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I am currently a second year PhD student in a 5 year direct-entry PhD program, studying experimental chemistry. Another important consideration is that I am on the first year of a 4 year top-tier doctoral scholarship. Also, I haven't written my comps yet and I haven't really started my thesis research (I have worked on a several small, unrelated projects). My research focus is on spectroscopy of inorganic complexes, but we are kind of a jack of all trades lab. I do synthesis, crystallography, spectroscopy, and computational chemistry.

I have a lot of experience in computational chemistry, but I have never worked in theoretical chemistry (i.e., quantum chemistry). Since I started doing computational chemistry, the topic has always interested me. I read some textbooks, but my math/physics/programming skills were never really good enough to test whether I really understood by writing codes. I am now of the opinion that the subject is specialized enough that the only way to learn it is to do research in that area. During the lockdown, I spent a lot of time studying math and elementary programming, and I have realized that I actually like this kind of thinking. I feel unsatisfied by the lack of rigorous math and physics in my current research. I talked to some theoretical chemists and they are convinced that I can learn the field well enough to do a PhD on an electronic structure theory topic if I apply myself, so I am seriously considering making the switch. Moreover, I think the career prospects are better with that skillset. My research area is fairly niche, so I think it pretty much only leads in the academic direction, which, as we all know, is far from a sure thing, whereas quantitative skills are useful in all industries.

I don't know what to do and having the decision hanging over my head is really stopping my from progressing. The way I see it, I could master out and apply into a new PhD program in this area (possibly in Europe), however, I don't know how it would look to master out on a doctoral scholarship. I could simply transfer to a new school/lab and put off my comps, which would make my PhD much longer. this seems more feasible, but I don't know how the topic switch would fit in with my scholarship, which is based on a proposal related to my current research topic. Or I could complete my PhD, take some relevant courses, and try to pursue this later.

I have talked to my PI about it and he thinks it is totally feasible to pursue such a change of focus after my PhD, but my understanding is that postdocs are supposed to already be experts in their field, so I don't know how I would go about learning such a specialized topic after my PhD, short of doing another degree. Is something like this really possible?

  • To pursue means to express a interest. Probably to find good lab that will accept you you would need to have some experience. Many people think Postsoc is second PhD but it is not. Not many PI are willing to accommodate such PD – SSimon May 16 at 2:18
  • I agree. I have talked to some people about this and they seem to think that trying to learn such a skill in a postdoc would be very difficult, if not impossible. That being said, I know of a handful of examples of people who've done this. There are big overlaps between the fields of spectroscopy and quantum chemistry. They use the same language. But quantum chemists will have much more experience implementing the theories mathematically with code, and that takes a lot of time to learn. I suspect that the people who've successfully transitioned after their PhDs are already good in this area. – potatoman May 16 at 22:39
  • They worked on several projects. Can you do that? – SSimon May 17 at 3:24
  • what do you mean by that? you mean that they worked on several projects simultaneously during their postdocs? I am not so sure I can do that. If I was very developed in the background material then maybe, but learning the foundations at the same time as working on multiple projects sounds counterproductive. – potatoman May 17 at 23:48
  • I know. I hate multitasking – SSimon May 18 at 5:51

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