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Meet 5 academics who have switched disciplines mid-career

Switching disciplines in academia is not an easy choice, but those who’ve done it say the move can broaden your outlook and enrich your life.

By DANIEL DROLET | FEB 12 2014

Spend a little time Googling and you can quickly come up with names of famous people who switched careers in mid-stream. Julia Child, for example, worked in intelligence for the U.S. government before transitioning to cookbook author and television chef. Harrison Ford was a carpenter before he made it big in acting. And Peter Mansbridge worked as a baggage handler (and sometime flight announcer) at the Churchill, Manitoba, airport before starting a successful career in broadcast journalism.

But switching disciplines mid-stream in academia? It is a risky move that requires self-confidence and the ability to both see and seize opportunities. One would think an academic career switch is fairly rare, and yet it wasn’t hard to find several Canadians who’ve done it and thrived.

Some academics change fields out of necessity, while others do it from curiosity or serendipity. Most of the scholars we talked to say the hardest part is building credibility in a new field. “When you are hired, you won’t be judged the same way as someone who has had a normal career path,” says Laura Bisaillon, recently hired as assistant professor of health studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough, after doing an interdisciplinary PhD in population health at the University of Ottawa. Yet, change in life is natural, she adds. “We evolve, and changing disciplines is just giving in to change in life.”

Indeed, some of those who switched say the hazards of the move were outweighed by a more balanced life or a more interesting career. Here are five faculty members who opted for a career change inside academia and made it work.

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“I am like a bridge between two shores.”

Nicolas Vonarx: from nursing to anthropology

Associate professor, faculty of nursing sciences
Université Laval

Nicolas Vonarx is a nurse by education and an associate professor in Université Laval’s faculty of nursing sciences, but his master’s and doctoral degrees are in anthropology. It was his training in community health and his experiences abroad, particularly in Haiti, that led him from nursing to anthropology. As he tried to understand health care in a culture whose approaches to health care were very different from his own, he started to study cultures. Ultimately, his book on voodoo in Haiti (which explored voodoo as a structured system of medicine) won the Prix du Canada from the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences for the best French-language book in the social sciences in 2013.

However, when he was deciding to leave his nursing career, it wasn’t a simple choice: He had a job, a profession and a salary. “It’s a risk, even if you can always go back.”

Dr. Vonarx sees the study of anthropology as indispensable, at times, to the practice of health care. “There is no way around anthropology when you don’t understand the world in which you as a health professional want to act,” he says. By sitting astride two disciplines, however, he feels that he is a member of neither one nor the other.

“I am not totally a nurse, and I am not totally an anthropologist,” he says. In his research, “I am building anthropological knowledge, and I am building health knowledge.”

He sees his dual role as one of making connections between disciplines. “I am like a bridge between two shores. I see how social sciences can make a contribution to health care. Having been a nurse, I know the language and the issues, and as an anthropologist I can share things from that shore. But I am not one or the other, and I always stay on the bridge.”

To make this work, the faculty also needs to be open to new ideas and non-traditional career paths. One difficulty is getting funding for his research, which doesn’t fall neatly into prescribed categories.

Dr. Vonarx says it’s hard to know how to classify it, or who to approach for funding – health and medicine funders or social science granting councils.

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“I just followed my curiosity.”

Florence Piron: from philosophy to anthropology to ethics
Professor, department of information and communication
Université Laval

Florence Piron has always followed her varied interests, leading her to study and work in areas as diverse as media, political science, health, philosophy, anthropology and ethics.

“My strong point is my capacity for synthesis and adaptation,” says Dr. Piron, a professor in the department of information and communication at Université Laval.

Philosophy, her first area of study, seemed too abstract, so she moved to anthropology for her doctoral work. Her dissertation was on the emergence of critical thought in adolescence. But as she interviewed teens, she found herself overwhelmed by how deeply some of them confided in her. She wondered how to deal with such personal information and realized that she was facing an ethical problem.

Halfway through her research, she made a radical switch in her thesis topic to ethical dilemmas created by people who have responsibility for others. She cautions that she couldn’t have done this without the support of her thesis committee at Laval. “I was extremely lucky to be able to follow my intellectual interests outside of any disciplinary restrictions,” she says.

Dr. Piron’s next moves were more organic: a postdoctoral fellowship on ethics and public administration led her into research about health and ethics and then to her current post, teaching ethics of public communication, participatory democracy and risk communication in a communications department.

Self-taught in many areas, she thinks that what makes her valuable to her faculty is her insatiable intellectual curiosity, her large capacity for work and her ability to see links between very different fields. “My approach is probably not for everybody. I am not the biggest expert in any one specific area.”

On several occasions, Dr. Piron had to build her credibility up from zero. “It didn’t bother me because I had credibility elsewhere.” In the end, she found it harder to be disconnected from her values than from her discipline. She says she has been able to build a satisfying career – even though she rejected most of the advice she was given about the dangers of changing paths. If there is one message she’d like to pass on to young professors, it’s to remain true to themselves.

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“There is a certain risk, but I am pleased with my career.”

Jérôme Doutriaux: from engineering to business
Professor emeritus, Telfer School of Management
University of Ottawa

Originally from France, Jérôme Doutriaux had always dreamed of being an engineer; his first degrees were in mechanical engineering and electricity and electronics. His move from engineering to business evolved slowly.

“There was never a radical break,” he says. “I was just seizing opportunities as they came along.” Throughout his career, his interests were multidisciplinary. “That slowed down the progression of my career, but I ended up with a more balanced life.”

To make himself more saleable, he decided to study in the United States, applying to Carnegie Mellon in electrical engineering. Doing a PhD in electrical engineering systems sciences had him working with mathematical models rather than wires, and that drew him to operations research. In 1971, he was hired by the University of Ottawa’s school of management (where he had done a co-op placement) because of his expertise in operations.

From then on, his career mixed engineering, business and administration. Dr. Doutriaux co-founded an interdisciplinary master’s program in engineering management and for 10 years directed an interdisciplinary master’s program in systems sciences offered jointly by the faculties of engineering and administration (now the Telfer School of Management) and the economics department. “With those two master’s programs,” he says, “I had one foot in management and one in engineering.” He also became involved in international development projects, spending two years in Venezuela on an industrial planning project for Harvard University.

Dr. Doutriaux says his evolving interests have never caused problems with his varied colleagues. After earning tenure fairly early in his career, “no one ever pushed me to concentrate more on my research. I published just enough to always be respected. … And since I was always interested in administration, and since universities are always desperate to find academics who are interested in administration, I was always welcomed.”

At times he considered opportunities outside academia, but he liked the freedom that a university offers. He’s now at the stage of winding down his career – still involved in some projects and with some boards, but less and less at the university. Looking back, he says the main difficulty was building a reputation in a new field. “When you switch fields, you have to rebuild your credibility in your [new] field and that delayed my promotion to full professor.”

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“I had to start a whole new PhD reading program without the benefit of a supervisor.”

Allan Dwyer: from history to business
Assistant professor, Bissett School of Business
Mount Royal University

When Allan Dwyer finished his master’s degree in Canadian history at McGill University, he wanted to take a few years off before pursuing a doctorate. He was interested in Japan and went there to teach English. While in Japan, he heard about York University’s new international MBA program.

“It was an MBA with extra cultural and language courses linking to your area, and my area was Japan,” he says. So he enrolled, and returned to Japan after graduating to do a required internship, landing a job at Lehman Brothers’ Tokyo office. This kicked off a career in finance, but it didn’t feel right. So in 2005 he left to do a PhD in history at Memorial University.

When he hit the academic job market several years later, he couldn’t find work in his field. It was his background in finance that was in demand. In 2011, he heard about a job at Mount Royal: “They said: ‘You have a PhD and we like that you can write, but we want you to teach finance. You have a CFA designation and an MBA and 13 years of experience with Wall Street firms.’”

Though he was rooted in both worlds, Dr. Dwyer says the switch involved a certain amount of retooling. First, he had to change his mindset: History is a world of text, narrative and interpretation, where a good command of language and writing ability are valued, he points out.
Finance is about mathematics, calculation and numbers. “In finance, no one gives a damn about whether you are an elegant writer,” he says. “It’s not about persuading through dignified language, it’s about liberating the data to speak for themselves.”

It was hard to build credibility in a discipline in which he had done no doctoral-level research. He basically had to start “a whole new PhD reading program, in my area of financial research – without the benefit of a supervisor and all the time you have as a student.”

He admits he is still struggling to find himself in financial research (and likely would have stayed in history had he been able to find an academic job in the field). “When you finish a PhD, you have scholarly momentum. And on a dime, to have to spin around and say, ‘no, that whole mental world I have been comfortable with I have to now jettison and enter a whole new mental space.’ That is not easy.”

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“I have learned to feel uncomfortable.”

Dawn Bazely: From biology to sustainability
Director, Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability
York University

With degrees in botany and zoology, Dawn Bazely was content working in her field as a biology professor with a specialty in ecology, particularly forest and grassland ecology. But when she was recruited in 2006 as director of York University’s Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability (known as IRIS), she encountered a whole new discipline – and a steep learning curve.

“I have learned to feel uncomfortable,” says Dr. Bazely. “But I get to be a student every day. How awesome is that?” She says that the chief editor of Ecological Monographs tells her “that I have done a de facto PhD in sustainability, science policy and environmental security.”

IRIS has a tradition of breaking down barriers: Its first director was a political science professor, its second came from York’s Schulich School of Business. When the position opened up again, Dr. Bazely was asked to apply. “At first I was terrified,” she confides.

“I can’t begin to tell you how different it is from what I did as an ecologist. It’s publishing in completely different journals, it’s science policy. The most important thing I have learned is that social scientists generally believe that researchers in science and engineering don’t understand the history of our own field.”

She also has learned that scientists don’t understand how they damage their own credibility because they insist on being “super-neutral” and not speaking up about policy or political issues. (The most popular research seminar she gives in science faculties is on “Why don’t scientists get more respect?”)

With her new insights, Dr. Bazely now believes this is because scientists fool themselves in thinking science is above the fray. “Being in sustainability has exposed me to the humanities and social sciences and ethics. It has caused me to question my own assumptions.”

She now understands that there are different kinds of knowledge, “and sometimes academic knowledge might take primacy and sometimes it will not. It’s situating that knowledge in the broader human landscape.”

Taking positions on topics of the day is something she is now comfortable doing. “I don’t think doing that damages my standing as a scientist.”

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  1. NA / February 19, 2014 at 17:06

    A very interesting and diverse set of perspectives – this is valuable information, thanks for posting this!

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