Changing fields in grad school

Lesley Perg lesley at
Thu Apr 3 14:24:51 EST 1997

Susan Hogarth (sjhogart at wrote:
: Lesley Perg wrote:
: > 
: >    As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, I chose geology over
: > biology because of the differences I perceived in research style between
: > them.  I saw biology as a large group endevor, with the PI's acting as
: > managers.  In geology the PI's were engaged in their own research, as well
: > as overseeing a small group of one to about seven students.  I also saw
: > the geosciences as being more integrated than biology, since many lines of
: > evidence from geology, geochemistry, geophysics, and other fields of
: > science are neccessary to support a theory. I had the impression that
: > biology had diverged into specialized subfields that did not have as much
: > communication with each other. 
: Sorry I don't have anything constructive to offer, but what you wrote
: above seems contradictory. First you say "I saw biology as a large group
: endeavor...," but then you say "I had the impression that biology had
: diverged into specialized subfields that did not have as much
: communication with each other." I'm a bit puzzled by this.
: My "take" on the subject is that biology is exactly as you described
: "the geosciences" - perhaps things were set up differently in your
: department....

Let me clarify: I saw the individual research labs in biology as large
groups managed by a PI, who did not do any benchwork.

My experience as an undergraduate was initially with the Molecular Biology
Department (one of three biology departments at the U of Arizona), where
there was a lot of 'big group' science.  Also, my perspective of
non-interacting sub-fields was influenced because there are three
separate departments at the U of A, and the interdisciplinary Genetics  
program between them suffered from a lack of funding (which I took also
as a lack of interest).

I had no intention to unfavorably compare biology to geology, or even
slight the way research is conducted in some labs (it's just not for me!).
I was outlining what I found attractive about geology to illustrate what I
would be looking for in a biology program: PI's conducting their own work
as well as mentoring a small number of students, and a large system
approach drawing together research in many fields.  (I would love to hear
about your experiences with smaller, interdisciplinary labs).

I knew what type of research environment I wanted and as an undergraduate
found it in geology, so it seemed logical to choose it.  I am very
interested in some aspects of geology, but I feel an additional spark when
I read and think about evolutionary systems. It seems that there are some
areas of biology, such as evolutionary biology, that have the type of
research environment I want, so I am reexamining my career choice.

The main concerns I have are identifying people I would want to work with,
being accepted by these research groups / institutions, and catching up on
background material.  I would like to know how common it is for people to
switch into biology at the graduate or post-doc level, and what the
specific challenges are.


 |          | Lesley A Perg        lesley at
 |   /\     | Division of Geological & Planetary Sciences
 |--/--\--/ | California Institute of Technology   100-23
   /    \/  | Pasadena, CA  91125
         \  | 818-395-2293

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