Changing career paths

Last week, while I was occupied with Tangled Bank, a reader left me this comment:

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.


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I'm glad you posted this, because I never got around to asking and I was curious. Now I have even more reason to feel woefully inadequate when talking to you! :)

Thanks for this post. I just got my PhD in maths a couple of weeks ago and I've been in an MSc programme in philosophy since September. I have no regrets whatsoever, I'm really thrilled by the career change. At times the uncertainty about the future is slightly nagging though. But just thinking about all that I've learned in just a couple of months makes me warm and happy again.

Pour stiff drink and call parents to tell them their child plans to become a philosopher.

We don't know why the stiff drink was a requirement. You knew the rules of the game would be the same: YOU pay for your graduate work; we paid for undergrad.

We applaud you for keeping your end of the agreement, as well as for your:
Ph. D. Chemistry
Ph. D. Philosphy
Tenure-teack position.
Ability to juggle, which your Mother taught you would be very important.
(Mom & Dad)

By Super Sally (not verified) on 06 Feb 2006 #permalink

I noticed the same line as your parents: "Pour stiff drink and call parents to tell them their child plans to become a philosopher."

But my reaction was: Ack... I was supposed to do that *after* getting an undergrad degree? (Perhaps then my parents would be paying for it.)

Actually, I always find it very encouraging to hear how other people juggled a philosophy career with a science career--this sort of advice is always welcome.

The Tangled Bank was an entertaining issue this week. Thanks for the personal touch... and for including me :)

Dear Dr. Free-Ride. Your mechanistic steps to changing from hard science to philosophy of it were more what I would expect from a hard technically-oriented methodical bench scientist rather than a philosopher of science.

Philosophically speaking (or is this bordering on sociology), what motivated you to forsake the rigor, the demands, the difficulties, the frustrations, and the infrequent joy of the eureka as a player of the game to become an onlooker from the security of stadium seats or the armchair. What conflicts did you face, if any, and with what rationalizations/motivations did you manage them?

Still playing the game and, yes, still yours truly a---

Polly Anna

By Polly Anna (not verified) on 06 Feb 2006 #permalink

"Chemist Roald Hoffman has written some nice papers dealing with philosophical questions in chemistry in particular and in science more broadly."

Roald Hoffman was the professor for my first semester chemistry course my freshman year of college. He's a great teacher (it also helped that I had seen all of the material in high school), and a really nice guy. In addition to the regular chemistry material, we read the Periodic Table by Primo Levi and had to write an essay on it. He also wrote a play and had members of the department perform a reading. Cool guy.

Congratulations on making the choice to change direction, and seeing it through! I'm only working toward an MS in geology, but my BS is in electrical engineering and I worked in that field for two decades before deciding to follow my heart. (Having a husband who makes enought to support us both helps, too.)

Changing careers in middle age is daunting; I encourage anyone interested in something other than what they're doing to make the change as soon as possible. My young colleagues handle the combination of classes, thesis work, and life outside school with much more aplomb than I do.

But it's still worth doing, even if following your heart is a ton of hard work.

I bolted as an undergrad from Petroleum Engineering to Philosophy by way of lots of confusion. In hindsight, I got the pain out of the way fairly quickly. But the last step, from PhD to job, is incredibly difficult in philosophy and shouldn't be underestimated. There are a lot of very bright philosophy PhDs out there doing something other than philosophy. I know a couple very bright ones who've never had a philosophy job interview. That step has to be taken carefully, strategically, and confidently from the outset. Philosophy is one of the greatest of subjects, but one of the worst career routes, practically speaking.

I too have an undergrad degree in both chemistry and philosophy. Since I was unsure what to do with either I went to med school. I'm glad someone got a job with a philosophy degree.

Wasn't the move to philosophy a move to a much more restricted job market? Chemists can get jobs in industry or in academe, and generally make things that everyone acknowledges are useful. Philosophers just split hairs and make trouble.

I bet the chemistry degree was a huge selling point, so I think the risk probably should be seen differently than going for philosophy as your one and only degree.

Well, let's see: Here's my path.

1. Start becoming fascinated with insects at age 7.

2. Be an excellent science and math student through high school, but start feeling a bit burned out on those subjects at just about the time you get accepted to a prestigious university. Allow people to tell your 17-year-old self that you've already invested too much time in your education to take any time off.

3. Go to college on schedule, put the bugs out of your mind, and get a B.S. in engineering with little enthusiasm.

4. Be incredibly bored with your career for the next 12 years, but start reading about evolutionary biology for fun. Start falling in love with natural science again.

5. Move from an expensive city to a much less expensive one, where you will find a state university with a good biology department.

6. Go back to school, do a really cool Ph.D. project, and enjoy your work for the first time since you were 17.

7. Get your Ph.D. at age 46, and go on to a postdoc in a lab that's well-known for its work in insect ecology, behavior, and evolution.

8. Every time you feel regret about not doing it sooner, stop and thank the bugs that you at least figured it out later!