Notable Flip-Floppers
March 23, 2008 3:28 PM   Subscribe

I recently learned that Kurt Vonnegut studied biochemistry during his undergraduate years. What are some other good examples of notable people who switched fields like Vonnegut and excelled?
posted by saoyama to Education (32 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Asimov -- Biochemistry
Bester -- Law school
Clarke -- Auditor and member of the RAF

When it comes to novelists, I think I'd be more surprised to see an author who has never worked in another field.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 3:41 PM on March 23, 2008

We've done this before... what famous people did before they were famous... yeah, here we go. Brian May (astrophyiscs), Dolph Lundgren (chemistry) and Kate Beckinsale (French and Russian literature undergrad, Oxford). Googling for combinations of those will give you more examples.

But seriously, didn't almost everyone who ended up a celebrity do something else at some point?
posted by Leon at 3:43 PM on March 23, 2008

But seriously, didn't almost everyone who ended up a celebrity do something else at some point?
posted by Leon at 3:43 PM on March 23 [+] [!

Don't most people do something completely different at some point?
posted by thomas144 at 4:00 PM on March 23, 2008

Nabokov was a respected entemologist in the 1940's, at the same time that he establishing himself as an author; he pursued both fields throughout his life. He wasn't really a flip-flopper, though, more of a dual-track.
posted by jenkinsEar at 4:05 PM on March 23, 2008

I was gonna say -- I only have one coworker out of twelve that are in the field they started in. I think the list would get a lot shorter if we instead asked -- who set out to become a celebrity and was successful?
posted by SpecialK at 4:07 PM on March 23, 2008

Boas and Malinowski are examples from anthropology. Note, however, that in both of these cases it's not that they switched between well-established fields. Rather, they trained in specific disciplines and then carried over certain approaches from those disciplines once they'd begun to pursue other interests. In the process, they helped shape the still-nascent field of anthropology:

Franz Boas
"American archaeology was about to take a major turn in direction as general
anthropology underwent great theoretical change. This development was greatly
influenced by a German physicist, Franz Boas, who was trained in Germany in the
new "logical positivism" of European science in the later nineteenth century. After
extensive fieldwork in the Northwest Coast area of North America, he completed
his doctoral dissertation on the color of seawater. In this work he came in contact
with various Northwest Coast Native American people and Eskimos and became
fascinated with their lifeways and languages. He moved permanently to the United
States and switched from physics to anthropology, transforming the field." (Longacre, "Exploring Prehistorical Social and Political Organization in the American Southwest," Journal of Anthropological Research 56(3), 2000:289-290)

Bronislaw Malinowski
"Bronislaw Malinowski, the pioneer of twentieth-century anthropology, was
trained as a physicist. This much has been known for some time, but a great deal
of confusion exists about the extent of Malinowski's education. The general
opinion has been that in 1908 he obtained a doctorate in physics and mathematics
at the Jagellonian University of Cracow in Poland. In fact he completed his
dissertation in 1906, and it was in the field of philosophy of science. While
studying at Cracow Malinowski turned gradually towards philosophy, psychology,
and social sciences, but he continued to attend lectures and courses in
physics and mathematics throughout his four years there (1902-1906)." (Sredniawa, "The Anthropologist as a Young Physicist: Bronislaw Malinowski's Apprenticeship," Isis 72(4), 1981:613)
posted by splendid animal at 4:11 PM on March 23, 2008

Franz Boas' doctorate was in Physics.
posted by Rumple at 4:16 PM on March 23, 2008

Mayim Bialik of Blossom and Beaches fame is doing a PhD in neuroscience.
posted by acoutu at 4:22 PM on March 23, 2008

Richard Powers was a computer programmer before he became a novelist.
posted by rabbitsnake at 4:25 PM on March 23, 2008

[all info from Wikipedia]

Karl Sven Woytek Sas Konkovitch Matthew Kruszelnicki
"His academic work spans several branches of science. He holds degrees in Mathematics, Biomedical Engineering, Medicine and Surgery, and he has also studied some Astrophysics, Computer Science and Philosophy.

He has worked as a physicist, labourer, roadie for bands, car mechanic, film-maker, hospital scientific officer, biomedical engineer, TV weatherman, taxi driver, and medical doctor."

JG Ballard
"In 1946, after the end of the war, Ballard went to England with his mother and sister on the SS Arrawa. They lived in the West Country outside Plymouth, and he attended The Leys School in Cambridge. After a couple of years his mother and sister returned to China, rejoining Ballard's father, and leaving Ballard to live with his grandparents when not boarding at school. In 1949 he went on to study medicine at King's College, Cambridge, with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist."

Milo Aukerman
"Milo Aukerman (born 1964 in Lomita, California) is an American singer, songwriter and research biochemist. The enigmatic Aukerman is perhaps most widely known for being the lead singer of the early Los Angeles area punk rock band the Descendents, a group widely considered to be pioneers of modern "Power Pop". "

Dexter Holland
"Holland was the class valedictorian at Pacifica High School in Garden Grove, California and was a Ph.D. candidate[3] in Molecular Biology from the University of Southern California; however, he declined to get his Ph.D. in favor of focusing on The Offspring. He has a Bachelor's degree in Biology and a Master's degree in Molecular Biology, both from the University of Southern California."

Greg Graffin
"Gregory Walter Graffin, PhD. (born November 6, 1964 in Racine, Wisconsin) is the vocalist and co-founder of the punk rock band Bad Religion, as well as a life sciences professor at UCLA."

Brian May
"Brian Harold May CBE (born July 19, 1947) is an English musician and astrophysicist most widely known as the lead guitarist in the rock band Queen. With his father, he built his own guitar from a mantelpiece. He called it the "Red Special".He wrote some of Queen's most famous songs and biggest hits, including "We Will Rock You", "Fat Bottomed Girls", "Tie Your Mother Down", "Who Wants to Live Forever" and "I Want It All"."

Jamie Hyneman
"Born in Marshall, Michigan, but raised in Columbus, Indiana, Hyneman earned a degree in Russian language and literature. A variety of careers fill his resumé, including scuba diver, wilderness survival expert, boat captain, linguist, pet shop owner, animal wrangler, machinist, concrete inspector, and chef. He apparently has a mild case of acrophobia (fear of heights), as mentioned in the "Hammer Drop" myth segment. Hyneman identifies strongly with skeptics and atheists.[1]"
posted by frankie_stubbs at 4:44 PM on March 23, 2008

Byron "Whizzer" White played professional football for the Pittsburgh Steelers and was also a Supreme Court justice. Totally sweet.
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 4:49 PM on March 23, 2008

Ed Witten was a history major/political aspirant who after switching to applied math made an important contribution to mathematical physics, for which he won a Fields Medal.
posted by Coventry at 4:52 PM on March 23, 2008

Richard Powers (author of The Echo Maker and 2006 Nation Book Award Winner) although originally pursuing a degree in physics, changed and received his degree in Literature, then became a computer programmer, later becoming an author.
posted by nikksioux at 4:57 PM on March 23, 2008

Cindy Crawford started out as a chemical engineering major (but dropped out to pursue modeling).
posted by cadge at 4:58 PM on March 23, 2008

Tom Dowd, music producer, worked on the Manhattan Project before producing Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Derek and the Dominos.
posted by sully75 at 5:25 PM on March 23, 2008

The awesomely great late Phil Hartman was a very prominent graphic designer in the music industry prior to pursuing comedy full time. From his obituary: "He studied graphic design at California State University at Northridge and initially built a career designing album covers for rock groups like Poco, America and Crosby, Stills & Nash."
posted by miss lynnster at 5:41 PM on March 23, 2008

Also, Winnie Cooper is a mathmatician and math book author. And Bobby Sherman became a paramedic and is now a San Bernardino County deputy sheriff.
posted by miss lynnster at 5:46 PM on March 23, 2008

Oh, and Keith Morris of Circle Jerks is a CPA. He used to do my taxes.
posted by miss lynnster at 6:03 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lastly, how could I leave out Hedy Lamarr?
posted by miss lynnster at 6:05 PM on March 23, 2008

Michael Crichton is an M.D. who became an author, director, and film/television producer. "The Andromeda Strain", "Westworld", and "Jurassic Park" are among his works (both the novels and the films).
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 6:54 PM on March 23, 2008

Che Guevara was a medical student.
posted by mattbucher at 7:38 PM on March 23, 2008

Wittgenstein was in the process of getting a PhD in Engineering before becoming one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century.
posted by oddman at 7:44 PM on March 23, 2008

Aston Kutcher was in Biochem before he made it big. Chekhov and Dostoevsky were both mds, as were lots of great writers. Who doesn't change careers?
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:48 PM on March 23, 2008

miss lynnster, do you maybe mean Keith Clark of Circle Jerks? Or is Keith Morris of Circle Jerks also a CPA?
posted by ManInSuit at 8:31 PM on March 23, 2008

Of the top of my head, Ansel Adams had the potential to be a concert pianist but decided to devote his life to photography.
posted by quadog at 10:14 PM on March 23, 2008

Nah, I totally meant Keith Clark. I just suddenly forgot his name because I'm tired. His company is called HNR Clark so I don't know how I forgot that but oh well.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:15 PM on March 23, 2008

David Cronenberg was a med student for a short while.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:38 PM on March 23, 2008

"Weird Al" Yankovic has a degree in architecture (which quickly becomes apparent in the commentary track to UHF).

And Brad Pitt was a journalism major at the University of Columbia - Missouri.
posted by Ponsonby Britt at 11:34 PM on March 23, 2008

David Foster Wallace started out as a philosophy major with a specialization in math and logic.
posted by sic at 5:28 AM on March 24, 2008

Pedero Almodovar:
Clerk in Spanish telephone company Telehonica
Georgio Armani: medical doctor - not sure if he qualified but he did go to medical school
posted by london302 at 5:31 AM on March 24, 2008

As for all the writers listed - as Lore said, most writers have had some kind of day job or alternative career to make money -- this is certainly true of those I have known -- so none of those cites are surprising. (I imagine the same thing can be said for most actors before they hit it big.)

That said, poets William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens were a physician and insurance executive respectively. T.S. Eliot worked for many years at Lloyds Bank in London, and was later a publishing executive. Thomas Pynchon's first college major (before having his education interrupted by WWII) was engineering physics.

I recall from an NPR Fresh Air interview that Lisa Kudrow has a degree in biology and intended to go to grad school when she got her first acting job (there was something about her mother and brother being physicians and researchers as well).

Also 80s singer-songwriter Traci Chapman was in grad school (anthropology if I remember correctly) when she got her first record deal, and X-Files actor David Duchovny was at Yale doing a PhD in English when he was derailed into acting.

Miss lynnster beat me to mentioning Hedi Lamarr, who was a pretty fascinating person.
posted by aught at 6:23 AM on March 24, 2008

Philosophy Majors:

Steve Martin
Bruce Lee

And when you listen to them talk about their crafts, it shows.
posted by coffeefilter at 6:38 AM on March 24, 2008

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