Why Field Work Is Fun – and Isn’t

Let’s talk about field work. It’s the thing you look forward to all the way through first year. It’s the thing you are jealous of everyone else who is off doing it. It’s what you really ‘wanted’ to do when you started your PhD.

It has its ups. It has its downs too.

Field work is individual. Your project may require you to do field work locally, or regionally, or even internationally. Those doing fieldwork locally will have a very different experience to those doing it internationally.

There’s a lot to think about when you plan a PhD project. It’s best to give some thought to this before you even start your PhD. Do you want to research a particular region? Do you want to look outside your region, or at another country? Or compare two countries? Can you afford to do research in another country that might require months spent away or long airplane rides?

When you start to develop your project in your first year, planning your field work is an important part of that. You may only need to do a bit on ‘field’ work, or you may need to set aside an entire year to do so. Much of this will be dependent on what type of research project you are doing, and your supervisor will be the best person to suggest the practicalities of this, so talk to them about your concerns and expectations.

I was so excited to do my field work. After more than a year stuck behind a desk with my nose in a book, writing papers, I just wanted to get out there and do something! It wasn’t that easy though. Planning for my field work took months of emails and contacts and research in and of itself. It took a pilot study that lasted a month. It took a lot of reassessment. The original field work I’d planned to do ended up being useless for the project (and exasperatingly difficult to do in the first place) and I changed strategies part way through 2nd year. It meant an ‘easier’ method of field work, but just as much ‘on the ground’ work.

Because of finances, I was restricted on travel. I wanted to do my field work regionally, in the country where I was doing my PhD, but the cost of train tickets limited me even more than that. I spent hundreds of pounds just travelling to my sites that were all within an hour’s ride! If I’d had to go further, and stay over night in hotels, it would have been too expensive for me. And I had to justify that in my thesis, of why I limited it to the English midlands. But it was a good way to limit it…

Give careful consideration to your limitations and understand what impact they may have on your thesis. Understand that the field work you intend to do may not end up being the best for your research question. Acknowledge that things may change while you are doing your field work. You may have a moment of ‘ah ha!’ or you may have a moment of ‘oh, bugger’. You may have both of those! Be willing to be flexible, and to change tactics if needed. Be willing to take the time to step back and re-evaluate and talk to your supervisor. They are ‘on the outside’ and may have suggestions you haven’t thought of.

I also found it particularly useful to talk to people who had done the same type of field work. I had never done qualitative research (without any quantitative study) and so I asked researchers who did this method. I asked them about the risks and the pitfalls, and also about the joys. It meant that some of the things that went wrong I expected to go wrong, and some things that could have gone wrong I stopped before they happened. That saved me time and money. It’s always best to get a personal account of what hands on research is like, particularly if you’ve never done that type of research before.

Also keep in mind yourself. My qualitative study involved travelling to new cities and talking to people. A lot. About things they maybe didn’t want to talk about. It meant asking strangers to open up to me. I’m inherently shy and I was way out of my comfort zone. That might be too far out of your comfort zone for you. Or it may be just right. Or it may be a way to challenge yourself and develop a new skill (interviewing!). Give some consideration to that.

My ‘old’ method of research had involved talking to rather a lot of children. It was only after my pilot study I realized how much I hated that! I had no desire to spend months doing it and the answers I was getting were useless for my project anyways. I nixed this early on and never regretted it. As it turned out, it shaped my research into a much stronger – though more theoretical – project that opened up whole new worlds I wasn’t expecting.

There is always a silver lining, and no research is useless research. Sometimes, you just need to change tactics. And sometimes you need to play to your strengths. And sometimes…you just need to have some fun. Try to build that into your field work and make it something you look forward to doing at the end of a long year one of research. Because writing-up? Isn’t nearly as fun as field work.

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