How to enjoy feeling stupid after you switch fields

Going from a PhD to a postdoc changes almost everyone’s field of research in some big or small way. Perhaps you saw a field other than your own, admired it from afar, and then eventually decided to make that leap. Or maybe, like me, you never imagined yourself working in a new field. I hadn’t given the slightest thought to immunology during my PhD. And then over the course of one presentation, the possibility suddenly appeared, and off I went. It’s terrifying, it’s stressful, and it’s about the most fun thing you can do during your career.

Being stupid

Entering a new field means being a student all over again. That’s somewhat obvious. But unlike most students, you’re not spoon-fed the fundamentals by an instructor. How do you gain a handle on a field when you don’t know where to begin? The little things you don’t know pile up with the really big things you don’t know. You enter a paradox: Everything is an unknown, even the delineation between the knowns and the unknowns. Starting a project in a new field requires winding your way out of that paradox. You have to become aware of what to become aware of, which is a distressing but also uniquely edifying experience.

In his beloved essay, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research,” Martin Schwartz observes that the number of unknowns in scientific research approach the infinite. The list of things we don’t know could be written forever. Facing this fact, Schwartz arrives at the happy conclusion that feeling stupid is part and parcel of research and is certainly not a sign of failure. Schwartz learns to relish this feeling, and he appropriately suggests that his fellow scientists do the same. Even if we are comfortable within a field and we know intimately its experimental techniques and accrued literature, the infinite unknowns are still there. Changing fields brings one a little closer to this very particular sense of awe. In moving to a new field, we are forced to confront the horizon of what remains unknown in our new field. We take stock of what has not yet been measured.

After long enough, quite naturally, we look down from this expansive void of knowledge. These days I occupy myself much more with the many known facts and quantities in immunology. But I’ve lived through some of the lessons that Schwartz urges in his piece. Stupidity is indeed important in scientific research, and switching fields makes this quite clear.

If you love your field, let it go

Changing fields means giving up a certain set of shortcuts that you’ve honed, whether those are shortcuts of logic driven by deductive reasoning, or simply practical, experimental shortcuts that accelerate research. To give these up is always painful and often materially detrimental to your research progress.

But letting go of a field and its particular shortcuts also optimizes you to seize rare opportunities critical to the entire scientific enterprise. Entering a new field, you see with fresh eyes the shortcuts through which that field operates. In the first few months of my postdoc I constantly posed questions, to myself or others, about the intricacies of my new field. Most of the time these were met with detailed answers; sometimes the answers lacked details but were filled out with inductive reasoning or assumptions (good or bad). But now and then I quite naively hit on a deep well of the unknown, when the question itself had been obscured or neglected. One such question arose that carried that happy distinction of being answerable with a technique available in a collaborator’s lab. The idea grew, and some background research confirmed this was a relevant and, amazingly, completely novel question. It is a question fueled by my confronting a particular shortcut taken in immunology, namely defined antigens and their paired T cell receptor (TCR) sequences. While I never questioned the utility of a defined antigen-TCR system, I was immediately struck by the diverse biology that necessarily goes unexplored with its use. I immediately wanted to probe a little corner of that unexplored biology. I was excited to pose the question but, importantly, so were my peers. Currently this collaboration is funded through a small internal grant and experiments are well underway.

This research question, which was only possible due to my naiveté, also falls nicely along the axes of relative novelty and relative difficulty. There is an elusive corner of nonobvious and feasible questions that I’m always trying to capture. Uri Alon, in his essay on selecting a scientific question, describes these axes much more eloquently. One certainly doesn’t have to be new to a field to make use of his excellent advice. But being new to a field can give you a sort of back door access to this particular set of questions that are not obvious (which is to say more novel) and yet easily accomplished.

The value of nostalgia

I did not leave the field of my doctoral work because I hated it. Changing fields was a strategic compromise I made in hopes of becoming a better scientist. This means I gave up the things about my old field that I loved. It feels like I’ve moved away from one of my best friends. I’m surrounded by new friends, but now and then I look back at my old life and miss it desperately. Leaving it was hard even as I was fed up by its experimental limitations, its sometimes poor terminology, and the big labs whose work I knew far too well and seemed to never change.

I’ve decided to give myself a treat every now and then by going back to a paper from that field. I’ll take a couple of hours and read a new review or a big new finding. These nostalgic flashbacks have no immediate payoff for my current research. They are purely indulgent. Taking a little time to revisit my old field in this way confers two benefits in my new position. First, it places me, briefly, on familiar footing where I feel confident in my understanding of the field and my ability to assess work within it. I take a break from my current state as a bumbling novice and return to my old status as an expert. Second, it reinforces the true goal of my switch to a new field by helping me merge the best concepts of both fields. Reading work from my former field, I get to consider what concepts or experimental systems might be applied from my old field to my new one. Building this mental bridge encapsulates the greatest career benefit of switching fields.

At a seminar many years ago, a physicist explained that you can understand quite a bit about a complex system by perturbing it with a precise intervention and observing its behavior as it returns to equilibrium. If I am the complex system, the perturbation caused by switching fields is indeed quite informative. Forcing yourself to learn the ins and outs of a new field invites many instances of introspection. One should be sensitive, I think, to those moments of criticism, feelings of deadlocked frustration, or giddy excitement when things fall into place for the first time. These are moments to gain a better understanding of what kind of scientist you are, what excites you, what things most challenge you. Feeling stupid is rarely fun. But when adjusting to a new field, stupidity can be a strange asset and a sign that you’re a complex system wobbling your way back to homeostasis following a very wise perturbation.

About the Author:


Tim Fessenden is a postdoctoral fellow studying immune cell motility and tumor immunology in Stefani Spranger’s lab at MIT. In his free time Tim coproduces the podcast GLiMPSE, along with two other postdocs at MIT (glimpse.mit.edu). Twitter: @timisstuck Email: tim.fessenden@gmail.com

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