Long story short: I got a PhD a few years ago (let's say, in numerical methods for nonlinear PDEs). I've since gotten experience with a couple post-docs and a variety of collaborators, but I'm not really satisfied with what I'm doing. I feel out of place.

Earlier in life, I made a tough decision between science and humanities-- my other passion has always been, let's say, east Asian languages. If my bachelors program had had better language courses or options for "hybrid" fields like computational linguistics, I probably would have gone that route, instead of fully focusing on math.

I've sought out collaborations that might help me bridge the gap between math and languages; I've also looked at postdocs to help make the transition. I've reached out to leaders at research groups who do stuff I'm really interested in. The common denominator is: I'd need a PhD in some kind of linguistics to research seriously what I want. So...

What key things should I take into consideration when pursuing a doctorate, given that I have a doctorate in an unrelated field?

Please consider the question within the following context: I'm not asking whether having two PhDs is good or bad (I frankly don't care), how to needlessly pad my name with titles, or how to get two PhDs simultaneously. (That is all to say: this post doesn't answer my question.) I'm asking about what to expect when changing careers, specifically, if the source career is in one academic field and the target career is in another, unrelated field. Assume I've 100% decided to leave my current field and pursue this second doctorate, for the purpose of changing careers. Assume also that I already have substantial content knowledge in the target field, as I have a bachelors degree in it already, and it's been an avid hobby for most of my life.

Some sub-questions that don't need to be specifically answered, but I think help narrow the question: in what way could my current PhD be a hindrance in getting into a new program? Will my supervisors and colleagues see my past PhD as an asset, or as weird-looking mole they will try to politely ignore? What are other questions should I ask myself to prepare for such a non-traditional career path?

Note: I've edited this question multiple times in a vain attempt to get the duplicate label removed. If you agree, please vote.

  • 3
    – user9482
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 11:01
  • That post isn't relevant-- I'm not trying to do two PhDs at once.
    – user108403
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 11:48
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    I disagree that the answer is not relevant to you, but that's your prerogative to decide.
    – user9482
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 11:56
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    This doesn't feel like a dupe - it's not asking "should I do a second PhD", it's asking "I want to do a second PhD, how do I...". We might consider that unadvisable (though I know at least one person who has seriously considered it for decent reasons), and we might preface answers with that view, but that doesn't make the question invalid. HOWEVER. It's quite a broad and vague question - I'd encourage the asker to make it clear exactly what specific thing they would like to know
    – Flyto
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 21:42
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    Discussion meta question about the closure. Commented Nov 19, 2019 at 21:10

2 Answers 2


In my experience, nonstandard paths like what you propose are initially viewed with surprise, and with varying degrees of suspicion. That includes admission committees, potential supervisors, fellow students, etc. However, that comes from uncertainty and unfamiliarity and can be shaped by the narrative you supply, and how you follow through.

Basically, people will probably have 3 archetypes in mind when you first contact them. The most positive one is that you are some sort of polymath genius. The most negative one is that you are a serial fail-to-deploy-in-life perpetual student, a model everyone in academia has encountered. And the 3rd is that you want to do research in some unexpected interesting intersection of your old and new field (which you've said is not the case). You therefore need to replace that narrative with a truer, credible, if possibly slightly airbrushed one, something like: you've always been interested in both X and Y, initially pursued interesting topics in X leading to a Ph.D. and start of a promising career, but are increasingly passionate about Y and want to refocus on that. I would be open that you don't expect to directly harness your expertise in X, but that you do expect that your background will help you be a very effective student in Y.

And then you need to back that up with your actions! Your Ph.D. is a credential indicating you have demonstrated the ability to advance the state of the art of knowledge in some field, and that you have learned sufficient academic "tradecraft" to be an independent researcher, at least from a competence point of view. (Footnote: The at-best only partial independence of a post-doc, and indeed the whole post-doc position, is more a reflection of funding realities than of a junior academic's presumed research abilities). So if someone with a Ph.D. and post-docs would approach me, I would expect them to be able to motor through the usual initial stages of a Ph.D. much more quickly than a "new" graduate student. I would expect that they will have done a fair amount of foundational reading in the field already -- that's something that hardly needs an advisor, though an advisor will be helpful in helping identify important strands that may be nonobvious from the outside. And I would expect them to arrive with some well-developed thoughts on potential research topic, though of course we might well adjust it together.

If you were to come with this type of pre-preparation, I'd consider you a lower-risk admit -- as a committee member or prospective advisor -- than someone whose basic skilset is unproven. Conversely, if you were to arrive, with the background you describe, with the typical keen-but-blank-slate mindset a fresh-out-of-undergrad student usually brings, then I would be more worried you belong to the serial-failure-to-deploy archetype instead.

Second, I would suggest you be very open about discussing your financial expectations. Do you need/expect funding (and is it usual in your target field)? Or can you fund yourself by continuing to work in your current field part-time? Or do you have enough saved up from a well-paid science/tech job (and academics in the humanities/social sciences tend to assume all science/tech jobs are well paid....) that you will be self-supporting? All of those are acceptable, just avoid unpleasant surprises from failing to bring up the topic.

Good luck!

  • 2
    This is exactly the kind of run-down I was looking for. May I ask what your field is? Just curious which angle you're coming from. (Broad "science" or "humanities" is fine.)
    – user108403
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 15:07
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    This answer (especially the reactions) read very Northern American. Is this corrext?
    – Thomas
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 15:22
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    Applied science (myself) but informed by discussions with spouse (social science / humanities). Yes, North American. However, would expect still relevant in UK and Australia (for example, based on my exposure there) but not Germany, which is a very different model.
    – Houska
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 18:05
  • Being associated with DACH countries, I can say it's not that different. I'd have to apply and interview for a doctoral position instead of apply for a program, and the financial compensation would be better. The core advice, however, is still relevant.
    – user108403
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 7:10

It's very difficult to give a general answer, since so many things depend on the specifics of the field, the location, and various other factors.

  • Chances of being accepted: that completely depends on where you apply and whether your background matches the requirements for a particular PhD programme and/or a particular supervisor/topic.
  • Already having a PhD is definitely not standard. I would imagine that some supervisors will see it as an asset: in some respects, they would get a postdoc for the price of a PhD student. I would imagine that supervisors who are looking for a PhD student who does exactly what they want would prefer a "virgin" PhD student.
  • You should primarily ask yourself whether you can afford and are ready to spend a good few more years living on a PhD stipend. You should also be ready to give up on any little academic freedom you have as a postdoc.

A couple more remarks:

  • For the record, the field of Computational Linguistics (CL; and its twin field Natural Language Processing, NLP) existed a long time before deep learning became a thing. It's true that it is some kind of hybrid field, but in my experience the vast majority of the research done nowadays is on the technical side (more computer science than linguistics).
  • This is why the context described in the link "double doctorate" in your question strikes me as very different: the author did a second PhD which consisted in "writing a monograph on a long-forgotten Scottish intellectual". In my experience PhDs in CL/NLP are rarely this kind of book writing exercise that can be done as a hobby.
  • I should have remarked earlier: I'm not being totally honest about my source or target fields on purpose. I appreciate your specific remarks nonetheless.
    – user108403
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 7:12