I was just wondering, how did you change from chemistry to philosophy? What little career steps were involved — if you don’t mind my asking.
– From an academic considering a career change.
Below the fold, my secret protocol for changing from chemistry to philosophy …
- While an undergraduate, double-major in chemistry and philosophy.
- While in graduate school in chemistry, keep reading philosophy. Participate in philosophy of science reading groups with other chemists eager to spend a few hours each week outside of the lab.
- Decide that actually being a chemist for a living — for the rest of your life — is more likely to make you unhappy than happy. Reflect upon what sort of career is likely to make you happy.
- When reflection yields “philosophy” as career likely to make you happy, go back and repeat reflection (at least 10 times) to make sure you’re doing it right.
- Pour stiff drink and call parents to tell them their child plans to become a philosopher.
- Research graduate programs with good philosophy of science programs. Request graduate school application materials.
- Take the @#$% GREs again.
- Track down philosophy professors from college to request letters of recommendation. Try to explain proposed change of direction without sounding crazy.
- Complete applications, trying in “statement of purpose” essays to explain proposed change of direction without sounding crazy.
- Attend graduate school. Read. Write. Discuss. Finish and defend dissertation.
- Go on the market. Secure an academic job.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any secret shortcuts that I can offer. (If it’s a comfort, the second doctoral program is much less of a psychological challenge than the first one.) To have the kind of credibility I wanted as a philosopher of science, I decided I needed to get a Ph.D. in philosophy.
There are, however, people who come to philosophy of science from the sciences without going to these lengths. Fred Grinnell who is trained in biochemistry and is a professor of cell biology, has written some very good stuff (including a book, The Scientific Attitude) in the realm of philosophy of science. Chemist Roald Hoffman has written some nice papers dealing with philosophical questions in chemistry in particular and in science more broadly. Indeed, a number of accomplished scientists paricipate in discussions with philosophers about their fields of science, and many make contributions to the philosophy of science literature.
Most of these folks keep their day jobs (as scientists), and most don’t get involved in the philosophical dabbling until after they have reached a certain level of accomplishment (usually somehwere between tenure and Nobel Prize). Also, while a lot of the scientists getting involved in philosophical discussions take pains to learn a lot of philosophy, there are some venerable scientists who have decided that being a venerable scientist automatically qualifies them to hold forth on any matter in the philosophy of science, ignorance of the literature be damned. (Because, honestly, how hard could philosophy be? It’s not like you’d have to go to school to learn how to do it.)
Is it always necessary to get another Ph.D. to change academic careers? I don’t think so. I suspect, if one had a very focused interest and a good feeling for how the knowledge and competencies from one’s old career would support the shift to the new career, a master’s degree might be sufficient “retooling”. Another useful strategy might be to seek out collaborations with people doing the kind of work you’re thinking of shifting into — not only does this help in building connections to people in the new community you’d like to join, but it gives you a sense of what pre-existing knowledge you can draw upon and of what new things you need to learn, formally or informally, to do a good job in the new realm.
Almost any career shift (done right) can be expected to take time. But, at least for myself, spending that time is absolutely worth it to end up with a job that you love. (OK, grading papers can be a drag. But I love it as much as one can love a job. There’s a reason they call it “work”.)
Any readers who have successfully changed from one academic field to another, please leave your advice (or warnings) in the comments.