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Since the purpose of a PhD is to learn proper research skills, which should be applicable to any subject area, and since people can publish in subject areas unrelated to their dissertation, does it really matter which subject one chooses to research for their PhD?

Clearly, there are issues of motivation (if someone gets bored, it will be difficult to put in the effort required to complete the program) but if someone is interested in education/pedagogy, finance, leadership, and other areas, does the initial research area matter?

If someone gets a PhD in education/pedagogy and later wants to do more research in the area of finance, will the fact that the PhD was done in a different area introduce problems later?

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    In what context does that person intend to do research in finance? If they're doing independent research, it's no problem, but someone with a PhD in education is not likely to get a faculty job in finance, and (at least until they become established in the new field) they will have a very difficult time getting grant money to do research in it.
    – ff524
    Nov 4, 2016 at 0:25
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    I disagree that a PhD should teach you the skills needed to do research in any field. That would waste so much time of the students. Nov 4, 2016 at 8:04

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In my handful of interdisciplinary forays (all within social science), I've actually been struck by how different the fields can be, particularly in regards to the assumptions that are easily digested. In one example I found economists and sociologists were accomplishing the exact same thing using a completely different method, and no one in either field seems to have any idea why anyone in the other field does it that way.

There is also the issue of learning the specific research skills used in a given field. The skills I've learned as an economist are not the same skills learned by someone studying education. Even within the field of economics there are divisions with stark differences in skills, micro vs macro, empirical vs theoretical, and so on, that would make it very difficult to move between them as a researcher. That would likely be greatly compounded going to entirely different fields, even though all of the fields rely on "general research skills".

There's also a huge signaling aspect. You mentioned finance; this is a competitive area, and jobs will always have more applicants than openings. Someone with a finance degree has a leg up on someone with, say, an economics degree, while someone with an economics degree may have a leg up on someone with a business or statistics degree, while those researchers would be ahead of someone with a degree in education. I'm sure you can extend that chain if desired.

So in short, yes, it absolutely matters what your PhD is in. That doesn't mean you can't be an interdisciplinary researcher, particularly once you're tenured somewhere, or that it's impossible to switch to related but different fields, but your degree should be in your primary interest.

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On the one hand it does not really matter in what field you did your PhD. If you have time, energy, knowledge and skills you can do and publish research in any field you like. Actually, it is not uncommon for people to switch from one field to another or even stay somehow active in more than one field.

Of course, it is not simple as that. A PhD does not only let you to learn "proper research skills", it also brings you to the cutting edge in one small field, to the area where exciting new things may be found. And getting to that edge is hard work. Getting to another edge in a totally different area will take hard work again. You need to learn the jargon, the basics, the recent literature, grasp the driving questions in that field… On top of that, research in different fields can be surprisingly different. What may look like an interesting accomplishment in one field may sound ridiculous or even boring for another field. So I would say, starting research in a different field on your own is a risky endeavor. Having good contacts to different fields can lead to good collaborations and make research in a different field easier. I managed to do a bit of research in measurement technology, pharmacy, computer graphics, even politics while my core field is applied mathematics. However, I only contributed to the work of some team and could never contributed one bit to these fields on my own.

On a more practical note you need the environment to do research, e.g. a tenured position and to get one you need a great reputation in at least one field - being active and good in different fields will probably not work out if you do not manage to be great and visible in one of the fields.

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I believe a person with access to research tools (which are far more sophisticated today -- technology does so much for us) and some knowledge of methodology, can produce a research project. I think the more important question is why and to what end does the person carry out that research. Also, I did not earn a PhD to learn proper research skills; I took courses for that. In fact, I had acquired some of the skills I needed on the master's level. Rather it was to make a meaningful contribution to my field of study (theological education). Thankfully, from the insights gained in the study, I made the first steps toward doing just that. Will the switch from one field to another cause a problem? I don't see why. Consultation and collaboration should address credibility issues that might arise. The bigger issue is understanding what purpose is served when deciding to make the switch in the first place.

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