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Often, I have come across profiles of tenured faculty members who are now doing research in completely different topics than what they had done in their PhD, postdoc or in the beginning of their academic career. For example, a professor in our department had done his PhD, postdoc and initial career in using molecular dynamics for nanomechanics. However, over the course of time he also added quantum mechanics (density functional theory) and continuum mechanics in his research. In other case, I have seen a faculty with an engineering-physics PhD related to thin films shift to working on 3D printing and developing aerospace materials.

My question is, how do academics change their area of research and what efforts goes into establishing oneself in a changed research area?

I have seen academics hire a PhD student to work on a new research area and learn as they guide the student. But, how can someone guide if the area of new research is very minutely related to their area of expertise.

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    Honestly, going from MD to DFT is not changing fields at all. Neither is thin films to 3D materials. Those seem examples of research fields that evolved and the PIs either adapted or perished. – FBolst May 5 at 15:23
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    @FBolst yes I agree. But, how do PIs guide a student or apply for a grant without having worked in the area and having no significant theoretical understanding of the area? – Guoot May 5 at 15:27
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    @Guoot A good and common way is to collaborate with someone who has been working in that area. – Anyon May 5 at 15:57
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    In theory, getting a PhD shows that you are capable of diving into some topic and doing research on it. If you have done it once what keeps you from doing it again? Even thinking that once you start in one field you are stuck there should just feel wrong... – Jon Custer May 5 at 17:15
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    People do this outside of academia too. The thing you start off working on needn't be the sum total of your capability and knowledge coming out of school, it's just one niche where you found paydirt. – A Simple Algorithm May 5 at 17:30
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There are two parts to this. The first is easy. If you are tenured then you just make the change, either immediately or gradually. Tenure gives you the freedom to do that. If you are untenured then you make the change and worry a lot about whether you will get tenured.

There is, however, one scenario in which it is advantageous for even an untenured person to change. If you are the new hire in a department in which there is no one to collaborate with then it might be an advantage, even if you are untenured, to join a research group and move toward their interests. It could, perhaps, enhance tenure possibilities.

The second part is a bit more complex, assuming you want to behave ethically. You can't really advise students very well if you have no knowledge, though a surprising amount can be accomplished. It is, in theory, possible to teach things that you don't know yourself, but you have to do it carefully, putting the student on a learning path that you haven't followed yourself. This is possible if you know about research and how to conduct it and are sophisticated enough to follow the arguments put forth by the student, just as you would the arguments of any colleague. I'll note that research groups actually do this - exploring a path that no one has followed.

But if you change fields gradually then you can also work into the advising role gradually, perhaps by being a co-advisor of a few students - even if informally until you get the required background.

I'll note that advising students outside your expertise, while possible, is risky and so the methodology used needs to remove risk for the student. A student, on the other hand, is best advised to choose an advisor who already has sufficient expertise in the direction to be followed in the research.

Note also that at the end of doctoral research the student is actually expected to know more about the specific research area than the advisor, unless the student has brought the advisor along on the journey to the end. If the opposite were true we would never advance, with each student being somehow less than the advisor.


Note that I've assumed here that the change is to a field that has similar research methodologies, such as changing subfields within a larger field. It is harder otherwise, of course. But the way we do mathematics or computer science is pretty similar within most subfields. Similar for chemistry, say. But to switch from math to history is a bigger challenge as the research methodologies are (I assume) much different.

  • That makes sense. But, what I feel confusing is that don't you (as being experienced in academia) feel technically challenged when advising a student in a new research area? How common is it for an established academic to go back to basics and study something from scratch like they used to do as a undergrad or graduate student? – Guoot May 5 at 15:34
  • I don't think you go back to basics. One of the things you learned in grad school was how to research in the broad area. If the new area is similar in methodology it is not such a big jump. I think a lot of people in CS, for example, change subfields as we learn new things and areas open up. It is probably less common in more stable fields with a longer history. – Buffy May 5 at 15:48
  • If you (or anyone) would like a dissertation on how to teach what you don't know or how to advise students when you aren't the expert, ask an appropriate question and I'll expand on that. I asked such a question at CS Educators a while ago, actually: cseducators.stackexchange.com/q/4379/1293 – Buffy May 5 at 15:49
  • yes, I would be very grateful to know more about that. I will ask an appropriate question for that. Thanks! – Guoot May 5 at 15:51
  • While in grad school I got to know Ed Kramer. Originally interested in low temperature physics, he was irritated when a plastic piece failed in his apparatus. While reading up on why it failed and how to prevent it, he got interested in polymer physics, as well as deciding that the explanation did not make much sense. So, he moved into polymer physics, eventually winning the APS Polymer Physics prize in 1985. – Jon Custer May 6 at 22:52

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