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I had a very bad PhD experience which has led to complete loss of motivation to pursue a career in theoretical physics. I don't have the motivation anymore to work on topics which are very abstract and, being a postdoc, it is even harder to do this independently. In addition, I find the long term prospects of doing this very dark. There aren't any good job opportunities and getting a tenure track position requires more than one postdoctoral experience.

Off late, I have been thinking of transitioning to biology and more specifically to the field of genome editing. I know this is very different from what I have been trained at, but I have always liked this field and did a lot of self-study during my graduate years. Prior to contacting people, I asked for advice if this transition is doable or practical. And everyone who replied has strongly encouraged me to go forward.

But it was a different story when it came to actually getting a position (I asked for internship opportunities also) in the lab. The advice was to get into computational biology where interdisciplinary people are more.

I don't want to transition into computational biology just because it would be easier to transition, but learn completely new skills. Otherwise, I would have preferred to dedicatedly train in data science and find the high paying corporate jobs. I want to stay in research and do impactful work, something with real impact and not esoteric like my graduate or postdoc work.

Given the situation, I have been thinking of doing another PhD because I don't have any constraints. But I fear that this is not recommended and I doubt I will get admission into good places. Should I meet the people whose work I admire in person or have an online discussion with them if that is possible? Most of the transition stories I have heard involve some kind of meet up during conferences/meetings and things fell in place after that. Any kind of useful advice keeping my interests in mind would be highly appreciated.

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    One step at a time. Oct 28, 2021 at 23:03
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    Start with a year or so of wet-lab work, a masters program will get you that, then take it from there. You’ll want to understand the theory, goals, and practice. Oct 28, 2021 at 23:20
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    There exists at least one research group that does both hardcore theoretical condensed matter physics and wet-lab biological work (although not specifically genome editing). I wonder whether somewhere like that might be a good place for OP to spend a transitional period? Oct 29, 2021 at 12:53
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    As someone in the genome sciences, I can say anecdotally that there is an increasing number of physics PhDs finding great success in biomedical sciences / bioengineering. Take Stephen Quake as a paragon: bioengineering.stanford.edu/person/stephen-quake
    – acvill
    Oct 29, 2021 at 16:10
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    I know that people often say not to do two PhDs, but in a couple cases I've seen it be the right move and work out great. In your case I think it might be the way to go. Biology has become so fascinating these days that it's completely understandable to want to switch fields.
    – littleO
    Oct 29, 2021 at 18:43

2 Answers 2

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At the risk of being blunt, it is probably worth pointing out that there is a difference between "wanting a job in a specific area" because you want to transition into that area, and "actually being qualified for a job in that area".

In other words, an honest evaluation of the situation is likely that nobody will give you a paying job in a genomics lab because you don't have the background for such a job: The people they want to hire as, say, postdocs have had several years of training and job experience in this area, and you don't. That's just a fact, regardless of whether or not you've done self study in the area. So you're stuck hoping for that unicorn to appear out of nowhere.

The recipe to actually getting these jobs is to obtain the qualifications necessary for these jobs. You won't get this qualification through self-study: You're competing with people who've spent several years at the lab bench during their PhDs. You'll have to go through that school as well. So apply for grad programs. You might of course encounter the same issue: They would like to hire people as graduate students who have had several years as biology undergraduates; if you know someone in biology departments, it is conceivable that you could find ways to demonstrate to them that you have equivalent knowledge and find admission anyway.

As for your last comment, "Most of the transition stories I have heard involve some kind of meet up during conferences/meetings and things fell in place after that.": These sorts of cases are first rare, second probably exaggerated (the person in fact did have quite a lot of biology background already, though they might have had a position in a physics department), and third quite often involve people who are not actually seeking a paid position: They are, for example, already physics faculty and simply find themselves in collaborations with biologists. I would not think this a viable path for you to get from where you are to where you want to be. There is no alternative to actually being qualified for the job you are seeking.

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    It really isn't very rare at all in the specific case of bioinformatics: this is a very interdisciplinary field, and also relatively new. Until quite recently, everyone working in bioinformatics came from different fields. In the lab I did my PhD work in, we had people who came from biology, computer science, pure math, physics, even aeronautical engineering.
    – terdon
    Oct 29, 2021 at 9:04
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    @terdon 'Until quite recently, everyone working in bioinformatics came from different fields' Depends how you define "quite recently". A very famous bioinformatician told me in 2004 that hiring Physics graduates to roles in Bioinformatics had become pretty rare because there were, by that time, so many Bioinformatics graduates on the job market. (But in any case, Bioinformatics appears not to be where OP's interests lie.) Oct 29, 2021 at 12:31
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    @DanielHatton well, I started my PhD in 2002 and at that time, there were very few, if any, undergraduate bioinformatics courses and most people in the field came from different backgrounds. There were some post-graduate courses, although not many, but very very few undergrad ones. Of course, that will also depend on geographical region. I am mostly familiar with the European bioinformatics world.
    – terdon
    Oct 29, 2021 at 13:12
  • @terdon The conversation I described took place Directly at the heart of the European Bioinformatics world. It's possible that the famous bioinformatician in question was just desperately looking for a gentle way to let me know that I wouldn't get a job along that route, rather than attempting an entirely accurate description of the market, but they've always struck me as too forthright to indulge in that sort of thing. Oct 29, 2021 at 13:29
  • @DanielHatton I don't know what to tell you. I can assure you that there are many in the field whose PhDs were in Physics. I cannot know why this "famous bioinformatician" told you what they did, you'd have to ask them. Also remember that this is a very wide field and I'm sure some sub-fields will be different than others. And, finally, my account is clearly anecdotal: I cannot rule out that I have just happened to come across more people with a Physics background because of the conferences I attend and places I have worked.
    – terdon
    Oct 29, 2021 at 13:35
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First a slight reframe: if your disappointment with theoretical physics is that it's too abstract and you want to do "impactful work", maybe consider opportunities outside academia as well. Academic research does a good PR job of selling itself as the non-profit, idealistic, make-the-world-a-better-place counter to industry, but in my experience most academic research is pretty inward-looking and gives relatively little reward to anyone who is not driven by scientific curiosity itself. So look also at medical physics (which can be research or clinical!), relevant industry, data science etc.

If you're set on staying in academia, one thing to be wary of is that many of the biology labs who might be interested in hiring someone with a physics background "out of the box" would be doing so expecting you to bring in physics expertise. If your negative experience is with academic theoretical physics, this may work just fine for you, but if you have grown to really, really dislike physics and/or want to do fundamentally different work, then it could be very frustrating to be the "pet physicist" while everyone else is doing the more traditional biology work that you were hoping to do.

Basically, you need to have something to offer to the lab that hires you: it's either your physics/numeracy expertise (for example, as a data scientist sort of role), or as a biologist in your own right. In the latter case, as you correctly identify, you are not actually qualified, and pursuing some relevant qualifications would help both your CV and your understanding of life sciences (I would probably start with an MSc rather than a PhD, especially if you've just emerged from a negative PhD experience).

And, as @terdon points out, "genome editing" isn't really a field in biology. At best it's a technique - there are a handful of labs working on the technology itself, but the vast majority of people use transgenesis/CRISPR/what have you as a tool in pursuit of a biological question. This is a common problem I have seen in people with a hard science background - they often tend to be interested in, or aware of, only a few high-profile technical or abstract problems that are actually rather unexciting from a biology perspective (all fields are prone to this, not just biology...). If you want to work as a biologist, then having some relevant academic background would help you understand what your colleagues are working on and why it's interesting. You absolutely don't have to change your own interests or preferences. But placing your specific interest, which may be genome editing, into a more solid understanding of the biological problem it's trying to solve will help you make connections with a broader range of people and align your work with actually useful outcomes.

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