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Do grad schools accomodate identity crises?


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So I am a semester away from graduating with my bachelor's in Anthropology. I've applied to four grad schools for biological anthropology with the hopes of going into primatology. It's been my goal since I began college. But over winter break, I went to a primate behavior and ecology field school and was more than a little miffed that I hated it. The methods, the subjects, everything. Maybe it's because we were studying monkeys and I wanted to study apes. I don't know. That field school has put me off the field. I can't get my spark for it back. When I first applied for grad school, it was "oh no, what if I don't get in?" Now it's "oh no, what if I DO get in?" I've been thinking and have some ideas for what else I would like to do. I'm going to do some serious soul searching this summer. My question is, if I get into one of the schools I applied to, would I be able to switch my acceptance to a different program like in undergrad? I doubt it but I felt I should ask. I applied to NYU, City University of New York, Rutgers, and Yale.



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Well, it depends.  I know some students who have successfully changed their programs in big and small ways.  A small way would be going in interested in school-based adolescent sexual health programs and thus working with Professor X, but deciding halfway through the first year that what you'd really like to do is the relationship between substance use and sexual behavior in young LGB adults at risk for HIV, so you switch to work with Professor Y in the same department.  (That's actually sort of akin to what happened to me.)  A slightly bigger way would be switching more substantively - like maybe now you're not interested in sexual health at all, but you want to work on obesity or cancer research, and maybe you're in year 3 instead of year 1.  That may necessitate spending extra time in your program and learning new research methods and literature, but it's still probably within the same program, just a different advisor.  That's akin to switching subfields within the same department.  Like in a psych department if you do social psych and you now want to do cognitive psych, and your department has both subfields AND there's someone in the department with which you'd want to work, that's also usually not a problem.


Things get trickier, however, when you have to change programs/departments in order to change what you want to do, and even trickier if you have to transfer schools.  I do know people who have successfully done so, but generally they stayed within an area in which they had expertise and their actual research interests didn't drastically change so much as they shifted.  For example, I have a friend who "transferred" from a cognitive psych program to a social psych program, and another friend who "transferred" from an immunology program to a neurosciency program.  I say "transferred" because it's really more like applying with experience - generally speaking, you still have to take courses (and often start from the beginning!) and comprehensive exams.  The process may actually be a bit more arduous than applying brand-new, since you'd be expected to get approval from your advisor (a good advisor recommendation will be essential) and to speak to any new PI before attempting the transfer.


And of course, trying to transfer to a program to which you have no background is a non-starter.  As a psychology PhD student I couldn't necessarily expect to get into a PhD program in sociology.




Now if you want my opinion...if your world's been turned a little upside down and you're no longer really sure what you want to study, it may be a good idea to choose NOT to attend any graduate school you get into.  It's not really clear whether you have changed areas ("I thought I wanted to study primates, but now I may want to study humans") or whether you've possibly lost the spark for research at all ("I really thought I wanted to be an anthropologist, but I don't like doing anthropology research!")  It's possible that you're not really sure yourself.


So do yourself a favor, and think about it really hard...now.  Summer's too late to do the soul searching; by then, you have to decide whether you want to enter the program.  Believe me, you don't want to enter graduate school uncertain about whether you want a career in research.  It's too difficult, too time-consuming, and doesn't pay enough (or more accurately, you could make the same amount of money working fewer hours per week with more free time).  Plus graduate school will ALWAYS be around.  It'll be here in 1-3 years if you take some time off to really decide 1) whether you want a career in anthropological research and 2) exactly what it is you want to spend at least 6-10 years studying.


I'm a big advocate for taking time after undergrad.  I didn't, and I wish I had.

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If you do get I'm, you can sometimes defer for a year. It would be such a shame to waste time and energy in a grad program that could ultimately be the wrong choice for you. I am also a huge advocate of taking time off and soul searching. Many fields are VASTLY different from coursework to field work/job work. As an archaeologist, I've met tons of people who loved this field in the classroom and hated in the field. There's nothing wrong with that! But it's best to figure it out as much as possible before entering a grad program. Best of luck!

Edited by archaeostudent1231
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Thanks for the replies. Yes, I wasn't quite clear about my exact thought process. I went into primatology to do work in conservation. No matter what I do with my life, I want it to help the environment in some way. The field school opened my eyes to some quite disheartening environmental issues. I think I might be able to do the best work in environmental law. I'm going to assume I have to reapply entirely for something like law school. Bottom line though, I'm not sure anthropology is a good fit for me. I think you are all correct in your encouragement of taking some time off. I wouldn't want to take a spot in a PhD program away from someone who actually wants to work in it.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I was actually having a crisis similar to this one over the last few days (is this really the department I should be in? maybe I should be in this *other* department that I might like better). After talking with my significant other I came to the realization that I was doing the right thing and that if I got in, I was going to go. Which isn't to say you shouldn't take time off, but also don't let one bad experience ruin the whole field for you. Go back and reread your Statement of Purpose and see if everything you wrote in there still resonates with you now that you know the things you do from your field experience. Try to imagine how you could make things better and more enjoyable without doing a career 180. Think about what your life will be like if you switch fields. There will always be aspects of every field that you don't like, what about the other field will bother you? Which irritating aspects are going to be more tolerable? Really consider whether changing field is going to make you happy or whether it's going to set you on a path of hopping from one field to another trying to find a perfect fit when really you should be searching for a good fit and trying to make it better.


Yes, grad school will always be there, and yes, it's good to have introspection. That said, as a mid-20s PhD applicant, I'm eager to get going with my career. I feel like every year I spend not doing it is akin to wasted time (not literally, of course, but at this point I'll be in my early thirties when I graduate and I still want to have a family and all that so you can see how I'm getting antsy). Anyway, if you're like me you still have some time to consider things while you wait to hear back. As the esteemed emperor said "search your feelings" and don't make any hasty decisions until you have to.

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