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Q&A: Switching fields for your PhD

I recently received the following question from a reader that I wanted to reply in a Q&A post:

I want to ask question regarding phd question is that i have done mtech in computer science can i pursue phd with any other subject which is not part of my mtech?

If you want to switch fields for your PhD, you won’t be able to change to a completely different field, for example history for you. However, you can work on interdisciplinary projects. If you are considering a switch, consider the following:

1. Talk to your possible future supervisor

If you want to change fields, it is never too late. Talk to your supervisor who guided you for your MTech thesis to see your options. He/she may have a colleague that would be willing to work with you. I can imagine that your strong skills in programming can make you a good candidate for a number of other fields in science and engineering.

If you’ve already identified which field you would like to work on for your PhD, talk to possible future supervisors about what you would need to do to enter the program in their field, what the expectation would be, and how you could contribute with your skill set of a computer scientist.

2. Be willing to learn new skills and take courses

If you change fields, you’ll have to quickly learn a number of new skills and take a number of courses. You will need to let your possible future supervisor know that you are willing to work hard to close the gap between you and students who may have a more suitable background. Be willing to take on extra courses and/or work your way through books on your own.

3. Consider getting a minor

If you are still in your MTech program, you can consider getting a minor in the field that you would like to switch to. If you are considering moving to a field that is rather unrelated to computer science, you may want to take a few courses in the field first to see how you like this field. You may find that your expectations of this field are not met, and then it is better that you have taken these few courses and then decide that this field is not for you, than that you start a PhD and then find out you don’t like your new field of study.

If a minor is not an option for you, consider taking a few professional courses, or even attending a few MOOCs in your field of interest to see if this field is a good fit for you. Enrolling in a PhD can be a big commitment.

4. Talk to more than one faculty member

If you are trying to figure out how your skills as a computer scientist can serve other fields, but you haven’t fully figured out yet to which field you’d want to transition, look up faculty members from different disciplines and see if they are willing to have a talk with you. If it is difficult to get access to senior professors, see if you can talk to a post-doc or junior faculty member, to brainstorm on possible ways you could contribute to their research.

5. When applying to a position, review the prerequisites

If you apply to a PhD position through a standard application process, review the prerequisites. If it is clearly stated that you would need a M.Sc. degree in the same field as the PhD research, it will be unlikely that your file will even be reviewed. Look for projects that are more interdisciplinary and that actively look for hiring candidates of different backgrounds.

6. Consider moving abroad

It may be a little more complicated for you to find the right fit for your PhD program. But the world is a large place – somewhere, someone may be really looking for a student with your skill set who wants to transition to their field of research. Think globally if your situation allows you to move away from your current location. If moving abroad is not an option for you, see if you can find alternative ways of working: go for a short-term stay to another lab to involve more than one faculty member in your research, and follow up with video conferences – be proactive when you offer solutions to the faculty member(s) you would like to work with.

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