Changing fields in grad school

Lisa Vaillancourt vaillan at POP.UKY.EDU
Wed Apr 2 09:04:57 EST 1997

First on a different subject, after reading all of the comments on
moderating the group or changing names to avoid pornographic advertising, I
think I agree with you all that it would be more trouble than its worth,
and probably wouldn't help that much anyway.  I'm afraid I fired off my
letter when I was feeling particularly exasperated after wading through an
unusually large number of junk posts the other morning.

Dear Beth,

Here is my opinion, for what its worth...It sounds to me like you have
gotten yourself into kind of a bad situation.  If I understand your post
(and forgive me if I have totally misinterpreted the whole thing), you have
signed on with a graduate advisor by telling him that you can deliver
something that he wants, but which is outside his area of expertise.
Therefore, he might not consider you in the same way as his other students,
who are there primarily to learn from him and to take part directly in HIS
current research program.  And, his good will may be dependent on your
delivering the promised result, whereas he may be more lenient with his
other students if their projects don't work out.  Even negative results, if
they are in his own area of expertise, will be interesting and therefore
valuable to him.  Your negative results won't be useful to him at all; he
may or may not understand the technicalities involved in the limitations of
the system you are using.  As for the other professor (the crystallography
one), I'm not surprised that he isn't terribly supportive either because
you want to work on something outside of his area of interest, for another
professor, and you are basically just asking to use his (already
overcrowded) facilities.  So he isn't necessarily going to feel as good
about you as he would about one of his own students, who are there
primarily to learn from him.  From your post, it sounds like you've already
learned everything you feel you need, and that you are mainly looking to do
this "hot" project to make a name for yourself.  Quite frankly, we like to
think that students come to study and learn from us, not just to use our
facilities for their own self-promotion.  Of course we appreciate brilliant
students, but we also like to take a certain amount of credit for their
training and development when they go off into the world and do
makes us look good, too.  It does sound like you are a very advanced
graduate student, with all of your other work experiences, but perhaps you
could restrain your hubris a bit for the sake of your long term goals?  I
suspect that you have inadvertently gotten into a situation where neither
professor feels totally committed to you because you have not totally
committed to either of them.  Why did you go to graduate school?  Was it
just to get the a PhD as a sort of "membership card" so you could be a full
member of the group?  Or might you be able to learn some new stuff that
might interest you as much as or even more than crystal structures?  I may
be totally off base here, but sometimes when you are very familiar with
something, and very good at it, it doesn't seem possible to change fields.
You've been doing crystallography for a long time.  Might you find a
totally different project in the department there that excites you just as
much and that you could do just as well at?  UCLA is a good school, there
must be lots of exciting science going on there.  One possibility would be
to find another professor with an exciting project to whom you could commit
and from whom you could learn something new.  You could always return to
crystallography later.  In my opinion, it may already be too late for your
relationship with your two profs.  I hope you do continue on for a PhD, it
sounds as though you have lots of good ideas, and would do very well in
charge of your own research group..but as they say, you must crawl before
you can walk..the graduate school experience is meant to prepare you in
more ways than just scientifically and technically for a science
career..there is also a kind of social training that will help you just as
much in your future career as the scientific stuff.  I have seen wonderful
scientific minds go by the wayside because of a lack of socialization
(mainly this means being aware that all of us have feelings and egos, and
like to be respected and liked by our peers, and also that relationships
among university faculty are rarely simple) an ideal world, we would
say that this is a terrible thing, that brilliant minds should be allowed
to make their contribution no matter what..but the research world is not
ideal, it is made up of very human researchers with very human failings and
feelings..and realistically, success depends on the good will of peers in a
peer review system

Another option is to try and obtain your own funding (you don't say if this
is already the case??) perhaps you could get some support from NSF or ACS
for your proposal; this would give you a lot more credibility and freedom
with your current professors.  I believe AWIS also offers graduate
fellowships? I would talk to your professor in the cancer lab about
sponsoring your effort to write a proposal to an outside agency.  If you
got it, it would also really help you in the future.  You still have lots
of time to become famous; your best objective right now is probably to get
a good grounding in a range of fields and to set up a good
impressive list of publications and a successful stint in a good lab as a
post-doc will do the most for you in terms of your future job search (at
least if you're headed for academia).

Well, this was longer than I had planned, good luck Beth!

Lisa Vaillancourt, Assistant Professor
Department of Plant Pathology
S-305 Agricultural Science Building-North
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40546-0091

telephone:      (606) 257-2203
fax:               (606) 323-1961

More information about the Womenbio mailing list