I have a bachelor's degree in physics and I am finishing my master's degree in applied physics, in the field of biophysics. So, in particular, I study methods typical of physics to investigate biological issues.

I have to choose the argument of my master's thesis and only now I realize that my interests and, perhaps, also my skills, are more oriented towards interpreting biological results and their implications in biology itself rather than studying and improving methods for obtaining them.

My academic career was not really brilliant: I did not graduate with full marks in my bachelor's degree and now I am taking more than 3 years to get my master's degree in applied physics. But my dream still remains becoming a researcher: I always love studying and the idea of leaving studies makes me very unhappy. Thus I still really would like to obtain a PhD but in a research area in which I could be really useful in the future.

Is there a way of doing a PhD and at the same time studying a new field? Like a PhD in computational biology and at the same time taking a biology bachelor's and master's degree?

I saw that also Gary Stormo moved from physics to biology and received his PhD when he was already 31 years old. However, after this master's degree I can not go on only studying but I have to also work and the ideal plan would be to do a job that allows me to apply my knowledge acquired in my physics university and at the same time go on studying biology.

I am from Italy and I would like to remain here in all this. But I ask you if you know, in general, what I could do in this situation.

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    It is very common to change your field during PhD. I am not familiar with the Italian situation, but in other countries you generally can do it straightforward, especially if you are already well educated in e.g. biophysics. Find potential supervisors, find ine who appreciate and can use your skills and she/he will help you with the transition.
    – Greg
    Commented Oct 1, 2021 at 11:23
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    I don't see any problem with this. I think many biology labs would be very happy to employ a PhD student with an MSc in applied physics.
    – Louic
    Commented Oct 1, 2021 at 11:23
  • @gnometorule yes I imagined that it was not feasible to attend both PhD and an other university simultaneously and thank you for the suggestion. Do you mean that if I work as a technician first I could acquire the enough knowledges to apply for a PhD in biology? But I would like to deep in it so find a way to do also university in biology. Anyway you suggest that I don't have to mention that my plan is to attend university in biology when I apply for a PhD (that is reasonable) but, as Greg suggests, I should mention this to my master thesis supervisor, for example, so that he can help me ? Commented Oct 1, 2021 at 12:34
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    I think what @Greg was saying is that if you find a supervisor for a masters (or Ph.D.) in biology (or a sub field of it) who sees the value you bring to the table with your physics background, then they’ll teach you what you need to know. It won’t be easy, but I agree with that. As to going technician -> Ph.D., I know several such cases at good U.S. schools; however, they tend to have a strong cs background too, so you’d have to make sure that your coding is up to par as well and ideally know some ML or statistics or such. Commented Oct 1, 2021 at 14:07
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    Don't take is as a spam, but maybe check this program: it recruits a substantial number of physics students: mattertolife.maxplanckschools.org/application. Disclaimer: I'm a student in the above program and coming from Physics and Mathematics (double-major) background..
    – Our
    Commented Oct 1, 2021 at 21:26

4 Answers 4


My answer would be, don't underestimate how much you learn through doing and interacting during a PhD.

There are many interdisciplinary groups offering PhD projects for people with a physics degree and little or no biological knowledge, but within which you'll be strongly exposed to some biology questions. That won't make a biologist of you, but biology really requires many biophysicists who are able to frame a biology question in physical terms, and make use of physics and mathematics to solve these. Biology departments around the world also hire as principal investigators people who have a physics degree and have not become biologists, although they have learned a lot of biology on a specific system.

So I believe a PhD in an interdisciplinary group, possibly located in a biology department, could be suitable for you and could offer you the opportunity to face research challenges which are very biological, for which physical knowledge is needed but not the development of new physical concepts.

  • Thank you for your answer . Yes I saw this aspect also doing some projects in my master degree... I learned a lot of biology but I felt so frustrated that I had to limit in using maths, statistics, programs or softwares to reach some results and then stop because I do not have enough knowledges to interpret them deeply but I just have to give "hints" to biologists or medical doctors as sometimes a professor told about our role. Commented Oct 1, 2021 at 14:26
  • I believe this will be the case if you are in a physics group collaborating with a biology/clinical research group. If you are within an interdisciplinary group, then the PI will have had to take care themselves of this question and either acquire the necessary knowledge or hire group members who have this knowledge.
    – Joce
    Commented Oct 1, 2021 at 15:49

First (the bad news): Gary Stormo lived in a very different world. At the time science was working in a much more compartmental way: For example, a physicist solving partial differential equations (via numerical models) in biology, if the numerical model was succesful, it would have been hugely succesful. And nowadays the same numerical model or the results would be common knowledge of a biologist.

Second (the good news): "my skills are more oriented towards interpreting biological results and their implications in biology itself rather than studying and improving methods for obtaining them."

There you are, you can either go down the statistics way (as a physicist your rudimental knowledge would be a good starting point) or the modeling way (as a physicist your rudimental knowledge would be a good starting point). Both ways, since you would like to interpret data, instead of producing machinery to produce them, it would be good to push up your informatics skills: learn R (maybe I am outdated already?), play around with opensource code used in biology.

Final note: There are companies and research institute looking for qualified people, and those companies are doing very interesting research, so do not completely discard looking for a job instead of following the PhD path.

  • Thank you for the answer. 1. I know this changing in the science but my willing is not solving partial differential equations (otherwise I wouldn't have felt unhappy). 2. ok yeah I know R and Python but without biological knowledges I can't go very far in interpretation :) anyway with the final note do you suggest to look for a job in a company that does research instead of PhD and this would allow me also to go on studying biology in university ? Commented Oct 1, 2021 at 12:48
  • 1/2 Well, if you work in a company you have at least a job (we do not live out of thin air) and exposure to topics relevant to the "biology" subject (not necessarily the topics you would like to research as PhD, but they would be still relevant). A decent paid job (and with decent working conditions) would allow you to enjoy your free time. Then you can occupy your freetime by studying biology.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Oct 1, 2021 at 13:27
  • 2/2 Being a pessimist, a PhD in biology would leave you the same freetime (i.e. zero), because you would have the PhD job, plus you'd be almost required to spend your freetime working on your PhD (it is not a certainty, but it is statistically true that most of the PhDs students work way more than 40h a week). The big difference with the industry is that your PhD depends (somehow, it is absolutely not linear nor univoque ) on how much of the freetime you spend on it, while working in the industry your job depends on what you do in the 40h a week, how you spend your freetime is up to you.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Oct 1, 2021 at 13:29
  • I understand, thank you very much. Commented Oct 1, 2021 at 13:58
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    My (obviously limited) personal experience shows it's not always super common knowledge. Sure, the lowest-hanging fruits have been picked up but there's more at the level trivial for a competent physicist but still out of reach for a classically trained biologist. They get picked up quickly though now so it's only going to het harder from now on - but it's still a great time for interdisciplinary research!
    – Lodinn
    Commented Oct 1, 2021 at 21:50

Do you know if there is a way of doing a PhD and at the same time studying a new field ? Like a PhD in computational biology and at the same time taking a biology bachelor and master degree ?

I don't see why you would need to do a Biology BSc/MSc if you already have physics degrees. I am a biologist and have had many colleagues doing their PhDs in fields different than their degrees. In a Neuroscience lab, we had people whose bachelor's/master's degrees were in Biochemistry, Physics, Informatics, Biology, Molecular Medicine, etc.). It's quite common to change fields for your PhD and most labs are quite happy about the interdisciplinary collaboration that comes from having people with different backgrounds working together. If you wanted to learn more about a specific area of biology, you could probably take a free course at the university you're doing your PhD in (at least in the universities I've been in, you could ask professors to sit in lectures and it wasn't an issue as long as you didn't need the credits).

  • Thank you @LDB_2016 for your answer but... I imagine that physicists in a neuroscience lab apply their physics university knowledges so I think, for example, they decide the parameters needed to acquire MR images, they use/create algorithms to investigate this images or they simulate interactions between different parts of the brain with complex networks algorithms implementing them with a programming code etc... The point is that I just realized that I am not really interested in all this but I am more interested in interpreting the results that all these methods will bring Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 7:27
  • in order to know biological implications . Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 7:28
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    Oh no, these were wet labs doing basic research. The people with a physics background were doing the same/very similar type of research and work as the biologists. While doing a PhD, you design the experiments, execute them and analyze them/interpret the results. It's entirely possible to learn to interpret the results from a biological perspective during your PhD. As I said, some classes are open to PhD students and your colleagues are also a great resource. Plus, you could always pick up a textbook for yourself. My point is only that you don't need a biology degree for this
    – LDB_2016
    Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 10:38
  • Wow! I did not know this thank you very much... @LDB_2016 Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 11:58

Francis Crick did just this. Find a congenial environment. To do this, spend some time reading journals to find articles and scientists who do work that interests you. If they are at universities, apply. This is one of the rare cases where I would recommend contacting someone and meeting them to assess your past education and what you might need. You might only need a little bit of biology, possibly through informal mechanisms rather than courses.

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    I think examples of famous people are not very useful for a question like this, and more broadly, historical examples are not very useful for the present date.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Oct 1, 2021 at 23:34
  • I disagree. I cited one person but have heard of others. I have been told more than once that many geneticists started as physical chemists. This kind of transition reflects the expectations that the different sciences have of undergraduates regarding quantitative methods and probability. Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 0:27
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    I don't disagree that this is a very possible transition, just that famous people aren't good representatives. It's much more useful to talk about how prevalent this is among students/researchers today, like LDB mentions that it's not uncommon for neuroscience PhD grad students today to have bachelors or masters degrees outside biology.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 1:00
  • Thank you @DavidSmith for the answer and I like a lot historical examples of famous people :) so do you suggest to contact some professor/researcher in biology/medicine and to explain my situation ? Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 7:43
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    @Manuela. You can contact people in the field. Some will be helpful and many will brush you off. Go prepared by reading research articles and understanding what biologists do. Clarify in your own mind how your knowledge would fit in. Commented Oct 3, 2021 at 12:06

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