PhD: the extreme fieldwork edition



In the first few weeks of my thesis, I remember being directed to a blog post by “Sciencewoman” which gave some sage advice to students on how to complete your PhD in a reasonable amount of time. I recently re-read it only to find I had failed two of her major points. Namely, ‘Don’t pick a topic that requires multiple years of data collection,’ and ‘pick a field site within a few hours of your university/house’ – and definitely nowhere prone to natural disasters.

I ended up doing my thesis, in multiple stages, in a town 14 hours and 3 flights from my house, that experiences major flooding every wet season. However, somehow I managed to submit it in a reasonable amount of time (around 3.5 years).

I’m definitely not going to recommend that anyone else should attempt this; working in an overseas field site proved to be extremely stressful and disorienting at times. However, if you are misguided enough to pursue something similar, here are some of the things I found most important for keeping everything together (in all senses of the phrase!).

\”A person’s riches lie in the fewness of their needs”, Anonymous

Anyone who knows me would attest to the fact that I am by nature a piler not a filer. I always worked between my office and home computer and leaving a disorganized mix of documents on the desktops of both. However, I quickly learned that such disorganization only comes with the luxury of having a space of your own to pile in, where no-one else will ever disturb you. At one point my literature review was ‘organised’ in heaps of paper that overtook my desk and spilled onto the floor. I barely noticed until I realized my office mates were stepping over them all the time.

Twice throughout my PhD I had to literally pick up everything and take it with me, with around a month’s notice. I once used my whole baggage allowance taking textbooks and aforementioned piles of articles on a field trip, and quickly realized the cost in physical (and emotional) baggage wasn’t worth it.

Whilst this may sound like contrived zen wisdom, you are actually better off without any of those piles of stuff. I strived to go paperless and now own an e-reader and small laptop. I found this is all I needed to finish my thesis. I believe it saved me immeasurable hassle.

However, if you do have a portable PhD, and are working in a country prone to spontaneous torrential downpours and unearthed electrical storms, you also need to take precautions. I always took an over-supply of surge protectors and had a laptop bag with a heavy rain cover. It goes without saying that you need to make multiple backups, kept in different locations, in case your whole bag gets lost or your office is flooded (which has happened to colleagues of mine).

The only ‘piles’ I couldn’t avoid were the paper-based surveys which comprised my main study, however they were easily stored in bundles of plastic sleeves and couriered back to Australia. I also found out the hard way that laptops with complete drafts of your thesis inside are more vulnerable to breaking on long jarring bus rides than you might expect. Luckily the back up in another bag was intact!

“Plans are nothing, planning is everything”, Eisenhower.

During my final seminar I was told the best chapter of my thesis was my methodology. I was surprised as I thought it was one of the drier chapters to write and most interminable to read. However, I think it was successful because I had to co-ordinate and explain exactly what I was doing to colleagues and supervisors across languages (with a translator) and time zones.

Don’t get me wrong, I know all PhD students put much thought into their methods. However if you are working mainly by yourself, you have the ability to deviate from the plan if new ideas come up. In my project this would have just caused confusion for all involved. The actual time frames for completing my activities changed frequently and suddenly, based on a everything from the wet season cutting off one field site to my research assistant giving birth. However, the fact I had an overall plan that I was forced to communicate simply and clearly meant we could pull the whole thing off in the end.

“You are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room”, Dr Seuss

I spent a hell of a lot of my spare time in the field by myself, generally in very basic hotel rooms. Whilst other international students could immerse themselves in volunteer work and other fun pursuits, guilt, and the need for some introversion, prevented me from doing this. Since none of the distractions that push their way into life at home are there, I found I had written large chunks of my thesis before I returned from each trip.

The down side of this is of course loneliness, although as other writers on this blog have noted, feeling lonely and marginalized is a common part of the PhD journey. In the end I think the loneliness at home was no worse than the loneliness when I was away. I came to value the solitude and chance to work uninterrupted while away. I also often had limited access to the internet, which I found made me more, rather than less productive.

I hope these tips may be useful to anyone else setting out on a similar adventure. It’s true that by choosing a field site more than 5km from my house I caused myself complications and headaches. However I don’t regret it, throughout the journey I made many valuable connections and strong friendships. I had the time to investigate a topic I love in more than one interesting place. There were times when it looked like everything was about to fall apart. In the end it came together, with a lot of patience and resourcefulness.

Author Bio: Linda Murray recently submitted her PhD on Maternal Mental Health in Central Vietnam through Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. Her thesis was completed on nine desks, in four cities and two countries. She now lives in Hobart, Tasmania and works part-time at the University of Tasmania teaching Global Health.