The post fieldwork blues



I have just returned from fieldwork in the wonderful, scary, full-on adventure that is Papua New Guinea, a small nation in the South Pacific with the overused but apt byline, ‘The Land of the Unexpected’. A 1.5 hour flight from my home town of Cairns, Australia transports me to this amazing country with over 800 languages, incredible cultural and spiritual diversity, some personal risk and many more wonderful opportunities.

Coming back to Australia from PNG brings on the blues.

I love being ‘in the field’. I learn so much more when in situ, there is so much action, I have instant feedback about ideas and observations, build amazing relationships, speak in a different language with material for writing thick descriptions everywhere I move!

Coming back to the rarified university environment after such an experience is a real downer. The return is hard. Literature seems boring and one-dimensional in comparison. Some of it may be culture shock, but I suspect not as I have been visiting or living in Melanesia on and off for 20 years. The real problem is that I have had trouble settling down to my PhD since I have come back.

The implications for me are:

    li>I having trouble getting back into ‘mundane’ activities such as writing

  • I feel ‘lonely’ for my Pacific colleagues…the solitary nature writing a PhD crashes with relational experiences in the field
  • There is a lack of opportunity for immediate feedback from the people I am working with (second guessing positions instead of ‘co-creating’ knowledge)
  • My perspective changes about what really matters, with writing my PhD sometimes sliding down that ‘what matters’ list.
  • My perspective has changed when I return from the field, but this is not always mirrored by my supervisors. How do I authentically express this shift and not lose my ‘good student’ cred?
  • This poem captures some of these implications (written upon my recent return to Australia).

    Post Fieldwork Blues

    I’m back home
    to my loved ones
    my cat, my barista.

    Clean nails, quiet streets.
    Water runs, phone rings
    but the night is empty

    Little family, couple or person

    Each in their big house
    TV on, internet flashing
    One, by one, by one
    All in a row.

    I breathe you in chaos
    As the field returns
    Swirling, swinging, memory to memory

    Busyness to busyness
    Images whoosh, rush,
    Scream on in

    Red teeth spitting, bus brakes screeching
    Women gardening, men gossiping
    Bright colours mismatched

    Against the backdrop of blue.
    Pikininis play, a Milo can their ball
    Clanging on the rocky, potholed street.
    We women walk hand-in-hand

    The drains are dug and redug, the path eclipsed by
    mud, even now between my toes.

    As evening falls, harmonic singing begins
    Food is consumed, laughter is shared
    A fight is heard down the street.
    The night settles, guitar softly strummed
    Fragrant frangipani fog.

    How will I write this? How is this new?
    Defensible, academic it must be
    I want to return
    To share in some more.
    My soul and blank page
    Are unsettled.

    So what can be done to turn around the post fieldtrip blues? How do I integrate the experience and get on with the task of writing the PhD? A few ideas that have worked for me include:

    • Reconnecting with my PhD support network here in my home town (and in e-space)
    • Email those that I can in PNG to tie up loose ends, say thank yous and express the joy of being in their country. It is nice to for me to know I can still be in touch, even if it is a different kind of ‘touch’
    • Hug my husband and kids, all at once if possible!
    • Take the time to be gentle with myself, initially not too hurried
    • Write, journal or write poetry about observations that become clearer out of the fieldwork context
    • Revisit my academic calendar. How many days do I really have left to write that thesis?

    What is it like for those doing PhDs who go home to do fieldwork and then return to Australia or other countries to continue study? What do you miss about home? What are you glad to get back to?

    And for those who hated their field work, felt unsafe, had a bad experience, felt lonely, that the place was nothing like they imagined? What was coming home like for you? Does knowing the field well make a difference to the post field trip experience (and the subsequent disruption to post fieldwork PhD activity)?

    Author Bio: Michelle Redman-MacLaren, who is passionate about working in the Pacific, especially with women. She is currently undertaking a PhD about the impact of male circumcision for women in PNG, including women’s risk of HIV transmission. Michelle and colleagues are also exploring faith-based responses to HIV and research capacity strengthening PNG and Solomon Islands.