Retraining Scientists: Changing Fields, Gaining Skills

Odds are, if you’re reading this you already have--or will over the next few years--put in at least 9 years of science education, including undergraduate and graduate school. And that doesn’t include the postdoc or three that are commonplace in the sciences nowadays. Given the amount of training you're likely to put in, re-training may be the last thing on your mind.

But, what if you decide you want to pursue an entirely new discipline, or an entirely new line of work? It happens.

It happened to Mark Goulian--more than once. It wasn’t until Goulian was finishing his first postdoc that he realized he didn’t want a career doing theoretical high-energy physics. It wasn’t until he was into his second postdoc that he embraced biology. And it was still later that he switched from theory to experiment. So now he has a tenure-track position--he awaits his tenure decision as you read this--at the University of Pennsylvania doing experimental cell biology--in the physics department, no less.

It also happened to Sarah Thompson, who moved from neuroimmunology to patent law. It wasn't an easy transition--it meant more school, on-the-job training, and lots more exams at a time of life when she could well have thought that exams were behind her forever. But now she enjoys a greater sense of professional satisfaction than she ever did as a scientist at the bench. After years of training and progressively increasing responsibility, she is now almost fully qualified as a patent agent.

Whether it is the urge to explore a new discipline or an entirely new vocation, retraining is a necessary part of transitioning from one field to another. And while the path may not be obvious, it's easily worth it for those who need a change. And since you've probably got at least 20--more likely 30 or more--years left in your career, why spend it doing something you don’t really want to?

Clinton Parks is a staff writer for Minority Scientists Network.

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