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Nov. 30, 2010

Trading Places — Medical Doctor to Medical Anthropologist: A New and Exciting Journey

by Dana Greenfield

Like my mom said, I switched gears in a big way this fall: after spending a little over 2 years in med school, including a few months on the wards learning about caring for patients, I went in a whole new direction. I began my PhD in Medical Anthropology.

In September, when I traded my white coat and stethoscope for course readers and notebooks, I traded San Francisco for Berkeley. Though a city girl at heart, I thought the sunnier side of the Bay and full immersion into grad school life in a college town might lessen the culture shock.

I found a shared home in North Berkeley (aka the “Gourmet Ghetto”). I entered the shabby (and not-so-chic) home, surveyed the haphazard arrangement of mismatched furniture, saw the unwashed dishes piled high in the sink, noted the long-neglected chore-board, looked out over the overgrown garden, and wondered about the bikes hanging from the ceiling. I knew I was in the right place. Four of 5 of us are PhD students in various fields--sociology, chemistry, and engineering. Structural flaws notwithstanding, the house and its inhabitant have made this house my home, and the perfect place for my life as a grad student.

The rest—classes, professors, advisors, papers, etc.—has been more difficult to navigate. Between both UCSF and UC Berkeley, I have an incredible number of scholars, institutes, and other students to learn from and with. The possibilities are really endless. And that is good and then again, not so good.

Unlike becoming a physician where the material, the steps and the knowledge base are provided to you, earning a PhD in Anthropology requires that you carve out your own path, choose your courses, your main advisors, your research topic, and your areas of study. Unlike my roommates obtaining PhDs in chemistry, biology, or engineering, I don’t join a team or lab. The ideas, the project, the work are (almost) all my own. For some, this freedom is incredibly liberating and exhilarating. And while I agree for the most part, it can also be isolating and paralyzing at times.

Okay, okay, so I am not really doing it all alone. After all, I have my advisors and my classmates. This year there are 20 new students beginning PhDs in Anthropology, although only some of us are medical anthropologists who have interests ranging from death and dying to reproductive rights to AIDS, in contexts ranging from Africa to Indonesia. The rest of my classmates include archaeologists, linguistic anthropologists, and socio-cultural anthropologists working on various topics, from synthetic biology to post-soviet states to identity and politics in China.

From the hospital wards to the ivory tower, I consider myself lucky to be in such rarefied places and privileged worlds that most people don’t see. And then I also feel overwhelmed by the hundreds of pages of weekly reading or the towering responsibility of my own fieldwork (which I have yet to nail down to a topic or a location). In moving from medicine to Anthropology, I stepped off the well-trodden path of clinical training into the wilds of academia. But I find solace in the incredible scholars I get to read, the stimulating lectures I get to attend, and the many cups of coffee that get me through.

This life of seminars and reading and writing and thinking—lots of thinking—is a whole different world. In graduate school, the answers are not as important as the questions, and I’m just learning how to ask the interesting ones. While most people sort of ‘get’ what it’s like to be a medical doctor or a biologist or laboratory scientist, anthropology is another very special beast. Another post, another time.

About Dana Greenfield

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