Shifting disciplines - the millennial's dilemma

Today, I share some ideas and taboos about shifting disciplines or changing branches. I did my master's and undergraduate in Aerospace Engineering, but I'll be pursuing a Ph.D. in Physics (specifically Astronomy and Astrophysics). Well, not such a big jump in comparison to an Engineer switching to Stand-up Comedy / Acting (something replete in the Indian scenario) or someone like Shrikant Jichkar, but still something considerable so far as academics is concerned.

Why do I call it the millennial's dilemma?

To be honest, our generation has a plethora of choices. Our parents did not have the same. They had to work hard for their roti-kapda-makaan (bread-clothing-housing) and also take care of their family from a young age. Not to turn a blind eye to a large section of the Indian society who still have to fight for the basics, but a raw comparison between the previous and the current generations demarcated by the discovery of computers and the technology boom brings up the struggle-contrast in plain light. We do have our struggles too, but they are different.

With burgeoning choices in terms of the profession one may choose, alternative job opportunities, and the urge to do something different, millennials naturally have a problem deciding what we/they want to do in life. There is an ample amount of resources, close-to-nil responsibilities, and enough time for one to explore several areas and get an idea of what might be suitable, often leading to confusion. So, it is very natural, and you are not the only one.

A brief history of my journey

As for me, I joined Engineering at IIESTS after my parents discarded the idea of me becoming a Violin teacher as not-so-stable in the then rather orthodox social setting, but soon I knew that I wasn't interested in technology so much after all. The traditional courses of Aerospace Engineering (AE) like Fluid and Solid Mechanics, Thermodynamics, etc. made me wonder about the parallel applications of the same in natural phenomena rather than sticking to the context of air/space-crafts. When I came to know that people use Computational Fluid Dynamics even in Astrophysics (very different from AE but fundamentally similar of course), I wanted to shift to Physics for my Masters.

However, that was not possible. One has to appear for JAM in India. Engineering graduates, on the other hand, are better equipped for GATE. After clearing the latter, I tried finding groups in Engineering (AE and ME mostly) departments all over the country who did something similar to Astrophysics. I joined IITK with a group working on rubble-pile asteroids and Saturn's rings. Through my Masters's Thesis, my interests metamorphosed and I came to learn about new aspects of mathematics and science. Not that it was my sole goal, but finally I could make the transition to Physics (several factors included) for my Ph.D. which is to begin in September 2021.

Therefore, by the principle of logical induction, if it is possible for me, it is possible for everybody!

You'll not be hired anywhere! Wrong!

Today, I have had several people, especially juniors, asking me whether a switch is possible to a faintly related field. With the growth of interdisciplinary science and employability across a wide range of jobs, I think it is no longer a big deal as it was may have been ten years ago. And I am pretty much sure that whatever the current standing may be, one can segue their way into any other field provided there is sustained interest.

Many will say that switching makes it difficult to get hired. Well, that may be true in certain cases. One who has a wealth of knowledge in a particular field developed through years of experience will naturally be a better candidate. But this does not at all mean that one who has shifted fields will have no value. Remember that, in the end, one is evaluated based on what one knows and has done to prove that knowledge. Mere experience doesn't count. I have heard of Physicists and Mathematicians being hired by Banks and Corporate Services which clearly doesn't make much sense to the layman, but I guess you can understand why.

In my opinion, Indian academics is still a little opaque towards interdisciplinarity when it comes to hiring, but a lot has changed and I am hopeful of more changes in the future. Although here I may be counting the chicken before the eggs are hatched, it doesn't really hurt.

Applying for a Ph.D.

In all, I have applied for a Ph.D. to 10 Universities over three years following my bachelor's and have been able to convert just one application into an offer of admission. Therefore, I have had nine failures, nothing to be proud of, I know, but it is said that the greater the number of failures, the more you know about how things don't work.

However, the caveat is that I have applied mostly to highly competitive universities, so I was probably bound to fail. I had few moderates and very few safes because I was sure of doing my Ph.D. from India unless I really get something better. There are numerous competitive research groups in India and a successful academic career only relies on one's knowledge and publications, not a foreign Ph.D.

I'll mention a few points which I think may be useful before and while applying:

  1. Start researching a year and a half earlier; lab groups, professors, universities, deadlines, requirements, eligibility, and everything else. Maintain a sheet to organize your applications, email addresses, passwords, and specific information.

  2. The statement of purpose: One of the most important aspects of your application is the SOP. I recommend going through this article before starting to write yours. Unfortunately, I came across this after I had submitted all my applications. Most of the myths have been debunked here.

  3. From my own experience, and I think this works for most moderates and safes and a few ambitious ones as well (I don't know what Caltech and MIT want), write the SOP to the point and succinctly. Do not make a huge story to derive your motivation, rather, elaborate points out of your CV even if people suggest you not to repeat them in the SOP. Use phrases like "Through this, I learnt not only ... but also ....". I have seen mundane SOPs getting accepted just because they followed the norm. Of course, one must have great things to show off here. The main point is that if you have a good CV make sure you point out your achievements properly. Your personal life and struggles involved are none of their concern (blatant truth). Personally, the SOP that got me through was the one that had the least deviation from my CV. I can share it with you if you like.

  4. Letters of recommendation: Wonders happen when the application review committee has someone who knows at least one of your recommenders. But, in my case, they knew none (something I am proud of), so it is not an absolute necessity. Also, at times, the former doesn't even help. But, some connection is always useful.

  5. If possible, make sure the LORs are lined up or partially support the claims made in the SOP. That helps. It should not be a problem if you have a good rapport with your referee. Also, take recommendations from people who can say great about you. They need not be big-shots in their field but should say a lot of good things. The stature of your recommender does NOT matter much.

  6. It helps if you email professors. There are plenty of snobbish people, but there are really great and helpful ones too! It also allows you to have an idea of the kind of person you'll do your Ph.D. with. Start emailing around July if applications open in September.

  7. Approach professors who you have cited frequently in your work, or their co-authors. Try and find out if they are coming to any conference for a talk or something. Follow her/him there (of course you must present your work too). It is healthy stalking, so no problem with it. Networking is really important.

  8. Have publications. I didn't while applying but a draft had been submitted, so that works too, to an extent. Otherwise, conference proceedings are good.

  9. One of my alumni had said that "The only way you can make sure you don't get into Harvard or MIT is by not applying to them". I agree with it. Apply to top universities! Don't underestimate yourself. However, also apply to safes and moderates in fair proportions. Nothing new in this one, I guess.

  10. Finally, don't be disheartened if you don't get your dream University or the best group. I tried thrice.

All the best with your application! I am sure you'll find several other resources, as one must. In the end, if you really want something the Universe does conspire to give it to you, be it a dream Ph.D. or a shift of discipline!