Every discipline has its subfields…and subfields of subfields. This is very much the case in Anthropology where the Cultural (and Linguistic) wing is a completely different world from the Physical (and Archaeological) wing. Of course there is a shared history, but they have diverged considerably over the years. In a tiny (reductionist) nutshell, the cultural wing focuses on understanding modern humans through the lens of culture, whereas the physical wing emphasizes biological features of modern humans and our ancient ancestors, such as the study of human origins. But I come from a four-field Anthropology background. “Four-field” means that I took courses in all of the aforementioned subfields, especially Cultural and Physical, and I always get a little thrill upon finding intersections where culture meets biology, such as in Medical Anthropology.
This appreciation for both the Physical and the Cultural has recently come to the forefront of my academic studies. Up until last fall, I studied the hominin fossil record. After about a year of hair-pulling and soul-searching I made the decision to switch my dissertation topic in my fourth year to the study of how we teach evolutionary theory. This switch means that now I will do my dissertation with real, live people! No more fossils for me (though I hope to visit them now and then). I am diving headlong into the world of interviews, surveys, and participant observation. Yet I am still grounded in evolutionary theory since that is my topic. This puts me in a rather unusual situation. I am still in the Physical Anthropology wing of my department, but I am also a little bit in the Cultural wing. In fact I will have committee members from both wings. As my advisor said, I’m a hybrid.
What will this mean once I finish? It could place me in a kind of disciplinary limbo, but I am choosing to look at it differently. Instead of focusing exclusively on tenure track positions, I will look beyond academia, whether it is in the realm of curriculum consulting, policy-making, or creating educational materials. The point is that taking this risk was worth every moment of anguish and anxiety leading up to the moment when I told my advisor what I wanted to do. He and others in both wings of my department have been incredibly supportive. Most importantly, what I am doing now is something that I will always be passionate about.
Lesson learned? While a big dissertation change can have its logistical drawbacks, if it will enable you to do what you love, don’t be afraid to switch direction even when you are halfway done! Graduate school is extremely challenging…emotionally, intellectually, and even physically. It’s only worth the immense effort if you are doing something that will drive you beyond the completion of that coveted PhD.