Changing fields in grad school

S L Forsburg forsburg at nospamsalk.edu
Fri Apr 4 10:35:43 EST 1997


Lesley Perg ( lesley at legs.gps.caltech.edu ) wrote:
> Let me clarify: I saw the individual research labs in biology as large
> groups managed by a PI, who did not do any benchwork.

That depends on the PI.  And his/her age.  To me, the benchwork is 
all the fun, but unfortuantely, the constraints of the job, the
constant fight for grants, the administrative responsibilities
 get in the way.  When you have to pay everyone in your lab and 
the success rate for grants is circa 15%, you don't have time to
do much benchwork, even if you only have 4 people in your lab.

> 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.

In my observation it is relatively straightforward to switch fields
at the grad school level.  Most schools appreciate diversity and
a bright student is always welcome. In my career I have known people
who had degrees in physics, chemical engineering, computer science
and mathematics who decided to do PhD's in biology, and who were
admitted by very good schools to do so.  They may have had to work
a little harder in the first year of classes, but  made 
the transition successfully and added richness to the community.

 At the postdoc level?  I'm not an evolutionary biologist, but a 
molecular geneticist, so I can only give you that perspective.  
Frankly I  would not hire someone as 
a postdoc who had not done their thesis in an area of biology.
I don't expect them to be in the same area of research as I,
 but I expect  them to be biologists, with several years of solid 
research under their belts, the experience of running a project, 
and publications to show for it. I expect them to have all the
basic tools and techniques already, and the intellectual 
sophistication that only comes with the practice of science.  They
join my lab to add experience, a new system, an additional set of
tools to their arsenal, not to learn the basics.  And they bring
to me a set of tools and experiences that will add to my lab--it's
a two way exchange. 

I have no objection to teaching people the basics of lab work
and the basics of doing research.  But they are students, not postdocs,
and I have different expectations for them.

Just one woman's point of view,
-- susan

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S L Forsburg, PhD
Molecular Biology and Virology Lab          
The Salk Institute, La Jolla CA 

forsburg at salk.edu
http://flosun.salk.edu/~forsburg/lab.html



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