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For the context of the question, I'm interested in switching between different areas of a field -- e.g. I did my PhD in biological physics mainly involving simulations on a specific biological system, and I am now interested in pursuing more theoretical work (e.g. applied mathematics) still in biological physics but potentially on a different system.

So theoretically I know there should be no problem and my PhD should have prepared me for any new learning I need to do to catch up, but practically I'm wondering if there are 'better' ways of addressing some issues:

  1. Background knowledge: I have some theoretical background, but not the familiarity of having done theoretical work daily in the past years. I would also have some catching up to do (probably several books to get through before I would be comfortable). When would be the best time to do this catching up? If I do it after beginning a postdoc, my postdoc work will be delayed during this (probably months) of catch-up time. Should I take time off between my PhD and postdoc? However then I have to explain an awkward unemployed period on my CV, and additionally not having an institution affiliation would take away my access to journals/libraries.
  2. Competitiveness as a candidate: If I were a PI, I would favour candidates who had demonstrated a capability in the field already. How can I demonstrate an ability to do theoretical work if it was not a large component of my PhD? One thought I had was to look within my own institution for a postdoc advisor since it might be easier to convince them, but I'm also aware that staying in the same institution for my postdoc could be a red flag later in my career.

Also welcome tips on how to prepare for such an anticipated switch, if I still have a few years left of my PhD.

2 Answers 2

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When would be the best time to do this catching up? If I do it after beginning a postdoc, my postdoc work will be delayed during this (probably months) of catch-up time.

A piece of post-doc advice that has worked for me is to have your fingers in several pies. Build up some new expertise while working on some low-hanging fruits from your existing background that will lead to immediate results.

If I were a PI, I would favour candidates who had demonstrated a capability in the field already. How can I demonstrate an ability to do theoretical work if it was not a large component of my PhD?

The qualities that advisors are looking for may vary significantly. If they are looking specifically for a candidate with a strong theoretical background, there's only so much you can do. Others will prioritize broader research skills, like

  • a strong ability to finish projects (which you can show by building an appropriate track record; so be sure to have your pending papers out before you apply), and
  • a strong ability to tell a good story (which you can show by being outstanding in your application materials and communication to them; basically, explain how you will help their team succeed based on your expertise).
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An established method of making the transition is to take a 1 year Masters in Theoretical Physics or Mathematics after completing your PhD, or to attend a Summer School. This will probably take you out of your current university and could give you contacts to apply for a PostDoc position elsewhere.

While working on your PhD could take an undergraduate course in theoretical physics or mathematics at your own university.

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  • I've never heard of taking a masters after a PhD, is this prevalent in certain fields/countries? Also I guess 1 year means no thesis? A big part of my problem is demonstrating ability to do research in theory.
    – The Hagen
    Feb 16, 2020 at 14:49
  • This is true. My friend ❤️ did it. She graduated PhD from Biology. And went to take master in Education. Now she is professor in edu
    – SSimon
    Feb 16, 2020 at 15:40
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    In the UK it is common to do a "conversion course" if your skills are lacking in the field you are moving into. It is more common between UG and PG level, but can be done after PhD. I don't think demonstrating research ability is the problem - if you have a PhD that proves you can do research. If you came into the PhD from a Biology Degree you might have missed a lot of university mathematics. But this does not seem to be the case for you. I think you are worrying unnecessarily. If you can demonstrate that you can learn on the job, you will be ok. Feb 16, 2020 at 19:08
  • @sammygerbil put that in answer!!!
    – SSimon
    Feb 18, 2020 at 8:03

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