Ellie Wood

Social-ecological scientist working in savanna woodlands

Category: Advice for other students

Advice for first time interviewers

This post was written because of a helpful conversation with my friend and brilliant scientist Mariana García Criado, who mainly does ecological research in the Arctic but sometimes does interviews in Scotland.

The first time I ever conducted an interview was during a scoping trip to Tanzania in 2017, towards the start of my PhD. I’ve conducted many interviews in a few different styles since then but my memories of being a first time interviewer, and being pretty nervous about it, are still fresh. So I’d like to share some of the things that I have learnt about interviewing: some of the really basic stuff and things that stick in my mind as being news to me when I started, that I hope will be useful to others who are new to interviewing.

What you want to get out of your interviews will determine what style of interview you conduct. There are lots of texts on social research methods, including different styles of interview, and I definitely recommend reading some of these (I’ll include a list at the end of this post) and having discussions with other researchers for choosing appropriate data collection methods. This blog post is not going to go into depth about any specific interview style, or tell you how to be an expert interviewer in all circumstances. Rather, here are some practical considerations for conducting interviews. FYI: the main interview styles I am familiar with are semi-structured 1:1 interviews, walking interviews, Focus Group Discussions and participatory mapping. The below applies to all of these interview styles and, I think, more:

  1. You will probably want to ask way more questions than you have time to ask in your interview, so go into it with a clear plan. Think carefully about what your core research questions are, and what information you don’t want to leave the interview without. Write those ideas down in a ‘priority questions’ list which you’ll have to hand during each interview. If you want, you can also have another list with secondary discussion points and questions – stuff you’ll talk about if there is time – or you can ignore a secondary lists and trust yourself to follow up on the interesting topics as they come up.
  2. During each interview, be open to finding out surprising information and veering away from your planned secondary questions if something else interests you. Or switching up the order of the questions if it seems more appropriate for how the conversation is going, or if you find a question has been answered without you needing to ask it. Just make sure you come away with the priority questions answered.
  3. If a participant goes off topic, return to the original question later, rephrasing it in the clearest way you can. Remember that in most cases you should not depend on a single response to a single question for any meaningful research findings. So if a participant doesn’t know the answer to a particular question or really doesn’t get it after you’ve tried asking in several different ways (and therefore won’t provide a relevant answer anyway) you can let it go.
  4. Conduct some pilot interviews. This will help you refine your research questions and interview approach, figure out which questions work and how many you’ll have time to ask etc.
  5. Even after pilot interviews, be open to adapting your strategies if you find that some things consistently aren’t working or think that something else will work better e.g. if no-one will give you a relevant answer to that sticky question you keep asking, then are you sure you’re asking the right question? There might be some features of your interviews that you really need to be consistent between participants (e.g. anything you plan to analyse quantitatively), in which case think about the trade-offs associated with making changes part-way through data collection (such as less data or having to recruit more participants) and make a decision.
  6. Be friendly, be nice, and remember that your interviewees are helping you out. Aside from this being basic manners, it’s also helpful for you if participants feel comfortable and more willing to provide detailed, honest responses.
  7. Think about interview ethics and always get informed consent from respondents. Your institution will likely have specific ethics requirements which will help you to think about this fully.
  8. Start interviews with a plain language statement. This should include a brief, clear spiel about who you are, why you’re conducting the interviews and what you’re hoping to get out of them. This, again, is both ethical and helpful to you. If participants know your purpose (and are hopefully supportive of it!) then they are encouraged to give you the specific information you’re interested in. You should also tell respondents roughly how many questions you will ask them and/or how long you expect the interview to take.
  9. Give respondents a way to follow up with you, contact you if they have questions later, and possibly send on additional information.
  10. Think about how best to record the interviews, based on both your research aims and practical considerations. I took notes on a tablet and made audio recordings too. It’s been helpful to have recordings for some transcriptions, but I’ve been able to use my notes for lots of my analysis which saves time and/or money compared to getting full transcriptions. Having typed (rather than hand written) notes has also saved me lots of data entry time. Whether this works for you will really depend on the kind of research you’re doing, how comfortable you and the respondents feel about you taking notes/recording, and how happy you are with those notes at the end of the day. And do note that not getting full transcripts is a bit contentious in social research generally so discuss this with your supervisor before deciding whether this is right for your research.
  11. Supplement your notes with your own observations and perspectives at the end of each interview and each day, and fill in gaps where you remember something but didn’t have time to write it. I discussed interview notes with my research partner and translator, Mercy, at the end of each day to make sure I didn’t miss anything either.
  12. On making notes: it can be helpful at the end of each interview to jot down whether you thought the interviewee was open and honest, and why, if it seemed like there was something they didn’t tell you, or if there is something else you now want to ask. This will help with any follow-up interviews and your analysis.
  13. Don’t worry about taking pauses to check you’ve asked all your priority questions or to finish jotting down a note. Pauses are normal and fine. Don’t worry if interviews feel strange to start with or you have to ease into the process a bit. Also normal and fine. Don’t worry. You’re just a person talking to other people, and it will all be okay!

Below are some helpful texts that I used while planning interviews and other research methods. Some of them also include great practical tips:

  1. Research for Development: A Practical Guide by Sophie Laws et al.
  2. Introduction to Social Research: Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches by Keith Punch
  3. Designing and Conducting Mixed Methods Research by John Creswell and Vicki Plano Clark

Lots of luck with your interviews!

It all depends!

**** This post was written by me for the Thesis Whisperer where it was first published on November 27, 2019****

Doing a PhD is an absolute nightmare, I reckon, and I say so. Frequently. The drag of PhD research is go-to water-cooler-chat for many students (well, if not you, maybe I drink water and whine about my PhD enough for the rest of us).

Okay then… PhDs aren’t horrid all the time. But they definitely are horrid. Nightmares. Some of the time. The timing and mode of nightmarishness is different for everyone, which means that you might find yourself in the midst of your PhD having scary experiences that are also very different to the experiences of the people around you. And that can feel isolating… which really compounds the horrid scary nightmarishness of it all. I want to tell you that feeling this way, and in fact having what feels like a different PhD experience, is totally fine and normal. And there are ways we can help each other banish that these creepy crawly thoughts from our brains, so we can focus on fun stuff (which might in fact be creepy crawlies – hello entomologists!).

The super variable experiences of PhD students are really unsurprising when you consider the different places we’re all coming from. PhD students can be aged roughly between fifteen and ninety five years old. They have different cultural backgrounds, have gained different life experiences, training, education and jobs. My PhD is interdisciplinary so even within my project I myself have varying levels of knowledge and confidence: I did a biology undergraduate degree and now do 50/50ish ecology/social science which basically means I started with some knowledge and skills in half of my project, and zero knowledge or skills in the other half. Which has been both as fun and as terrible as it sounds.

But anyway. We’re not talking about that are we. And you don’t have to be doing an interdisciplinary PhD to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, and some people have pointed out that this can actually be a really great and productive thing*, and in fact at the very core of novel research: we’re all supposed to be doing something that’s never been done before, right?

My two housemates and I are all PhD students, working in relatively similar fields, but our methods, learning, and work schedules are very very different. I spent much of the first year of my PhD just reading which was both an amazing privilege and totally terrifying when some of my classmates were collecting data in the lab from Week 2. But this was how my PhD needed to work, and yours might too.

Different students also have different commitments (to research, teaching, extracurricular activities, their personal life) and that is fine. Plus, although PhDs can be very stressful, they are often also very flexible, which can be great if you’ve got other stuff going on – like kids you need to drop off at nursery, or a job you’re doing at the same time as studying. And it’s okay to utilise that, even if you’ve got lots of 9-to-5 colleagues making you feel bad. Comparing yourself to other students simply will never be a case of comparing like-for-like, so don’t bother.

So PhD students are a diverse and interesting group, yes. But we need some support when we’re having worries about being a bit too different and interesting, and we do need to be able to tell if we’re veering off track. We need to share experience and knowledge and talk about whether what you’re going through and the work that you’re doing is normal and okay.

Thankfully, despite all our differences, there is a pool of experience common to PhDs that we can all contribute to and share inI recently read The Unwritten Rules of PhD Researchwhich was genuinely helpful and it kind of blew me away that a computer scientist and someone who does something called “knowledge modeling”could write a book of advice for any PhD student. And what about all these blooming blogs and articles – who do the authors think they are trying to relate their own life experiences to mine? Well, as you may have guessed, I think that these blogs and articles are great. I love reading about other people’s experiences, even though those writing them are probably doing very different research to me. There’s a big pool of wisdom out there which you can share in, gain some knowledge, and comfort in not feeling alone. And that doesn’t need to mean that someone else’s experiences need to match your own entirely. For example, I didn’t find every word in Unwritten Rules helpful and relevant (yet), but it was very useful to me still. It was part of my building of a knowledgebase of other peoples’ experiences, which has helped me no end during my PhD.

So please remember that there are many diverse journeys to getting your PhD, and the experiences that students have are correspondingly diverse. Remember that all of those students were all recruited to do a PhD because someone who’s already got one thinks they are capable of it. You were invited to do your PhD because someone believes in you. Diversity is a wonderful thing. In life and in research groups. So celebrate it, and don’t worry if you feel like you’re doing things in a different way to other people. But when you do feel unsure and alone – ask someone about it. Get help, and you’ll probably find out that you are not the first person to have this experience and although it might not fix everything, it might help you to realise that what you’re going through is normal.

* My supervisor pointed me to this article during my first week as a PhD student because 1) he’s great and 2) he understands how prevalent feelings of stupidity are amongst students, and how important it is to know that it’s normal and, in fact, useful.

Five tips for starting (and continuing) a PhD

Lots of the specific stuff you learn as a PhD student, as well as general approaches to your work, begins with informal advice rather than formal training. I’ve received lots of advice from others during my PhD, since the very early stages of my project. This has helped me both build a PhD project that I’m happy with, and actually enjoy my life while I do my PhD (the two, of course, being closely but not entirely linked!). As it’s the start of the academic year I want to share a few of my own tips along those lines, to help get your PhD off to a good start, and keep it on a trajectory you’re happy with:

1. Keep notes on everything you read

My PhD, like many, kicked off with lots of reading of textbooks and academic papers. My reading has ebbed and flowed, but not really stopped, since then. Reading is a big thing during your PhD. It’s useful to keep track of what you’ve been reading because you won’t remember all of it, but you will want to come back to a lot of it.

My system for keeping notes on my reading is highly unsophisticated, but it works: I have (currently) three Word Documents, called Reading_[insert year here] stored on Dropbox so I can access them anywhere. I’ve got a separate one for each year of my PhD because 1) each document is a bit more manageable than one scary enormous one, and 2) I find it surprisingly easy to remember when-ish I was reading different stuff because my reading has gone through some quite distinct phases (e.g. more stuff relevant to study design early on, more stuff about analysis later) so it seemed like a reasonable and simple way to organise my notes.

The  notes I make on what I read vary a lot: at my laziest, I just copy and paste the paper title, first author and abstract into the doc, and I’m done. If I’m feeling enthusiastic, I make more extensive notes on the paper and my thoughts on it, or copy specific sections that are especially interesting or relevant to my work. I make sure that each paper title or reference is formatted as a heading so that I can scan through the document easily, and create a contents page for each document.  Now, if I want to find a specific paper or read publications on a particular theme, I can Ctrl+F to find key words in my Reading documents.

2. Read a couple of theses

I’m going to disagree with tip #2 in Five Tips for Starting Your PhD Out Right and say you don’t need to read them cover to cover – I don’t think this is necessary in the early stages in your project, unless you really want to do so, or if you feel that every chapter is highly relevant to your own PhD. But I do think it’s helpful to flick through and see different thesis structures (trends in how to structure a thesis evolve over time, and also vary by subject area, so look at recent graduates in your field for ideas of what’s likely to be appropriate for you).

Theses might also contain some specific content that you didn’t realise you’ll need to add to your own thesis (such as more detailed methodology than you usually see in a published paper) or useful references if the PhD is closely related to your own work. I think it works well to look through the theses of recent graduates in your research group, your supervisor, or others working on similar stuff to you. But you can also search for theses online, for example by using EThOS.

3. Start a Word document called “Thesis”

You can use other people’s theses (see previous tip) as a guide to add appropriate headings and subheadings to this document which will act as your own thesis structure / outline. Okay, I did this in third year, not first year, but I reckon it would have been helpful to start this earlier. Since I started this document, I’ve made good progress on actually organising my thoughts and even writing a few things down. And if you’ve got this document ready from early on in your project, you can populate it with notes and ideas whenever they occur to you at any point during your PhD.

Recently, I’ve been going through my Reading documents (remember tip #1) page by page and copying across notes from papers that I have read (and often forgotten about) into the appropriate sections of my Thesis document. It’s surprising how quickly my rough structure has been populated with ideas and material for literature review and synthesis, and how this has helped me link different ideas together i.e. stuff I read in first year and forgot about, with stuff I’ve been reading recently, with stuff that’s coming out of my own analysis. Actually, now that it’s getting quite full, I’ve split my Thesis doc up so that I’m just working with one document per empirical chapter. In first year, a simple thesis structure in a single document is a good place to start.

4. Think about how to make the flexibility of your PhD (and your control over it) work best for you

This one’s quite big-picture, and I’m kind of cheating the list-of-five by squeezing several tips into one. But I think that the general principle of this tip is important, and can be interpreted in different ways to suit different people: PhDs are often inherently flexible, in how you set your daily, weekly and monthly schedule, and I think that you should make the most of that.

The nature of your PhD flexibility and your control over it depend on the details of your project, how you’re going to be working with your supervisors and institution. But there are usually opportunities for flexibility, even if you have to be in the lab most days. PhD-life-flexibility can be exploited for your professional or personal development, to maximise your productivity, to create opportunities that are fun or useful now, or allow you to flex creative muscles you haven’t had the opportunity to flex before.

Below I list the kinds of things you can think about to best use the flexibility of your PhD. These are all things that can work alongside the core research / write / defend thesis requirements of your PhD, and while you definitely don’t have to make any firm plans on day one, I think that it’s really valuable to think about ideas like this (and any more you have) early in your project. It’s all about what you want to get out of your time whilst doing your PhD, including but not limited to the PhD itself, and how you want to structure that time:

  • How do you want to set your daily schedule, where do you want to work? What’s going to be most pleasant and productive for you, and fit in with your home life?
  • What things do you want to do outside of your PhD (sports, reading non-PhD-related books, joining local clubs and groups, always protecting weekends off) to actively maintain a healthy work-life balance (which is better for both your wellbeing, and the state of your thesis)?
  • Are there times when you’re going to be working extra hard (like fieldwork)? How do you want to balance that with rest and recuperation afterwards (an extended post-fieldwork holiday…?)?
  • Do you want to take an interruption from your PhD for an internship or job?
  • Do you want to practise writing by starting a blog or try a bit of science journalism?
  • Do you want to get involved with science outreach?
  • Do you want to build a professional profile and network by making a website or getting on social media?
  • Do you want to teach undergraduates or Masters students?
  • What training courses would you like to do (and where do you find out about them)?
  • Do you want to try turning one or more of your chapters into academic papers?

5. Talk to people, lots, in both general and specific ways

Starting a PhD can be overwhelming, and knowing where to start, or where to go next, can be really tough. Having conversations with other PhD students about what they are working on, how they are finding their PhD, what kind of training they have received, might point you to interesting new research topics, training opportunities, or just give you a bit of a general feel for what it’s going to be like doing a PhD in your new department. These general conversations are important because they can provide you with nuggets of wisdom you didn’t know you needed and, crucially, help you feel connected to and supported by your colleagues and peers.

Asking your supervisor or others specific questions like are there any academics whose work you recommend I look into? / do you recommend any textbooks on [planning a research project], [planning fieldwork], [fundamentals of landscape ecology], [fundamentals of development research] [insert another topic you’re not sure about yet but want to learn about]? / are there any conferences I should look out for? can give you some useful starting points for directing your own learning in the early stages of your project. So, think specifically about what you need at the start of your PhD, and ask for help with it.

…And one bonus tip: read advice from other (ex-) PhD students

There are similar posts to this one with advice on starting your PhD here, and I particularly like the twenty top tips from Lucy Taylor here. There are actual full guides to PhD life like The A-Z of the PhD Trajectory and The Unwritten Rules of Ph.D. Research which can be very helpful to read through at any stage of your PhD (though I guess you maximise your use of them if you read them early!) and to use as reference books as and when you need them. There are lots of people blogging about their past and present PhD experiences, which can offer great advice and comfort at every stage in your PhD. Personally, I love the Thesis Whisperer and like to check in with it semi-regularly. Reading TW feels a bit like my tip #5: it’s about seeking out help and advice, sometimes when you didn’t even know you needed it.

Practical tips on how to be an interdisciplinary individual

I recently went to a great workshop on interdisciplinarity. Now, there are different definitions of interdisciplinarity (and particularly how it relates to multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity) though, personally I tend to follow definitions somewhere along the lines of what these people found in the health sector, and what this music researcher says. The workshop was about interdisciplinarity in the sense of truly integrating theories, methods and expertise from different disciplines to conduct environmental research. Interdisciplinary research can occur in teams, though moving from multidisciplinarity (where several people bring different expertise to a research theme / problem but where there is no true research synthesis and often, poor understanding of what is being done in each part of the team) to interdisciplinarity comes with many difficulties. Overcoming these difficulties was a large focus of discussion at the workshop. I was also asked to speak at the workshop, about my own experiences with interdisciplinarity. This is a bit of a step away from work in interdisciplinary teams. I consider myself an interdisciplinary individual because I use approaches from ecology and social sciences to tackle my research questions; I conduct my research alone (though with plenty of guidance) so these approaches are synthesised in my own head and thesis rather than out loud and between members of a team.

And that’s what I want to talk about here: what it’s like being an interdisciplinary individual, and what can be done to make it a bit easier. I think doing an interdisciplinary PhD is incredibly worthwhile, and something I chose to do because I believe that combining social and environmental research is the best way to understand issues that affect both people and nature, and to generate impacts that aren’t detrimental to either. However, I also think it can add a significant additional layer of difficulty to PhD research… as if it wasn’t hard enough. I talked a little bit about this at the workshop but, being in a room full of people who understood well how hard interdisciplinary research is, I tried to focus a bit more on what has helped me along my interdisciplinary journey, and thoughts about how we (as students? supervisors? departments? institutions?) might help other interdisciplinary individuals in future.  Here, I summarise what I said at the workshop, with a bit more of a focus on how you, if you’re an interdisciplinary student, might help yourself with potential challenges – just in case your supervisor, other academics, department and institution aren’t reading. I highlight three key areas that I needed (and got) help with as an interdisciplinary student: 1) planning your interdisciplinary project, 2) finding out about the subject(s) you know less about, and 3) gaining project-specific knowledge:

  1. I’m lucky in that during my PhD I’ve been offered formal trainings on a whole host of subjects (how to write a thesis, how to make a poster, statistics, ecological modelling etc.). But, I’m not in an interdisciplinary programme, so I haven’t been offered training specific to an interdisciplinary project. Planning an interdisciplinary project is quite different to planning other PhDs, and I think it would have been really useful to have received training in how to plan an interdisciplinary project early in my PhD: this is something that can (and I think should) be offered in a simple course at your institution. If formal training isn’t available to you, seek out resources (and people) who can help you. I found Designing and Conducting Mixed Methods Research useful, as well as alternative ways to think about my project plans such as by constructing something akin to a theory of change connecting your research questions to aims and outcomes. There are loads of great resources out there and new ones appearing all the time, so actively search for guidance that’s relevant to you.
  2. Having no formal grounding in half of your project can make it hard to know how to direct your learning on this side of the project. For example, I came from a natural sciences background, so thinking about the social science aspects of my research was harder and involved me learning lots from scratch. However, I didn’t really know what “from scratch” even meant from a social science perspective when I started – which textbooks and papers should I be reading to start off my learning? It can be very easy to miss possible training opportunities which might help with these problems if you’re not in the right circles to find out about them. I have rarely been offered formal training in social science, because my project and I sit in the natural sciences part of my institution and because the groups offering me training are more natural-sciences focused. You too might feel siloed, and like the methods and skills training offered to you are only relevant to small aspects of your project. The truth is, there’s probably loads more training out there that’s available to you – you just don’t know about it. Increased collaboration and conversation between departments, institutions and research groups to increase awareness of opportunities for student training across disciplines would help with this issue in a widespread and long-term way, and we should all encourage this as much as possible. I mean, there are also arguments for complete overhauls of how universities are structured break down some of the walls standing between different disciplines… But, leaving that discussion for another day, let’s assume that you’re a student navigating existing structures for yourself and your peers and, again, you’ve got to do some investigation and reaching out for yourself. Look for resources (I liked Introduction to Social Research for social stuff!), email academics and students working on the stuff you want to know more about, ask if there are seminar series you can go to, look through Masters courses at your institution and find out if you can go and sit in on some lectures. For example, just getting on the right mailing list you didn’t know existed might make a huge difference to what you learn and who you can meet.
  3. Loads of what I’ve learned has come from individuals, informally, rather than through formal training. You do need lots of project-specific knowledge during your PhD, which may come more from discussions with colleagues or by conducting a pilot study, rather than from a structured course. So, once again, don’t forget to make the most of the people and opportunities around you. Ask for help from supervisors, reach out to other students working on similar problems to you, build up your network. Someone might be able to recommend a book or a particular method to you. You might even realise that there are a few of you who with similar interests and it would be useful to form a peer support group, or a reading group. Also, if you know two people with similar interests to each other (but not to you), put them in touch with each other. In my experience, there is a really nice culture in academia of introducing colleagues with mutual interests, with no benefit to the person making the introductions. Keep that culture going to help out your colleagues (and foster better research).

A key theme uniting my above points is that (despite a PhD being an individual journey), building on other’s experience, and even just knowing you’re not alone can be really important. Your interdisciplinary project might seem unrelated to the work that other people in your office and department are working on, but know that there are lots of people out there who have knowledge and experiences you can draw on. That can come in the form of structured training offered to you (ahem institutions and funders), or in the form of seeking out knowledge and skills for yourself. Try to take advantage of those things as early as possible – PhDs are time-limited (maybe especially interdisciplinary PhDs when the student is having to learn more stuff from scratch), so having clear ideas about how you’re going to plan your project, and getting stuck into the right literature early on can be incredibly helpful, and make you feel less stressed by how much you think you don’t know in the long-run.

I do think that formal training, and maybe some cultural change, can really help with these issues. And part of their benefit is that they can be timely and make sure you get set on a good track early on in your project, rather than spending a long time being unsure about stuff and unsure about who to ask for help with that. But, if you feel like you’re completing an interdisciplinary PhD in a world that isn’t set-up to best support interdisciplinary work, know that there are courses, books, websites, and people that can help you. You just have to be extra pro-active in finding them, and we all should be more helpful towards other PhD students struggling with the same problems.

And also, though I’m telling you now that you should find help with these issues early in your project, that doesn’t mean you should stop seeking help later on, or feel like you’ve missed the boat to do so. Lots of the things that helped me across the three issues that I highlight here, I came to later than you’d expect. I attended the interdisciplinarity workshop during my third year, and part of what made it great was that I was able to speak to other people who faced similar problems to me in different contexts, and if nothing else, we could come together to discuss those problems. And that in itself can move your own work forward, even if you don’t come up with the solutions to your own interdisciplinary problems (and, in the case of the workshop, how to make interdisciplinarity work more broadly) yet.

A bit of extra reading about interdisciplinary work:

And there’s lots more!

Making the most of fieldwork

If your PhD involves fieldwork, it’s likely to be a very important time for your project. Your fieldwork might be a key (or the only) period of data collection, a time when you can learn and develop specific project-planning and practical field skills, and it’s a fairly unique life experience. My PhD fieldwork is in Tanzania, and how I spend my time there, the places I see, and the people I meet create a totally different experience to what it would be like if I were there on holiday. Which is a real privilege. And I think that this is usually true of fieldwork, whether you do it a few miles from home or halfway across the world. Despite its significance, fieldwork might be a relatively short period of time in the grand scheme of your PhD, so I think it’s particularly important to make the most of that time, both in terms of work – collecting lots of good data and improving your skills – as well as enjoying the experience. So I wanted to write a few tips for making the most of fieldwork. I actually think that the best way to make the most of your fieldwork is for you to think about what you want to get out of it, and to make your own quick list of how to do this before you go. My own tips come from my experiences and preferences, both of which may be quite different to yours. So, the following is a highly subjective and by no means exhaustive list, but even if all of these tips don’t apply to you, then I hope that at least thinking about them will help trigger some thoughts about how you want to make the most of your own fieldwork:

  • Prepare. Pretty thoroughly, if you can. I won’t say much about this here because I’ve written plenty about fieldwork prep in a separate blog post, but I do think it’s one of the best ways to reduce stress while you’re there and make sure you’re spending your time doing cool science and having cool experiences, rather than having to think about problems that could have been solved before you got there. It’s also how you make sure that you’ve given yourself enough time for: things to go wrong, rest, re-evaluation of your work, catching up with supervisors, etc. all of which are really crucial to making the most of your fieldwork.
  • Don’t panic when (some of? all of?) your plans go out of the window. Part of your prep should involve having clear ideas about your goals for fieldwork (also discussed in the previous blog). If your work isn’t going exactly the way you thought it would, don’t give up on it and decide you’ll have to magic up some money and come back next year. Look back at your goals and think about, broadly, what you would like to achieve on your trip. Then think about the specifics of how to achieve those goals, and how much you realistically can achieve given any new constraints. Be ready to adapt and make necessary changes to your work. The changes might end up being better than your original plan anyway, and you’ll certainly be a better scientist for finding a solution for a difficult problem.
  • Read a guidebook of where you’re going, in advance or maybe on the flight out there. It’s always interesting to learn about the place you’re going to, and it might also help you plan your time there (especially days off). I also like reading fiction or other non-fiction books like biographies set wherever I’m working, as it’s a nice way to feel a bit more connected to the place.
  • Drink the local drinks, eat the local food. Obviously. Try the fresh fruits, especially. Although I admit that as much as I enjoy Tanzanian food, I follow-up my rice and beans with Dairy Milk on rare days that I get to a supermarket. Some cravings don’t go away even thousands of miles from home.
  • Speak to the people, go out and explore. There might be some tourist trips you can join on days off, or people you work with who are happy to take you out and show you around. It can also be really nice to have some days off at the end of your fieldwork, so you can just relax and enjoy the place you’re in without having any work on your mind.
  • Always ask for help if you need it. If there are language barriers, mime for help. There are kind people who want to help you, wherever you go, so don’t suffer because you thought you couldn’t ask.
  • Be culturally sensitive, but remember that it’s okay to talk about cultural differences too. For example, in Tanzania, I dress as modestly as the locals do, and I eat with my right hand only. But I’m always open and honest and if people ask about my husband and kids, I tell them that don’t have either of those things right now! In some of the communities I work in, that’s really strange for a 27 year old woman. But personally, I think it’s fun and enlightening to discuss with other people the different ways you might see the world, and share stories and experiences. Having said this, of course you should err on the side of caution when it comes to being sensitive about potentially controversial issues, and you should absolutely always be very careful about potential safety issues. I’ve often seen the travel advice that single women in certain countries should wear a wedding ring, and if you feel safer doing that then you absolutely should. These issues are very culture-specific so if you can, check with people who have visited the place you’re going to before you leave and get advice from them about how to best approach cultural sensitivities and differences.
  • If you have a choice in where you sleep, think about where will suit you best and especially choose a relaxing and stress-free environment to come home to. Most of the time, I sleep in my tent during fieldwork (where I am very happy and relaxed!) but on trips to town I stay in a hostel. Returning to a sociable environment where I can meet passing travellers really suits me, and I think is much nicer than going back to a hotel, which might be more lonely. But it depends on your preferences, and options at your field site.
  • Having said that, having alone time is really important for me too – so when the opportunity is there I take time for myself to read, call home, watch some TV.
  • Rest. Hopefully, during fieldwork prep you will have planned in rest time. And hopefully, plenty of it, because some of your rest time will probably turn into work time out of necessity. But do keep some of that time just to rest, and reflect on your work if that’s what you need. You’ll do better work and enjoy it more if you’re rested and able to focus.
  • Keep a journal. You’ll want to remember this experience later, and you’ll want to remember the every day details, not just the outcomes of your data analysis.
  • Try to remember how lucky you are to be doing what you’re doing. Fieldwork can be really tough, and exhausting, and sometimes you’ll probably just want to go home. But it’s a real privilege to be doing a project you have chosen to do, and to experience a place in a way you wouldn’t be able to as a tourist, even to access some places that tourists cannot. So try to remember that on the tough days, and really enjoy the good days.
  • Take a holiday afterwards! This obviously depends on your time, budget, and desires for how you want to spend your time post-fieldwork, but there’s nothing worse than staying somewhere for a few weeks or months, hearing all the stories about the amazing sights you should see and regions you should visit, and then not being able to do so. You’ll definitely deserve a holiday when you finish, so take the opportunity if you can.

So those are my tips for making the most of your fieldwork both professionally and personally! But remember that all the ways you might make the most of your fieldwork really depend on what you want to get out of the experience, so think about this for yourself before you go. As well as having your list of fieldwork goals related to the aims of your project, think about other things you want to get out of the trip and ways you might maximise your time there, or experiences you want to have while you’re away. Fieldwork will likely be fun, stressful, interesting, surprising, difficult, confusing, horrible, wonderful… and though you shouldn’t worry if you feel some of the negative emotions on that list, thinking about ways to maximise the positive ones is always going to be a good idea!

Preparing for fieldwork

I have spent something like a year of my life on fieldwork. Every time it comes to another trip, I dig out old packing lists, and try desperately to recall those really important things about fieldwork that I definitely won’t forget because they’re really important… And I always forget things. Which is fine, because the stuff I forget is stuff that I can replace or find an alternative for or live without for a few weeks. But it’s nice to minimise faff on fieldwork isn’t it, and it’s also nice to minimise the stress around packing and preparing for fieldwork. I’m currently on my final field season in Tanzania. My boyfriend, Jack, is coming out to join me when I finish work for a two-week Tanzanian adventure. We’ve had this plan for a while, so when I was away last year on the first big field season for my PhD, I started to make a list of Tanzania tips that I could give to Jack. It was supposed to be a list of stuff you don’t think about before leaving, but that you discover and have to deal with while you are away; stuff you will forget happened last time, and then have to deal with again next time. I wanted to be able to give Jack my list, as he’s never been to Tanzania, and he doesn’t have a couple of weeks contingency built into his trip like me, so I don’t want him to have to make the same mistakes. Well… after 10 weeks of fieldwork last year and due to something I’m calling “fieldwork brain”, I deleted the list. Nice one, fieldwork brain. Anyway, I’m writing this because I think the principle of the tip list was good and I think that even though Tanzania-specific field advice isn’t going to be helpful to most people, general field advice might be nice, and possibly useful to people other than Jack. And also because, Jack, I’m sorry for deleting your list and this is something close to what you were supposed to receive ahead of our holiday together plus some bonus fieldwork-specific tips:

  • Make a packing list. I use a list app every day and keep packing lists on there (including a special one for fieldwork) which I can add to any time I think of something to add, or edit (e.g. I took way too many socks the first time I went on fieldwork because I didn’t realise how much I’d live in flip-flops, and I updated my list to tell me to take fewer socks next time)*
  • Keep a separate to-do list, with some time frames on there, and get investigating early what those time frames might be e.g. “arrange visa – 3 weeks before, book accommodation – 2 weeks before…”. Some important stuff you might need to think about well in advance: where your funding is coming from, arranging a research permit and visa (and obtaining all the paperwork you might need for these), vaccinations and other medication.
  • Make yourself aware of local rules and regulations relevant to your fieldwork: will you need to obtain a permit to work in the local area on arrival, in addition to a permit to work in the country?
  • Give yourself lots of time. Plan in plenty of contingency time and budget for stuff to be slow or go wrong (waiting for permits, cars breaking down, etc.). Plan in days to settle in and do final preparations upon arrival: do you need time to meet and hire local staff? Buy field equipment? Get over jetlag? Finally, plan in days to reassess your work and make any changes you might need to. Spending a few days piloting your methods early on is a very good idea, and giving yourself time (maybe a few more days) after the pilot to think about what you’ve learned and make any necessary changes to your methods is a crucial part of this process.
  • If you have local contacts, speak to them beforehand to get as much information as you can about the local area, what you’ll need to do on arrival, and also any other tips – like which mobile network works best in the area so you know what kind of SIM to buy. Other colleagues who have been to the same field site or country are also great tip-givers!
  • Think about things that might be difficult to buy on fieldwork and make sure you’ve got enough of that with you e.g. you’re probably going to be able to buy shower gel if you can get to a town whilst away, but suncream might be hard to come by (and super important). Weirdly, I found lipbalm difficult to come by in Tanzania and I’m semi-addicted to lipbalm so I brought a good handful with me this time (the spares are because I did manage to drop one down a long drop toilet on a previous trip).
  • Check restrictions on what you can take in and out of the country – cash, food, or anything else… As of May 2019, you’re not allowed to take plastic bags into Tanzania, so I compartmentalized everything in my rucksack in tote bags.
  • Make sure you’ll be able to stay in touch with people back home: get your phone unlocked so you can get a local SIM, to send photos and make WhatsApp calls to share updates.
  • Prep your entertainment. Download music and TV and books. I personally love audiobooks and podcasts because they are great to listen to while you’re staring out of a bus window and when you’re closing your eyes inside a tent ready to go to sleep. And Kindles are amazing – the battery life is great and you can keep a library of entertainment, plus any Lonely Planets or other guidebooks you might need (although admittedly, I don’t find it as easy to jump to different sections of a guidebook on a Kindle as I do in a paperback book).
  • Figure out how to best get currency before you arrive. You’re not allowed to take Tanzanian shillings out of the country, so I have to make sure I’m going to be able to use an ATM (tell your bank you’re going away), or exchange a currency (usually English GBP/USD/Euros are fine) pretty soon after arriving. In Tanzania, you get a better rate exchanging bigger notes ($20s and $50s, rather than $5s and $10s).
  • Download maps if you can, so that you can navigate without the need for data on a local SIM until you get this sorted.
  • Plan calls with your supervisor(s) for early on in the trip – you will want to check in and discuss what you’re doing, what’s working and what’s not, after a brief period piloting stuff. This can be a really crucial conversation, so before you go away, make sure a supervisor will be around to provide you with this support.

Fieldwork prep can be stressful, so thinking about it as early as possible and getting organised can be super helpful to mitigate that. Having said that, in my experience, you never plan your fieldwork as far in advance as would be ideal, so don’t worry or panic if you feel like that. Prioritise the really important stuff – the stuff you absolutely have to organise before arriving (e.g. research permit) – and do make sure you have enough time to do that before you book any flights. Aside from that, make sure you know why you’re going away and the major goals of your trip: what do you want to get out of your fieldwork? It’s really important that you know this so you can make the most of your time there, and adapt to any changes or obstacles you face whilst away. Because, the specific details of your study protocol and timings may well need to change while you’re away. That’s okay, and it’s also more important to be ready to face that than it is to have every logistical detail figured out (at least stuff that you can plan, and which may be better to plan while you’re out there). Last year I was conducting semi-structured interviews and Focus Group Discussions in villages, and I didn’t plan every village I would go to or every question I would ask before I flew to Tanzania. Being a fieldwork plan-a-holic, I would definitely have liked to, but I didn’t have time, and also those things needed to be able to respond to the results of my pilot studies. What I did know before I left was what the goals of my study were, and I could adapt my methods based on that while I was away. Remember that fieldwork should be a learning experience, as well as important data collection, and that includes learning from mistakes that you probably will make (and I definitely have made) whilst on your trip. So be ready to embrace that and don’t worry when, despite all your (my) lists and planning, things don’t work in exactly the way you imagined they would.

*Here’s an abridged version of my current fieldwork packing list. Sock quantities not specified – you’ve got to decide what’s right for you. Also think about other people who will be with you, helping with your fieldwork, and what quantities of the below you might need for them e.g. an extra tent or torch:

  • Field equipment (I won’t list mine – this is going to be really specific to what you’re doing; but it’s also likely to be the stuff you can’t get while you’re away, so think about this carefully e.g. GPS, compass, measuring tapes, species ID books, clipboards…)
  • Protocols
  • Datasheets
  • Laptop (borrowed from uni)
  • Hard drive, USB (ways to back up your files)
  • Batteries (depending on where you’re going it might be hard to get good ones or ones the right size while you’re away; consider rechargeables)
  • Tents
  • Camera
  • Chargers
  • Spare cables
  • Adapters
  • Spare headphones
  • Power bank(s), possibly one suitable to plug your laptop into
  • Insect repellent
  • Suncream
  • First aid kit (I always add in extras of some stuff you might use a lot like rehydration salts, throat sweets)
  • Personal medication
  • Personal alarm, whistle (you might not feel that you want this, but I like to have one for myself and my research assistant… even if just to make a loud noise if you get lost in a remote area!)
  • Multifunctional useful bits and bobs like a penknife, string, duct tape
  • Eye mask
  • Ear plugs
  • Needle and thread
  • Padlock
  • Water filter or water purification tablets
  • Day rucksack
  • Torch
  • Travel towel
  • Socks
  • Underwear
  • Nightwear
  • Fieldwork clothes
  • Non-fieldwork clothes
  • Warm clothes
  • Exercise clothing
  • Swim stuff
  • Trainers
  • Flip flops
  • Fieldwork shoes
  • Hankies
  • Waterproof
  • Umbrella
  • Hairbrush
  • Nail scissors
  • Nail file
  • Tweezers
  • Lip balms
  • Sanitary products
  • Student card
  • Driving license
  • Passport
  • Spare passport photos
  • Paper and digital copies of important docs – passport photo page, visa, research permit, emergency phone numbers, travel insurance info
  • Vaccination card
  • Card reader or whatever you need to do some banking (in case you need to transfer money to pay for something at home or away)
  • Entertainment – phone, tablet, Kindle, books

Here’s other stuff you might need but could consider getting when you arrive to 1) save on packing, 2) so that you can contribute to the local economy where you’ll be working, 3) to meet some local shopkeepers. Many other items on the above list might be moved below depending on your field site, but this is some of the stuff I buy in Tanzania:

  • Pens, pencils
  • Pencil case
  • Notebooks
  • Toiletries (however, if you’re working somewhere really rural and your shower water is going to go straight into the local environment, you could think about getting biodegradable toiletries ahead of arrival)
  • Laundry powder (as above)
  • Bedsheets (in Tanzania, buying light sheets is cheap and more comfy to sleep in than I sleeping bag I think)
  • Mattresses (again, it’s cheap to buy these for camping in Tz, plus much comfier than anything I can carry. And sleep is incredibly important during fieldwork)
  • Other field equipment (hammers, nails, stationery)

    Something I don’t prepare ahead of fieldwork – I got these tree tags made from roof sheeting after arriving in Kilwa in August 2019.

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