In the waiting room of field work

It’s been fairly long time since I have managed to write anything in here. Loads has happened of course, but time just seems to escape from you when you are not only busy but primarily confused. It is written in all the handbooks, your supervisor tells you this, as well as your peers who’ve “been there, done that”, and you yourself even might have experiences from field work, but it still takes you by surprise how lonely it is, how confused you are, and how basically everything you planned to do never works out and you have to come up with a completely new game plan. So welcome to my reality of the last couple of months.

The trouble is of course that you are trying to do something incredibly hard in three years. To be fair, for a lot of things three years is a great deal…Let’s face it, for completing a marathon, finishing reading all of the Harry Potter books, for building a house or for realising that purple just isn’t your colour, three years is plenty. But for writing a PhD that requires an original idea, a thoughtfully crafted theoretical foundation, handsome literature review and a solid methodology that is both achievable and rigorous….just as the foundation of getting you to a position where you can actually start collecting data and analyse it in a manner that offers an original contribution to science, three years flies by at lightning speed with you barely holding on to the reigns.

My carefully crafted plan went out the window pretty much during the first month and it’s been an uphill battle ever since to start making sense of the reality that I am studying, and how to honestly interpret and represent what I am witnessing. I have come to narrow this whole second year of PhD to a lot of self-doubt, hatred, confusion and self-pity. A fairly loathsome experience all in all.

When you start collecting data…

  1. You quickly realise how the only reason your data exists is to confuse you. It does not represent what your neatly crafted theory originally suggested it would represent.
  2. You panic cause your neatly crafted theory is in pieces.
  3. You calm yourself down and decide that your theory still works, and that the data not fitting the theory is a research finding and will help you develop the theory further.
  4. But now you need to readjust your approach to accommodate the change in course and development of theory aspect into it as well
  5. And you touch your research questions. Let’s just change this a little, and that one a little, and well, let’s omit that and replace it with that. There, now my research questions fit the theoretical framework
  6. But by this point your methodology has become flawed. Wait, I didn’t ask this is my interview and now I don’t have data to respond to my newly adjusted research questions.
  7. At this point you also start to wonder if you need some statistical analysis to back up your qualitative data.
  8. You start to hyperventilate cause the remote thought of having to use SPSS pops in your head
  9. By this time you’ve already questioned the validity of your data, theory, methodology and research questions and feel like the entire foundation of your project is gone.
  10. If you only read a bit more, then maybe this will all start making sense again. You just need to know a bit more about x, y, and z.
  11. By this time you are trawling through Google Scholar downloading everything and anything that might bear relevance to your topic, printing out articles, categorising them according to topic, year, author, or whatever and pile them in front of you like a giant paper monster.
  12. You start reading the first article and realise it’s rather irrelevant to your topic…you do the same to a couple of others. And finally abandon the task after a few completed chapters, realising this whole thing is just making you more confused.
  13. You leave your desk to do anything but research, clean your house, do laundry, scrub the toilet and find the joy in little things in life, and begin to dream of simpler times where none of these worries exist. Would it really be that bad to work at Tesco?
  14. Eventually you force yourself to return to the theory and convince yourself it is still good and valid, this thing will work out, and return to the data.
  15. You go through steps 1-15 again in about 30 days time.

Kuvankaappaus 2016-3-2 kello 10.41.26And then there’s the mundane task of actually doing the field work. In my case it is almost literal field work…I am actually often surrounded by fields or some nature in a rural community somewhere in the bitter cold of Japan. To be honest, field work is a lot of waiting around….for e-mails, for phones calls, for rides, for trains, for busses, and for people to turn up (only to get a last minute message from them saying they can’t make it). You are wholly reliant on other people for your data, especially if you are doing work with people.

While I do get to spend a lot of time in the communities and “out there” so to speak, it is hardly the Jane Goodall type of romanticised sitting around in beautiful nature observing your surroundings and the beings within, making notes on crusty old notebooks and simply being serene about the task in front of you (OK, I’m sure this is not what even Jane did…but this is how field work is often portrayed isn’t it). My days consist of a lot of sitting around in the office, preparing paperwork, fiddling with language, translation, answering e-mails, checking train times, looking up maps and transport links. And then there’s the endless tirade of endless progress reports, supervision forms, funding applications, conference papers, field trip reports, etc that also need completing.

But despite all this, there are of course nice sides to field work as well. Visiting the research sites, meeting members of communities, having long conversations with your research participants, and in general, witnessing and experiencing the kindness of strangers make the effort worth your while. Hearing people share their stories is an incredibly satisfying, and humbling experience. If you strip it down to its bear bones, they are essentially pouring information on you so that you can gain a PhD…and perhaps, contribute to the advancement of knowledge on a larger scale, somewhere down the line. I do hope, and strive towards research that gives immediate returns to the participants as well, if not in anything else but in the knowledge that their stories get told honestly and in a form that represents the reality as they witness and experience it.

All in all fieldwork can be a satisfying experience, and mostly is. But it is also mundane and wholly unglamorous part of the PhD experience. As in fact is the entire PhD. But we do it anyway because it gets us closer to our goals, it feeds our hunger for knowledge and teaches us values on being rigorous and thorough when analysing the views of those we study. I am grateful for this experience, even though at the moment I fell this is one of the most confusing times in my professional life (I say professional because I do feel PhD should be treated a s a job, but that’s another are of discussion for the future).

Out of chaos comes clarity.


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