Changing fields in grad school

Lesley Perg lesley at
Sat Mar 29 20:02:53 EST 1997

Subject: Changing fields in grad school
Newsgroups: bionet.women-in-bio

   I am a second year graduate student in geology at Caltech, and I have
been seriously considering switching fields to biology.  I would like to
hear people's experiences who have changed into biology at the graduate
level and at the post-doc level or later.  I would also like to hear
opinions about the way research is done in various fields of biology.

   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.  That said, I have always found biology
itself fascinating, even more than geology, and perhaps I made a mistake
as an undergraduate in not exploring biology more to find a subfield that
matched my research requirements of PI's continuing to conduct personal
research and managing a 'reasonable' number of students, and that
incorporated many different fields of biology and other sciences.

   My formal education beyond general biology is an upperdivision honors
Genetics lecture and lab class, and a graduate Macroevolution seminar
class.  I also have done a lot of reading at the educated layperson level
(e.g. Scientific American, popular books such as Dawkins) to the
scientist-out-of-field level (discussion articles in Science and Nature). 
My main interest in biology is evolution, from mass extinctions to
formation of new populations to development of and reasons behind
cooperation.  In geology, my interests have been moving towards
geomorphology (surface features and processes such as erosion) and climate
change, which could be very useful for some problems in biology, such as
isolation of populations by landscape and climate barriers.

   As I see it, I have two options for incorporating biology into my life: 
switch now as a graduate student, or later as a post-doc.  The problems I
see in changing now are narrowing my interests enough to know what I want
to do, identifying which professors would be best for me to work with,
getting accepted by a top-notch research professor / institution, and
catching up on my education.  I feel very overwhelmed at the prospect of
making such a decision, more than as an undergraduate, because I realize
more of the problems in chosing a graduate program.  The other option is
to pursue a doctorate in geomorphology, while studying biology more
seriously and looking for ways to mesh my expertise in geology with my
interest in geology.  The main problems I see with this approach are
having enough direction and advice in my studies, and the possibility of
ending up liking a field of biology that geology would have no relevance

   As further background, I am likely to change institutions because
Caltech does not have an active geomorphology program (and I have been
encountering advising and resource difficulties in trying to carry out my
research).  I have an NSF fellowship in geology, with the specific
research plan in geomorphology, which should be relatively easy to
transfer to another institution if I stay in geomorphology.  Looking at
the guidelines, I would have to submit a change in research plans if I
change out of my subfield.  I am not sure how a change to geobiology would
work, let alone a change to straight biology.


|          | 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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