By Ian MacNeill |

Unlike Deiderik Strubbe, whose fieldwork related mishap is one of many amusing anecdotes included in Jim Jourdane’s recent illustrated collection of ‘Fieldwork Fails,’ (Handy link here), I cannot claim to have once been detained by a NATO security team in the pursuit of research data. In fact, while my PhD fieldwork has taken me to some interesting places – including prisons, football stadiums, and the odd portacabin – the most amusing anecdote I can come up with is from a time I visited a prison in England. What was meant to be brief interview with a young person soon descended into a farce when it became clear no one had acted on my request to book a space for the interview. After being ushered into several rooms, and then ushered out again when someone else arrived to claim the room, I found myself trying to conduct an interview in a damp store cupboard that smelled like the tent you unpack 2 years after your last visit to Glastonbury and filled variously with the contorted carcases of several plastic Christmas trees and a decrepit photocopier. Needless to say, the interview wasn’t the best.

What I am trying to get at is that PhD fieldwork, as an afternoon spent looking at #fieldworkfails on Twitter will attest, can be a rich area of comedy. However, humour aside, it is also a process upon which the success of many of our doctorates rest. While some PhDs involve the analysis of secondary data or digging into the pasts of people long deceased, some of us have to get out into the real world. When researching this post, I came across some fabulous sounding PhDs involving visits to exotic locales around the world – I’m not jealous, honest – and while my PhD fieldwork did not involve travelling to anywhere more exotic than the north-west of England (lovely on a sunny day), I have some reflections on the process that could prove useful.

Learn from those who have gone before you

If your institution offers courses on fieldwork then I would strongly suggest you attend them. I took on board the advice of several PhD students when writing this post (many thanks to @BethiaP ) and they found these courses to be invaluable. They typically draw on previous student experiences and those currently in the field, which can be especially important sources of support if you are conducting fieldwork abroad or in a different language (which is a blog post all of its own I feel – any takers?). Again, if in doubt ask your supervisors, fellow students or even Twitter.

Lists, lists and more lists.

There will be some items that you cannot live without during your fieldwork (a diary, Dictaphone, batteries, multiple pens, travel tickets, hotel booking references, PHONE CHARGER, and possibly a sweet treat to distract an enraged African Rhino) and some things best left at home (do you really need to take your Raspberry Pi in the hope that you can play Mario Kart?). However, you are likely not to remember the distinction between these items if you don’t carefully plan what you are going to need. Things might go wrong on your way to the research site but you want to arrive as best prepared as you can be … SO MAKE A LIST, immediately.

Congratulations! You’re actually in the field (now the real work begins)Typically, PhD students begin fieldwork sometime in their second year – having spent most of the previous year knee deep in literature and methodological text books it can feel quite daunting when you have to leave your comfy desk and favourite mug behind. One of the things I initially really struggled with was nerves. My fieldwork involved meeting quite a lot of people very quickly, and then having to work alongside them for several weeks. If you are going to be working alongside people for a few weeks try and not rush the first few days; take the time to acquaint yourself with the lifeworld of your research setting and figure out how things work – also, offering to put the kettle on at regular intervals is a nice icebreaker.

Events, dear boy, events: delays are inevitable!

No matter how many times we are told this by supervisors or other academics, I still get the sense we PhD students are over ambitious in terms of how quickly we think we can get all our fieldwork done. I’m going to state this bluntly: You will never get your fieldwork done as quickly as you think. Delays could be the result of difficulties trying to recruit participants or accessing a research site, or you could be like me and your knees will explode when you are playing football. The point being, something will always upset your perfectly drawn up timetable. At this point I think it is important to remember that you can only control so much of the process.

Keep a diary

At the end of each day of fieldwork, I always set aside some time to scribble down my thoughts from the day. Writing down what you did, how you did it, and reflecting on how you could have done anything differently, will come in useful when you are writing up. Remember, the people examining your thesis were not there when you did your fieldwork. You need to be able to explain to them what you did and why you did it.

Take some time to clear your head

Fieldwork can become all consuming. Finding something different to do in the evenings, or at some point during the day, can be really useful for helping you to clear your head. Whether it’s going for a walk, watching a terrible movie, or taking a good book to read in a cosy pub, doing something completely different for a few hours gives you that space to allow you to come back the next day with renewed energy and curiosity. Although, I should point out that doing a pub quiz by yourself is pretty rubbish.

Lastly, enjoy it!!

You will miss the time you spent in the field when it is gone; especially when all that is facing you is several months of staring at a computer screen willing the thoughts that are milling around your brain to magically appear on the screen.

Ian is entering the 3rd Year of his PhD (eek!) which is exploring the potential for sports-based programmes to support young prison leavers. He is the one of the Publicity Editors for Pubs and Publications. You can find him on Twitter: @IanAlexanderMac

Image: Flickr