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I am one year away from finishing a PhD in neuroscience and looking at PostDoc/future career options. Though I love neuroscience, I don't enjoy working in the field very much and I have had a life-long (though non-academic) passion for ecology/conservation biology. I have a very broad background in biology (zoology, plant physiology, marine biology, development..) and have done several ecology-related courses in my undergrad.

My questions goes mainly to ecologists out there, is it possible to learn the techniques needed for ecological surveys/conservation biology work (thinking mostly marine, climate change focused) "on the job"? I believe I have gained a lot of transferable skills during my PhD and I learn techniques quickly. However the fields are very different. I wish I could be more precise but right now I am just looking at a general idea based on the premise that during a PhD, one learns skills beyond one's subject and thus should be able to change, even though it's not easy.

Would it be necessary to maybe do a master's program to bridge the fields? My undergrad would allow me to do a master's in ecology, I already checked that. But at this point of my career I think it's more valuable to learn on the job than to go back to a taught course (also I'm quite old, >25).

I'm thankful for any input!

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    Ahah, quite old? I'm in an ecology lab in Canada and most PhD student are around 30's. Some master degree students are also around that age That said, you can try applying for a job in ecology...that's the test to see if it will work. I don't think anyone can advise you on something that will be partly luck, partly an understanding of your skills...
    – Emilie
    Jul 27 '15 at 13:10
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    Apply for a postdoc in the desired area.... Some things in your favor are that ecology is a fairly new field (compared to some!); and it is more interdisciplinary than many fields are. Jul 28 '15 at 3:41
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I am not an ecologist, but I work with several, and if you squint and don't look very hard I might pass as one.

It will very much depend on the type of ecology you're interested in doing, and what kind of skills you have now. "Ecology" is a very wide open field, which can involve anything from fairly advanced mathematics to lots of field work, and everything in between. It's certainly possible (a lab I know has taken several postdocs from fields further afield than your own), but it would help if you could find a way to either apply your current skill set to an ecological problem.

Failing that, while it's likely still possible, it may take more time and be something of a rougher path.

Short version: "It depends."

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While I am not an ecologist, I have seen a lot of people make transfers between semi-related fields in the biosciences, and am basing my answer on my observations there.

What often happens is that people will use a postdoc to shift between fields, especially when there is a clear relationship between the fields. In your case, for example, the two fields are actually pretty close on the larger scheme of things, and so there are likely to be a lot of things that you did in neuroscience that will still be relevant for ecological studies. For example, some projects in both disciplines make a lot of use of microscopy and DNA sequence analysis; others in both fields make heavy use of stochastic temporal modeling.

The specifics of the possible overlap will depend on what you have actually done previously, but there is a good chance that you can find postdoc opportunities that will make use of your prior training in a new context, and PIs who will be happy to have you. From there, you can submerge yourself in the new field, acquiring new skills and network connections, and after a few years of postdoc (maybe more than one postdoc) be ready to apply for long-term positions in your chosen field.

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