All by myself: what I have learned from doing fieldwork on my own

by Olivia Wilkinson.

While spending time online you have probably come across a clickbait article about someone who gave up work and went travelling on his or her own to discover the meaning of life. There have been lists of the top 10 reasons to travel on your own, hundreds if not thousands of blogs have been born to document their owners’ solo travel experiences, solo travel tips are just a quick Google search away, and countless articles have been published that extol the virtues of travelling on your own and discovering your true self along the way.

Solo travel for research is rarely cast in this light of self-discovery.  It only hits the news when tragedy occurs, most recently with the killing of an Italian PhD student in Egypt this year, which highlighted the dangers present while conducting fieldwork. In particular, the position of a woman researcher conducting fieldwork can be precarious, with a study finding that 18% of women scientists had experienced sexual harassment during fieldwork. While there have been highly worthwhile academic work published that deal with the position of women in fieldwork scenarios, I want to reflect more generally on what it’s like to be a solo researcher away from home.

My interest is in light of two relatively recent experiences. Firstly, I did my own PhD research in 2014 and 2015 in the Philippines. It’s a wonderful country that I regularly miss, and that I encourage you to visit. But at times I found the experience very difficult. Sitting in a hostel in Manila on the first few days of my trip, I felt small and alone. I Skyped my boyfriend and threatened to buy a flight home for the next day. My self-doubt at the beginning of the lengthy trip was high. I worried that I hadn’t arranged enough interviews and focus groups ahead of time. I worried that the ones I had arranged would fall through. I thought I was not going to come home with enough data to fulfil my PhD requirements. I worried about the travel I would have to do around the country. I felt inferior in comparison to the old hand aid workers I was trying to contact as part of my research. The months ahead of me seemed overwhelming. Instead of buying a flight home, I decided to persevere. I’m glad I did: my worries gave way to excitement and the trip turned out to be a success. Some pre-arranged contacts worked out, some didn’t, but I met new people, organised new interviews and focus groups, and came home having experienced the most intense, but rewarding, months of my research career thus far. In hindsight, I feel I gave myself too hard a time, especially at the beginning, and have learned to be kinder to myself as a result. I hope I can share some of the things I did to calm my worries and feel more confident.

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Olivia at the MacArthur Landing Memorial in Palo, Leyte, December 2014.

Guidelines for fieldwork

Secondly, I have recently worked with two other women, Bianca van Bavel and Brynne Gilmore, to bring together a set of guidelines developed by students and for students on the ethical conduct of international fieldwork (supported by the Development Studies Association of Ireland and the Irish Forum for Global Health). The guidelines emerged from conversations with other young researchers who had vastly different experiences of the amount of support they received in completing their fieldwork. After a comprehensive literature review and focus group discussions with other early stage researchers, the eventual set of guidelines we have formed gives highly practical recommendations on going about fieldwork in a responsible and ethical way, which is both safe for the individual researcher and the people they interact with during the research. If you are about to embark on research, or even if you are half way through, I would highly recommend reviewing the guidelines here. What we learned during this experience is how many times young researchers have felt let down by their institutions during their fieldwork, made avoidable mistakes, and generally been ill-prepared for the fieldwork experience. Although I was lucky enough to have a supportive background both personally and through my university, I still found the experience challenging. For those with less than supportive situations, the combination of factors can be extremely limiting.

While I urge you to look through the guidelines for specific advice backed up by the weight of evidence from our research, I will also briefly reflect on some of the key takeaways I personally have from my research experience, looking back with the 20:20 vision of hindsight as I come to the end of my PhD. So, what have I learned?

Tips to remember

Know your boundaries. This is about managing your own expectations as well as other people’s. Understand how likely you are to take risks, and whether you should take those risks. You are ultimately responsible for yourself. For example, are you prepared to take a lengthy bus journey on your own to a place you’ve never been before to talk to one interviewee who might not even show up? What are the risks that you might encounter to get to that one interview? Are they worth it for that particular interview? The answer may be yes, absolutely! But it may also be no and that’s ok. One less interview is not the end of the world.

Don’t be afraid to ask. There are advantages and disadvantages to being a young female researcher. I felt, on the one hand, that I had to push quite a bit to underline my seriousness as a researcher. It was another woman, in fact, who belittled my research as just a pet project for my own benefit. On the other hand, however, I felt that I could benefit from this as people were very willing to help me out, assisting me in making further connections, as well as things like figuring out transportation or buying a SIM card. A lot of this was about learning to ask people for help and not thinking I was asking too much or seeming too needy.

Have an itinerary – and tell other people about it. It’s useful to plan your time carefully. You may feel like you have months ahead of you, but it will go quickly. More importantly though you should let others know when and where you will be. Like the advice to hikers before they head into the forest, let someone know when to expect to hear from you. Of course schedules change rapidly and you should take up opportunities when presented with them, but it’s always best to let a few people you trust have a broad idea of when and where you will be.

Know when to take breaks. Fieldwork is really tiring. You spend a lot of time doing administrative tasks, waiting on replies to phone calls and emails, and conducting interviews, which is an intensive process. Navigating from place to place in a new environment can be exhausting. You may also stand out a bit. At the end of the day, I found myself wanting to hide away and get some down time. Watching trashy TV all weekend (yes, I did this on occasion) is not necessarily a waste of time. You may only have a short amount of time in a certain place and feel pressure to get a lot done, but burn out can happen quickly, especially when you’re on your own, and some time for recuperation is well worth it.

Try to include a scoping trip. I was lucky enough to be able to conduct a month-long scoping trip before my main research trip. I highly recommend it, as it allowed me to not only gain contacts and organise things for my subsequent, longer trip, but also familiarise myself with the places I was intending to stay and learn how to navigate around the islands I would be staying on. This was very useful for my second trip when I was working really hard on my data collection. I was glad to have that familiarity, which made me feel more at ease.

My PhD experience would not have been even half as rewarding without my fieldwork. I personally gained a lot and I hope that I can give back through my research findings. Yet something we underline at the very beginning of the fieldwork guidelines is that international fieldwork is not for everyone. It’s a commitment and there are risks, both of which you need to be aware of from the outset. Inform yourself with our guidelines and other documents out there. If it’s still for you, then I have one last recommendation: remember to enjoy yourself too! Take a weekend off to explore! You deserve it.

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Time for reflection while waiting for a focus group to start, Leyte, March 2015.

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3 thoughts on “All by myself: what I have learned from doing fieldwork on my own

  1. Doreen Pastor says:

    This is a great blog. I’ve just spent 4 months in Germany interviewing visitors at memorial sites (e.g. concentration camps). I was incredibly nervous as I didn’t know whether visitors would talk to me an wanted to book the next flight home. I also worked 7 days a week as I needed to get things done which isn’t a good idea as you burn out! Definitely take breaks.

    Liked by 1 person

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