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For sake of argument, let's say I obtain a bachelor's degree in physics, a master's degree in physics, and then a PhD in physical chemistry but from a department of chemistry. Can I then go on to be a physics professor? Or would I be confined to teaching chemistry?

One can imagine equivalent situations for other fields. Say, for example, a bachelor's in computer science, master's in computer science, and then a PhD in computational physics from a department of physics. Could that individual then become a computer science professor?

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It depends more on the aspect of your research. If you have a physical chemistry degree but do research more in the realm of physics, it is possible that you could be hired in physics or chemistry, even hold a joint position in both.

The limiting factor that your PhD major will be in that it is the general area where you are more trained in, that is, you can probably teach courses in your major better than those in the other department. Sometimes hiring decisions do take this into account.

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    For example, this is a common issue in mathematics faculty searches, where you sometimes get applications from candidates in related disciplines (theoretical CS, mathematical physics, Finance, Economics, or Industrial Engineering/Operations Research) that may do very mathematically oriented research but might not be well prepared to teach a broad range of undergraduate and graduate level mathematics courses. Even if this isn't really a problem, it's likely that members of the search committee will be more comfortable with one of their own kind. – Brian Borchers Feb 7 '15 at 3:56
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The answer is very field specific. In many departments all that matters is your research. Does your dissertation and publications fit the department's vision for what it means to do research in field X, regardless of the field of your degree.

However, in some fields it is really hard to get in the door without a degree in that field. The example I am thinking of is Mathematics. Theoretical biologists, economists, social scientists etc. with degrees in the field of application tend not to end up in math departments even if nearly 100% of their research is proving theorems. This isn't to say it can't be done, but it seems as though it is much easier to move in the opposite direction from a math department to a science department. For example if you work on pure problems in probability but your degree is in economics, it is hard to get a job in a math department.

Disclaimer 1: it is unclear how much of this is due to selection bias by the job candidate vs. discrimination in the math department against people without math degrees.

Disclaimer 2: this is based on anecdotal evidence and faculty listings on department websites that show where mathematicians from science departments end up after their degree. I have not sat on a hiring committee.

  • In general I think it's easier to move "down" the spectrum than up it. Of course that's just a heuristic, most things don't really fit on a nice single dimensions like that. – Roger Fan Feb 6 '15 at 23:03
  • @RogerFan I don't understand your comment, what spectrum are you talking about? I'm talking about a good mathematician who has a degree in a field other than math, there is no "downward" movement in my post. – WetlabStudent Feb 6 '15 at 23:06
  • It would seem to me that a person who did their undergraduate and master's degree in field X but their PhD in field Y would be better at teaching field X than Y except for the part of Y where they did their thesis. Do you disagree? For example, in the case of math: if a person did math until PhD and then did, say, economics, they could possibly teach many areas of math but only the area of economics where they focused. In contrast, if a person went through in economics and a PhD in some subsubfield of math, then presumably they would be better at teaching undergraduate economics. – rhombidodecahedron Feb 6 '15 at 23:18
  • @rhombidodecahedron this is true, which is why culture is #1 and teaching is #2. I think teaching tends to me more of a rationalization rather than the real reason. I deleted my unfounded hypotheses from the answer based on your suggestion. – WetlabStudent Feb 6 '15 at 23:22
  • @WetLabStudent Ah, I should have made it more clear that I was agreeing with you. I was talking about a general "hard" to "soft", or "mathy" to "less mathy". For instance, Mathematicians can often get placements in Econ departments, but rarely vice versa. The same goes for Econ getting placements in Public Policy schools. – Roger Fan Feb 7 '15 at 3:57

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