wijsman at wijsman at
Sat Nov 12 18:52:08 EST 1994

> Hello.  I have a question regarding compromises scientists (not necc. just
> women) have to make regarding research pursuits.  Specifically, I am an
> undergraduate right now, and have a choice between two fields to pursue.  One
> of the fields I find absolutely fascinating, unfortunately it is rather
> esoteric and there is NO job market.  I am not quite as interested in the
> other field, but it has a much greater chance of getting me a job later on.
>      I'm not really sure which is more important: the interest or the work.  If
> I choose according to my interest, but can't get grants to do any research,
> what good is it?  Yet, if I guide myself toward the other field, do I spend my
> life feeling slightly disgruntled at not doing what I wish I could?

Choices like this are always difficult.  Which is the best move depends on
a lot of factors.  If a field is relatively mature, it is not nearly as
good a bet as a new and growing area in terms of long-term research and job
opportunities.  (Potential for long term growth is REALLY important!)  Your
creativity and tolerance for long days is likely to be higher in a field
you truly love, but good scientists usually can find quite a number of
areas which become very fascinating once they get into the research. 

Your long-term research is probably not going to be determined that much by
exactly what you do for a Ph.D. thesis. A good Ph.D. field teaches you good
research skills, and hopefully some technical skills as well.  If the two
fields under consideration are not too far apart in terms of necessary
background and day-to-day technical skills, you could very well easily move
from one to the other as postdoc.  Your choice of a postdoctoral direction
will be much more important in terms of your long-term career path.  People
switch fields all the time, and the most productive people often switch
fairly drastically several times during a career.

There was an interesting commentary a few years ago in (I think) Science
about graduate students, source of graduate funding, and long-term
scientific success which might be relevant.  The gist of it was:  when
students enter grad school, there is generally a heirarchy of support vs.
expected quality of the students, with the brightest frequently ending up
with fellowship support, the next group with research assistantships, and
the weakest group with teaching assistantships.  Interestingly, in the long
term the RAs did the best in terms of research productivity and
recognition.  The interpretation was that by starting as RAs, they were
steered into fields which were fundable, i.e., more likely to be "hot" than
were the fellowship students who were more likely to choose an esoteric
area reflecting their own interests rather than the potential for growth.

Ellen Wijsman
Research Associate Professor
Div of Medical Genetics, RG-25
and Dept of Biostatistics
University of Washington
Seattle, WA   98195
wijsman at

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