Ellie Wood

Social-ecological scientist working in savanna woodlands

Tag: Fieldwork

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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