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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

How hard is changing fields? Ask Sheldon!

In the last season of  The Big Band Theory Sheldon wants to change field from String theory to something else (I don't recall if he settled on what it would be, though Standard Model Physics, Quantum Loop Gravity, Calculation of nuclear matrix elements, were mentioned negatively, and Geology is, according to Sheldon, not a real science.)

Sheldon faced opposition from his department. And since Physics is... hard... changing fields seems hard.
How hard is it to change fields, both intellectually and in terms of your dept?

  1. If you are hired as a string theorist and you are one of the only ones in your dept, your dept may quite reasonably ask you to still teach string theory. I think this is fine.
  2. Math and Physics are far older than CS so to change fields requires learning more background knowledge. In CS it was easier about 20 years ago, but CS has grown so much that I suspect it would be harder now.
  3. There may be a time when you have less papers and grants as you are making the transition. Hence it may be unwise to do this before you get Tenure.
  4. If your dept hired you to do String Theory and you change to Calculation of nuclear Matrix elements should they mind that? I would think that as long as it's still good work they wouldn't. And they should give you enough time to get grants and papers in it. If you change to a field they don't care about, or change to a field not in the area they might not like that. If Sheldon went into Computational Complexity then would his dept (physics) be justified in not liking that?  If he solved P vs NP then all would be forgiven.
  5. Perhaps the further away you change from your field the better your work has to be before your dept doesn't mind. This could be modelled by a formula. Maybe Sheldon will change to computational dept dynamics and derive it for us.
  6. The obvious thing to say is Depts should allow their professors to wander free as a bird and not erect arbitrary walls since the best work comes from people not being constrained. I would like to think this is true but I wonder--- how many people have changed fields and ended up doing great work? good work? totally failed?

12 comments:

  1. Sheldon is not a professor. He appears to be some sort of self-supporting research scientist with no supervisor. At that level, in reality wouldn't he be "allowed" to pursue whatever area of physics he wanted to so long as he got grants?

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    1. Sheldon started as post-doc. His supervisor appeared a few times in the early episodes. At some point he seems to have been promoted to full time researcher/professor as reflected by his direct interactions with the University president. He gets a generous paycheck from the university which suggests he is not self-supported.

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    2. Self-supported researchers still get a paycheck "from" the University, they just happen to be paying themselves through the payroll system.

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    3. What supervisor? He got his first Ph.D. at age 16 and was a visiting professor in Germany after that. If he's a professor currently he's a 100% research professor since he doesn't teach classes or he buys out of everything which would likely give the department back more than they actually put into his salary. Gablehauser was the chair of the physics department, if that's who you meant.

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  2. My two cents is that it is hard to change field but it would be a lot easier if only papers on the arxiv could be submitted for publication, cf. http://emanueleviola.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/only-papers-on-the-arxiv-can-be-submitted-for-publication/

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  3. A serious question: if a person has tenure/permanent position, what does it matter if "the department likes what he/she does"? I don't understand the kinds or pressure or constraints that one is faced with with respect to to his/her research?
    E.g., what does it matter how much he/she publishes?
    (P.s. I have a permanent position).

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    1. A dept may still exert pressure via (1) teaching load, (2) salary, (3) promotion to Full Prof. The Granting agencies may exert pressure by not funding. There is also the social pressure of not being the person that people say `Professor X used to do good work in genetics before he stopped that and began working with mutants. Oh well.'

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  4. There are lots of people who have switched areas within CS. Off the top of my head, and restricting myself to theorists:
    Cynthia Dwork, Jon Kleinberg (who continues to work in many areas), Silvio Micali (crypto -> game theory), Joan Feigenbaum, Noam Nisan, ...

    With the possible exception of Kleinberg, you could argue that these people are all continuing to work in TCS. But the scope of their work has been fairly broad.

    Maybe others can think of people who have made more radical changes, or who work outside of TCS.

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    Replies
    1. Jeffrey Ullman switched quite successfully from theory to databases.

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    2. As I argued below, switching fields is asymmetric: if you switch from a hard theoretical area to a more accessible ("easier") and more popular area, it is not that difficult to do.
      What I find rare and perhaps difficult is the opposite direction.

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  5. I switched from TCS while an untenured faculty member and am now a tenured full prof in a world class biology department. Dunno if my work has been "great", but at least it hasnt sucked.

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  6. It is not difficult at all (from the perspective of the faculty) to switch from a basic and highly theoretical field X (e.g., complexity) to a fashionable and emerging field Y (e.g., Game Theory).

    The interesting case would be someone who worked on, e.g., systems, and switched to algebraic geometry, or circuit complexity. I don't know of examples of the latter case.

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