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I am approaching the end of a PhD in experimental physics. My work involves building and operating experimental equipment, primarily optics, with some electronics. I also have a significant data analysis and theoretical component. I majored in physics at the same school (a pretty well known one) and graduated near the top of my class.

However, despite what might look like a solid set of credentials proving that I really want to build a quantum computer and the obvious next step being a post doc or industry position researching the same field, I have realized that my reasons for pursuing this line of research for so long were primarily to earn prestige and respect and not because I personally care about what I am doing (although it is wonderful that others do!). In doing this I have always enjoyed the process of science and the combination of thought and creativity with the practicality of lab work, however due to my lack of enthusiasm or motivation for the actual topic of research I have often been unhappy.

I am trying to remember what exactly it was that motivated me to be a scientist and what I used to enjoy. My undergraduate degree combined a broad span of sciences and I worked on lab biology projects during vacation. However, I am quite sure that my real lifelong passion lies somewhere in the direction of ecology, earth science or environmental science, with maybe a preference towards plant sciences or broader scale ecology.

I am really aware of how vague and naive that might sound. I grew up outdoors but I never took seriously the things I care about as a possible option I would be allowed to consider in my adult life. Following a few personal revelations I now know that this is the way to madness, and you are never going to be a successful researcher in a field you don't care about anyway!

There are many things I don't know right now, but I do know that I remain a scientist and I am very much not afraid of a great deal of hard work.

Given all this my questions are:

  1. How likely is it that I could make such a large career shift?

  2. How do I go about finding out more about what research is out there and what I might like specifically, given the very large quantity of research that exists??

  3. Does anyone know of any examples of people who have made similar shifts? (Partly just because right now I need the inspiration and belief I am not trapped!)

  4. What sort of things might I do directly after my PhD to build experience/learn more? Is trying to get field experience a good idea? Should I start to consider Master's programs?

  5. Am I completely as doomed as I think I could be?? :)

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Let me offer you some advice. Please note that it is not too specific to physics-to-ecology transition, but it should be helpful as a general approach. Also, note that for the purpose of this answer, for brevity, I'm referring to ecology, environmental science and earth science simply to as ecology. First of all (and it seems that you plan to do that), I think that your top priority at this point should be to graduate from your program as best as you can, in terms of both academic performance (mainly, dissertation research) and knowledge acquisition.

  1. How likely is it that I could make such a large career shift?

Nobody could answer this with certainty. This is because the outcome of the transition in question very much depends on a variety of factors, many of which include your personal traits as well as external circumstances, some of which you can control, but not all. All I can say is that is possible. Several examples that I'm providing below (answer to your question #3) illustrate / confirm that.

  1. How do I go about finding out more about what research is out there and what I might like specifically, given the very large quantity of research that exists??

I'm surprised by this question, considering your background. An ability to find needed information, including an ability to find the large-scale sources (repositories, databases, journals, etc.) is IMHO a fundamental skill for any Ph.D. student. Yes, the amount of existing research is tremendous and is growing exponentially. This is why it is even more important for a researcher to be able to find what information do you need to find and how to do that. Basically, within academic context, I'm talking about a process of systematic review of literature aka literature review. I suspect (and hope) that you're aware of all that (then it's not clear to me why ask this question - perhaps, your formulation wasn't clear or I misunderstood it), but, just in case, please check my relevant answer, which contains some advice as well as basic references.

  1. Does anyone know of any examples of people who have made similar shifts? (Partly just because right now I need the inspiration and belief I am not trapped!)

Over the years, I've read about quite a number of people, who successfully transitioned not only from different academic fields, but even across completely different industries and occupations (which makes your potential transition look like child's play - just kidding). For example, I know about, at least, several people with mechanical engineering or business undergraduate education, who changed their career and became medical doctors(!). I also know about people with undergraduate and/or master's degrees in zoology and music (two different persons), who became successful executives (CEO/CTO) of software/IT companies. I'm sure that many people might provide many more similar examples. So, the point is that, since such career switches happen, your potential transition is possible. However, the big question is whether you can be among those, whose such transitions were successful, and how to increase the chances of that happening.

  1. What sort of things might I do directly after my PhD to build experience/learn more? Is trying to get field experience a good idea? Should I start to consider Master's programs?

I would suggest you to avoid making drastic career changes, unless you have solid reasons to do so (for a hypothetical example, you realized that you absolutely hate physics and tremendously love ecology - I'm intentionally exaggerating here). What I suggest is a smooth transition, where you could capitalize on your existing skills and experience, which are transferable to the other domain. Considering your source and destination domains as well as other information in your question's background ("significant data analysis and theoretical component"), I would recommend you to focus within ecology domain on research methodology and data analysis areas as well as statistical or other complex models, which seems to be well aligned with your physics background. I would not consider master's programs in your situation. Perhaps, some specialized certificate programs or several courses, or, alternatively, some MOOCs in the target domain.

  1. Am I completely as doomed as I think I could be?? :)

Not completely and, maybe and hopefully, even not at all, as shown above :-). Best of luck!

  • "I'm surprised by this question, considering your background. " -- But people don't (often) formally write down what OP would really benefit from, which is "what ecological fields could use novel opto-electronic equipment?" The ecological researchers themselves don't necessarily know, as they don't know what's possible equipment. Maybe Decagon or Campbell, etc., would. – cphlewis May 20 '15 at 4:13
  • @cphlewis: Strange comment. Most likely, you didn't understand my point. Regardless of knowledge domains and fields of study, a good researcher should, in my opinion, be able to not only find information, but know where and how to find it. – Aleksandr Blekh May 20 '15 at 4:20
  • But there's tacit (unwritten) knowledge in almost all fields. If everything we needed to know about operating in academia were published and amenable to a literature search, we wouldn't need academia.stackexchange. – cphlewis May 20 '15 at 4:23
  • @cphlewis: While this is true, it is not applicable in this case. Simply because the skills I referred to are basic (fundamental) for a Ph.D. student, let alone graduate. – Aleksandr Blekh May 20 '15 at 4:29
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    It sounds like it's time for you to go to a conference! Here is a list that might get you started: smb.org/meetings/index.shtml – aparente001 May 25 '15 at 2:55
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How likely is it that I could make such a large career shift?

It is very common for people who studied physics to end up doing something rather different. Studying physics is great preparation for many different endeavors.

How do I go about finding out more about what research is out there and what I might like specifically, given the very large quantity of research that exists??

Fun ways to do this are to attend seminars and take a look at journals in the target fields. At this point you're mainly getting your feet wet and getting a few ideas about what's out there, and what the culture of those other disciplines is like.

Does anyone know of any examples of people who have made similar shifts? (Partly just because right now I need the inspiration and belief I am not trapped!)

My advisor, Akira Okubo, is a good example. You might enjoy reading this tribute and overview of his life and work: http://www.yen.biology.gatech.edu/papers/Okubo%20tribute.pdf

What sort of things might I do directly after my PhD to build experience/learn more? Is trying to get field experience a good idea? Should I start to consider Master's programs?

Perhaps the shift would be less drastic if you started out by making a slight sideways move into environmental science. But that might not even be necessary.

I think you can go straight into a two-year postdoc after you graduate. As long as you choose the right sort of person or group to do it with, I don't think you'll need to do another degree or more coursework first, because of your undergrad broad span of sciences and the lab biology projects. If you find you have some gaps, you can fill them on your own or by auditing some classes while you're in the postdoc.

Am I completely as doomed as I think I could be?

There are some interdisciplinary fields, such as mathematical ecology, that are new enough that many of the people in those fields originally trained in something else.

Final comment: the tail end of a PhD can be a desolate time, and a stressful time. So please take this growing ennui with a grain of salt.

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