A few years ago, the end of my PhD was in sight (even if it was a bit hazy and afar), and thus the time had come for me to decide what I wanted to do next. I had spent four years working in a interdisciplinary* lab where the focus, broadly speaking, was how chemistry drives biology at a molecular level. It was something that I really got and truly enjoyed thinking about and working on. But I was a bit restless. I wanted to expand my horizons, and what better time to do that than in a postdoc. I chose an discipline that fascinated me and in which I saw opportunities to create a niche, bringing together approaches from my background and this new discipline, that would be be beneficial to a lab and my future career.
As you’ve probably gathered, things did not go as planned. I spent a great deal of time and tears trying to figure out what went wrong, what I could have changed, what warning signs I missed. I realized that there was more than a little naivete about how smooth the transition would be and why. Here are a few things I wish I’d known before trying to make a switch-some of which I probably did, but didn’t consider:
Be mindful of the “personality” of the discipline. Every field is different in its interactions and spirit. Some are quite open with data and ideas, whereas others are more secretive. My PhD field fell toward the middle of the spectrum: We were careful about putting forth the really hot stuff in large public forums unless we felt we were close to submitting for publication, but at the same time, you could have very open discussions about research at and away from your home institution. In my first postdoc field, people play their cards close to their vest. Little is discussed, even within your own department, unless it’s publication ready. Many colleagues and collaborators act like scientific frienemies. It can even carry over from departments into labs, where individuals won’t share protocols because they consider them “mine, my own, my preciousssss”. The drive for secrecy seems to be determined in part by the methods and reagents used. If most labs use the same techniques with commercially available resources, then there seems to be extreme paranoia that, with one wrong slip of the tongue, someone else can and will pick up your idea, run with it, and scoop you.
Choose projects wisely. This is important for any postdoc, but more so if you’re moving into a new field. Because you don’t know as much about the field, you might not appreciate just how difficult the project your PI proposes really is, until you’ve invested a great deal of time and energy. Again this can happen to anybody, even if you stay in the same field, but it’s much easier to get in over your head when you don’t know the field well.
Pay attention to which individuals are successful in a given lab. Generally, when you’re looking for a postdoc lab, you take a look at its publication record, seeing how often they publish and where. Most likely, you focus on the last author. If you’re switching fields, also consider the first author and his or her background and role in the lab. In my first postdoc lab, the productive postdocs (i.e. those with first author publications) were those that had trained in the lab’s major discipline or something closely related. There were a few individuals in the lab who came from different fields. Many of them left without any first-author publications-or any publications, at all. In this case, it was an unrecognized indication that one was expected to be a near-expert in the lab’s field with little training or education in it. The support and patience for the transition simply wasn’t there.
Don’t take my cautionary tale to mean you shouldn’t make a change, if that’s what you want. I have no doubt that changing fields works for some people because I’ve known highly successful scientists who have done just that. But I’ve also met other young scientists like myself that have tried going in a different direction and too soon find themselves in the midst of a train wreck. Much of this has to do with the dynamic of a lab, project, and PI, but some part of it can be the transition to a completely different field. Soon I’ll be moving onto another postdoc where I’ll be getting back to my roots; it’s still quite different from my PhD work but back to the things I love-proteins and their chemistry. My forays into other fields may not be over completely, but they will be more tempered and more rigorously considered in the future.
* Apologies to Carl Zimmer 😉