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I am pursuing a PhD in synthetic biology in the EU. I will finish my PhD in approximately 11 months.

I feel my PhD has been mediocre. I should end up with:

  1. 3 first name research articles (two on a ≈3 IF journals, one on a ≈9)

  2. 1 middle name research article (≈9 IF) and 1 review (≈3 IF)

  3. couple of courses I taught and, hopefully
  4. Chapter for a book from Springer.

I am tired with my field. I want to continue in academia, but not doing wet lab research. I have become interested in cosmology after reading some books on cosmology.

Should change fields because of my changing interests? Would I ruin my career? I also would like to remain within the EU, but I can also move to the US.

Does anybody know of specific fellowships for such extreme cases? I was looking into the Human Frontier Science Program but they would still require me to work into something related to the life sciences.

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    How would you answer: "Are you moving towards one field or away from the other?" – mac389 Mar 16 '15 at 12:19
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    Well I don't know much, but the outcome of your PhD (3 main, 2 co-author, a chapter) seems A LOT above the average of a normal PhD student... – Ander Biguri Mar 16 '15 at 14:52
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    @AnderBiguri I think for biology this is about average in many places. – Bitwise Mar 16 '15 at 17:24
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I think it's going to depend a lot on the specifics of the field that you are switching to. You're actually doing a bit of a surprising direction of shift---I've known a number of people who made radical shifts in the opposite direction, from highly unrelated fields into synthetic biology, which works pretty well because it's a young and rapidly expanding field, both inside and outside of academia. Cosmology, on the other hand, is much older, not particularly growing (to the best of my knowledge), and without a large non-academia research sector, so it may be significantly harder to transfer into that field.

That said, if you're going to transfer, postdoc is the right time for "retraining." The key question is to look at the skills you have, and try to figure out how they can be remapped into something "close enough" that it will give you a chance to shift. You might want to consider looking at ESA or NASA, who have both cosmology and biology and where they may be close enough to help move from one to the other. If you do the shift, you should also expect a fairly long period of postdoc, probably multiple postdocs, while you retrain and build credibility for your new field.

Finally, speaking as a synthetic biologist, I might urge you to consider that your view of the field may currently be quite limited. Synthetic biology is an extremely wild frontier with a lot of things you might be interested in. Are you sure you are tired of the field and the wetlab, or are you just tired of your particular lab and how it uses its wetlab people? There is a wide variety of labs and cultures out there, along with a lot of non-lab companies with good positions for people with prior lab experience. Unfortunately some academic labs have rather toxic cultures and treat their graduate students like underpaid lab techs, rather than investigators in training: if this has been your experience and what's driving you out of the field, consider that it may be much better elsewhere.

  • Very useful reply. I am totally happy with the lab I am currently working into, and I have been free to pursue my research, but still I would like to move away from this field because (i) I think that here has been sort of an happy island, and I am quite scared of ending up in a situation such as the one you described, and (ii) because I am starting to question the principle that lies at the core of Synthetic Biology (let's call it the whole engineers approach). But definitely I will try to broaden my horizon. – redshift Mar 16 '15 at 15:29
  • Going into details would be a bit off topic here, but as its a particular interest of mine, please feel free to email me and I'd be happy to compare notes and share my own perspective directly. – jakebeal Mar 16 '15 at 15:46
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Cosmology is very very far from synthetic biology, in the sense that most of the expert skill a biologist has will not be useful in cosmology. The only exception if your background has a very strong physics/math component (which is unfortunately not the case for most biologists).

For this reason, I don't think you have a chance to get a postdoc in cosmology without a PhD in a closely related field. In fact, if you only have classical biology training it might even be difficult to get into a graduate program. But if you are serious about cosmology, you will probably need to get a relevant PhD.

Two other suggestions:

  1. I very much agree with jakebeal that synthetic biology is a very exciting field at this time. There are huge opportunities for creativity and ground breaking research. I suggest you go to a relevant conference to broaden your perspective of the field and hear what is being done.
  2. Have you considered a postdoc in astrobiology? This would be a natural way for you to combine your new interests with your current expertise. I think synthetic biology approaches will be a very important tool in this field in the future.
  • I would heartily agree with point 2, except that the OP said (s)he doesn't want to do wet labs anymore. There are of course non-wetlab components to astrobio research, but while the shift will still be less drastic compared to cosmology, the amount of transferable skills would also be not very high. On the other hand, this opens an avenue for a more gradual shift: enter an astrobio lab for wet research and slowly move out of it. – Willie Wong Mar 16 '15 at 13:25
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If your question is

Should I change fields because of my changing interests?

It is much much more desirable to invest effort in the next 5-7 years and enter a career you actually like, compared to committing yourself to an academic job that you don't enjoy doing just to make a living. (If you just want to make a living: go in industry, they typically pay much much better.)

On the other hand, if your question actually is

Should I invest the next 5-7 years to switch to an unfamiliar field?

my answer would be: are you sure you want to do that? This is the same question I would ask of someone who tells me he or she wants to go and do a PhD, in any field. A PhD, with an eye toward academic employment, is a particular life choice and include a certain degree of commitment and sacrifice. Just reading a few (popular science?) books on the subject is generally not enough information for you to decide whether the field is really for you. The fact that you have committed once and are now having doubts should be a flag to you that before you make another commitment in a drastically different direction you should perhaps seek out someone already in the field (in this case, cosmology), and talk to him or her and try to find out if this career path is really good for you.

Further more

Would I ruin my career?

A drastic change of research directions is not common, but also not unheard of. If you do good work you will not ruin your career. But you need to be aware that

  • Cosmology is very, very different from synthetic biology. If you are into more observational astrophysics, with a decent scientific background you should be able to get in to the field with some hands-on training (provided you find someone willing to invest the time in you). If you are however into theoretical cosmology, unless you have an exceptionally strong and diverse undergraduate training, you will almost certainly have to earn a second PhD if you want to continue in academia in that direction.
  • Regardless of whether you earn a second PhD or not, the re-training required to take on a new field will necessarily take several years out of your life.
  • You will, of course, have to field questions about this drastic change whenever you interview for early career positions; the "I got sick of it and want to do something else" response is unlikely to sell well.
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I think finding a postdoc in a field so far afield is going to be very difficult. In many fields of academia, there are a lot of PhD students being trained. If a P.I. is hiring a postdoc, and they can choose between someone with a PhD in synthetic biology vs. someone with a PhD in cosmology, the latter will be preferred.

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I also agree with the above answers. Getting a posdoc in cosmology without a PhD in a related area will be almost impossible. You maybe have a non-negligible chance if you try working with groups which basically do data science, provided you have a good computational background.

On the other hand, I don't understand why you consider your PhD mediocre at all. In cosmology you would be glad to come up with 4 papers and a book chapter on Springer after your PhD.

Cosmology has become a very specialized science where half of the people are always trying to come up with different models that are still not satisfactory at all which try to explain the data and the other half of the people are trying to understand how to produce and process larger and larger amounts of data.

If by cosmology books, you mean popular books, then you will be entirely dissapointed once you start doing real research. Real life is much more complicated. In order to understand the literature of cosmology nowadays you need a strong background in General Relativity, Quantum Field Theory and Statistics. (I am not mentioning here all the astrophysical background which is certainly needed in some fields.) This will cost you at least 4-5 years of your life. I doubt that someone would pay you to do that.

I am myself doing a PhD in Cosmology and it is a very competitive and fast-changing area of research. I know many good people with strong mathematical and physical backgrounds and very good PhDs which have had a very hard time finding a posdoc position. Especially if you consider Europe, which is almost saturated already.

So, I would recommend you to find something completely different to do.

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