the latest field switch that wasn’t made by someone with advanced mathematical training?
Casual googling turns up this article (also linked to at the beginning of the post) on scientists who changed fields mid-career. Focuses mostly on biomedical researchers who switched fields while working for pharmaceutical companies.
And there’s this piece on people who started research careers very late, having previously worked in some non-research career. Such as former accountant Julie Dunne, who at the time that piece was written was a 57-year old postdoc in paleoanthropology. And of course, our own Brian McGill spent over a decade working in the computer software industry, before going back to school to become an ecologist.