A NOOB’s Guide to Academic Field Work – 8 dos and don’ts
1. DO keep an open mind. As cliche as this sounds; flexibility, cultural tolerance, and a ready smile will get you a long way in the field. People in this environment will generally respond well to someone willing to wear chitenje just for fun, eat tiny salty fish, and get their hands dirty. Some of my most memorable experiences in Malawi have been when I took a chance on something that scared me, something beyond my normal frame of reference. In the context of field work, I have learned a lot about research, about intercultural work places, and about my own academic interests and aspirations just by opening my mind to a wealth of new ideas and knowledge.
2. DO NOT expect things to go as planned. This does not mean that you should go without a plan, it just means that becoming stressed or belligerent when things change is a waste of energy. Written in bold and friendly letters on the cover of my moleskine notebook are the words “DON’T PANIC”. This is good advice, especially when you consider that inside the notebook are pages of detailed plans that I made in Denmark or Canada, 40-60% of which are not practical in this environment.
3. DO offer solutions. Everyone can come up with problems: the roads are blocked, there is no fuel in Malawi, we don’t have enough money in the budget, my tummy hurts. Truth be told, spotting these problems is an art unto itself. That being said, a willingness to work and sacrifice to provide solutions is a vital and admirable trait in someone doing field research. Yes, I am willing to share a room. Yes, I will buy fuel for the project at the expense of that carved elephant I was eyeing. No, I have no problem playing mother to our much abused budget. I am here to make things work and wear as many hats as are necessary to complete the field work in a timely and satisfactory manner.
4. DO NOT eat salad. I know this has next to nothing to do with field work but trust me, if you are out for 3 days with a severe stomach flu… things may fall apart around you.
5. DO accept executive decisions. Sometimes you need to accept that the PIs have a specific vision for the project and your job as a facilitator is to manifest that vision. Swallow your pride, it won’t do you much good anyways.
6. DO learn. As much and as often as possible. Relish the special and general knowledge that you will take home with you. Share the things that you have learned with others and encourage them to learn as well. Pass off portions of the project periodically (holy alliteration Batman!) to local staff members. Capacity building in research may have it’s dark side, but the “teach a man to fish” crowd have a worthwhile point.
7. DO NOT compare field work living conditions with those you experience at home. They are bound to be vastly different and each offers its own unique blessings. If you spend your whole time in the field complaining about the lack of – cheese, dark chocolate, western toilets, clean tap water, laundromats, non-rabid dogs, etc. – or the excess of – giant bugs, nausea inducing parasites, hustlers, odors, shared spaces etc.- you will probably drive yourself insane. The most fun people to work with in the field are those who throw themselves wholeheartedly into their new environment, who laugh about getting a bit “sick”, who long for salmon but happily chow down on chicken and rice for the 14th day in a row.
8. DO take time out to be alone. Field work usually involves a lot of meetings, collaborative work, and many hours spent with the same people. Though these people are invariably lovely and hard working, taking some time to yourself will help you stay sane. These me-times do not have to be scheduled… just go for a wander when you have an extra 15 minutes, take some quiet time to read, or wake up early in the morning and watch the sun rise.
And above all else – enjoy. Allow yourself to connect: to the place, to the project, to the people you meet.