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!