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Want to change to a totally different Research Area/advisor-How? Is it too late?


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I'm currently in a humanities PhD program at a top university. I applied based on what my interests were, and what I had been successful in as an undergrad, let's call it area studies A. However, after years of doing this work as a masters and now PhD student, I'm positive that I don't want to continue research in this area. I don't like the experience, I don't like living in Area Studies A, I don't manage well the numerous languages and technical skills required to do this work, and I'm not very interested. 


I've been told it's good for PhD students to find a research question by asking "Why me, why now" - a problem that is important and that I am capable/ fit to explore. For many reasons, I am not fit to do this work, and I thrive doing other things - Area studies B - that are outside of my field of study.


You know how this works - that reputation, advising, etc. can make or break your career. People invest a lot of training into you and don't want you to waste their contacts, or their funding. How can I stay in my department (discipline) and switch area studies? Will I have to change advisors? Redo coursework? Will anyone even take me? Can I stay in the program? Will people find me a credible scholar? How do I find another research topic considering that I have less experience in Area studies B? For context, I'm starting my second year in the PhD program and will have to choose my examination fields in the next few months. This might be my only chance to do something different.


I'm at a loss and seeking any and all advise, and would like to hear about those with similar experiences.


Many, many thanks

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I think your post may be too vague for us to answer. I know I am somewhat confused. Here is a guess:


- If your department has scholars researching both area A and area B, it may be possible for you to switch areas and still stay within your department. If not, you may have to start over, which means reapplying to grad schools with a concentration in B studies, to begin in the Fall of 2016 (since it's too late for Fall 2015). This means you'll be in your program for two years, and it may be wise to find out whether it's possible to leave with a Masters in A studies before you begin a new PhD program with a focus on B. 

- Unless your advisor studies both A and B, you will likely need to switch advisors, if you are able to stay in your department.

- The only way you'll know if any B professor will take you as their advisee is to ask them. As a general rule, you will not be the first student to change concentrations while in grad school, and you won't be the last. If there is anyone in a DGS-like capacity in your program, I'd schedule a meeting with them to ask about the process of switching areas.

- Since we're talking about switching after just one year of grad school, I'm sure people will take you seriously as a B scholar, once you switch. 

- You may have to redo some coursework if there are courses B scholars have to take that you haven't. I bet at least some coursework will carry over, if not all of it. However, if you have to switch programs/schools, all bets are off. Likely most of your work won't transfer, but it really depends on the specific situation. This is partly why it'll be useful to find out if there is the option of a Masters. That way everything you've already done won't go to waste.

- You'll find specific research questions in the same way as before. You may need some more background first, so you should probably start by doing some reading and taking the relevant courses in your department. I'm sure you already have some idea of what interests you, or you wouldn't be posting here about switching from A to B.

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Thank you so much for your suggestions. They are very helpful and I apologize for being so vague. 

My department is large but the professors know each other quite well - so I'm worried that no one in the other concentration would want to work with me if I were to be seen as a quitter. I might need to repeat coursework, which I'm ok with, although this might affect my funding by changing my timeline. 


It's helpful to consider what you've mentioned: that I'm not the first person to change concentrations. My question now then is this - how does one go about doing that smoothly and professionally? Should I have a reason other than the fact that I don't like the daily experience of doing research in that country? It's in the middle of a civil war, although that hasn't ever stopped "serious" academics. Is that professional? How can I go about explaining this to my advisor? Is any excuse better than no excuse? Perhaps I should repost this as a separate thread. In any case, I sincerely appreciate your advice and will talk to my DGS in person in the fall. 


Thank you.

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I think not wanting to do fieldwork there is a very valid reason. Researchers who do fieldwork have to consider their personal safety and comfort, which is part of being a "serious" academic as you put it. If I were your advisor upon hearing that, I would wonder if there's a way you could do research without having to spend a lot of time on the ground or if there's another similar place you could go to instead. 


That said, the vagueness of your original post is what kept me from replying initially. Whether or not you really need to switch advisors depends on your department and field. For example, my MA advisor conducted research in the Congo, El Salvador, and Bosnia.* I did my research locally. My MA advisor had another student doing field research in Paraguay. In my PhD program, my advisor did research in China and their students did research in Indonesia, Lesotho, Kenya, Mexico, and Canada. What was the connecting thread in these? Theoretical frameworks. All of this is to say that, provided your advisor is okay with it, they do not have to be an absolute expert on the country where you do your research, at least in some disciplines. You put country or regional experts on your committee and they serve to provide that regional expertise and oversight. My impression is that this is less common in history or anthropology than in other social sciences. 


Long story short, you should really consider your options, including potentially not needing to switch advisors, based on the norms for your discipline and department. It may be possible to move into area B without having to get a new advisor. 


*I'm anonymizing the countries here.

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Thank you, this is really helpful insight. I hadn't even thought about the committee, and that it may be possible to switch areas with less feather-ruffling by adding specialists later to the committee. I apologize again for being vague, and thanks for the encouragement to value my personal safety and comfort. Perhaps it's just my program but that never seemed to be anyone's concern, so I've been feeling like a wuss for wanting to jump ship toward other interests. Your idea about doing research without spending as much time on the ground is also a good one. I appreciate having these options and a better understanding of what might be involved were I to change concentrations entirely, or come up with a new project that allows me to keep my current advisor involved but does not require such intense fieldwork. Again, many thanks for your suggestions. 

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  • 4 weeks later...

I know I'm late to the discussion, but I thought I'd chime in since I had recently done exactly this. I'm also at a top PhD program and made the decision to switch into a related humanities discipline. Brief background: I loved the geographical area I was working on, but was so disappointed by my advisor as an absent mentor and the indifference of other professors in my field. Also I had been straddling two disciplines anyways when I was choosing PhD programs and as it turns out, I just fit better with the other discipline's students and profs.  A spectacularly bad course with a prof I was hoping to do a minor field with made me so unhappy that by the winter of my 2nd year that I knew I had to switch or quit.


What I did: I took winter break to think about what I actually wanted. Then I emailed my new potential advisor and the potential secondary advisor, explaining the situation in the most politically sensitive terms since all these profs knew each other quite well. I did not state the interpersonal reasons, but solely explained it as a realization about where my dissertation would fit best and what kind of department I wanted to teach in after I finished my degree. I also emailed my now-former advisor to ask for a meeting about my progress in the program with a brief but honest statement that I was thinking of taking a break or switching fields--I made sure to leave out any mention that he was the big reason. 


When I first met with the potential profs, there was some doubt at first, because I had waited so long to switch (death in the family was a part of this), but I explained everything and I came into those meetings with a potential schedule for my general exams and dissertation prep. Also, it turns out both profs needed more info about the coursework I had already done in their field since they only had had a few classes with me at that point, so they asked for a list of courses I had taken, listing professor's names and schools, which I gladly sent. After that, both were far more amenable and said tentatively yes, saying that they would make a final decision at the end of the semester. So I registered only for classes in the new field and hustled to show I was meant to be there. Before the end of the semester, both potential profs agreed that this was a good choice to switch fields. It helped that I had a publication lined up in the new field too.


What's next: I have to make up a couple requisite courses over the next year, which can easily be done at the same time as a TAship since many students at my school take a course or two while teaching. And I pushed back my general exams by a semester. Overall, I think it's a doable and logical plan that will likely have me finishing my degree within the average year range. **And I am so much happier now than I ever was before in my program.** So if you know in your gut that your current field is not for you, change it and don't be afraid to ask. Just do your homework about the new field/program's requirements and come with a game plan as to how you will fulfill them without causing your new advisor too much of a headache. 


Now I should note that my advising committee did not actually change since I had always intended to have an interdisciplinary dissertation. My former advisor is still there, but in a much more minor role. No bridges were burned. 

Edited by raspberries and jellyfish
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