5 Tips for Surviving Your Fieldwork Year

Reflections October 2, 2013 11:40 am

Disclaimer: my fieldwork is all outside of the US, and primarily ethnographic. Staying local or doing archival research are bound to come with their own, unique demands. And/or you may be a better-adjusted individual than I am, and have had totally different experiences. So please do us all a favor and supplement this post with your own tips and tidbits on how to make your advisor proud and do fieldwork year right.


So you’ve survived your general exams. The dissertation proposal is done (well, almost…), and you’re finally ready to get out there and do what it is you came to grad school for in the first place: that awesome research project you’ve been talking up for the past 2+ years. More advanced students and professors alike have been telling you, “you’ll see, that’s the fun part, fieldwork–you get to do your own thing,” and you’ve held on to that promise through the hellaciousness of first year, round after round of grant writing, reading for generals, taking generals… You’ve paid your dues–it’s time to finally hit the road and get this party started.

Except that…well, if you’re only now–after generals, hitting the road for the first time, you’re technically kind of behind already.

5 tips for surviving your fieldwork year

1. Start before your fieldwork year. 

If at all possible, carry out a preliminary visit to your intended field site(s).

Especially for the anthropologically inclined among us, preliminary fieldwork is regularly touted by advisors and the like for helping you to clarify your questions, assess the feasibility of your proposed project, etc. All true. But in addition, traveling to your field site for a few weeks before the actual start of your project can make the difference between developing alcoholic tendencies and settling into a nice, monotonous routine when you move to your field site to carry out your research. For me, that first visit to Holland in 2011 meant that when I returned this past June, I had 2.5 instead of 0 friends when I landed in Amsterdam. Those 2.5 gifts from above made the difference between living in an overpriced high-rise on the outskirts of Amsterdam in 2011 (which I only found upon landing in Holland) and having 3 different sublets in 2013, lined up before even leaving Cambridge, all in great locations, and all cheaper than the high-rise (and my apartment in Union Square).

You get my point: putting in the blood-sweat-tears to figure out how to navigate day-to-day life in your field site before you really need to get anything done will give you the room when you come back for your extended stay to actually focus on the work you’ve come to do.

Ok. So, you’ve been a good grad student and went to check out your field site the summer after year 2. Good. Now, with generals behind you and the prospectus in(-ish), you’re packing up all your earthly possessions, and slowly realizing that for the next 12 months or so, you’ll be living out of 2 suitcases/backpacks and will have to make a brand new home for yourself, in some faraway place where you only know 2.5 people and only marginally speak the language.

Depending on how you’ve felt about being in Cambridge, that thought might fill you with excitement. In my case, it wasn’t excitement so much as TERROR that coursed through my being when that realization came crashing down. Which brings me to tip #2:


2. Don’t underestimate what feeling “at home” does for your psyche.

I’ve found one of the hardest things in my admittedly young life to be the feeling of rootlessness, of being ungrounded. And while traveling has its draws, there’s quite a difference between traveling for vacation, even a working one, and moving somewhere for several months, for work. In the first case, you’re only passing through–the unusual is amusing or intriguing, even if mildly annoying; though you miss your favorite coffee, your partner, your friends, you know you’ll get back to them all soon enough; you’re more often than not on the outside, looking in.

In the second case, the whole point is to somehow make it in–or as close to in as possible–if not for methodological reasons, then for practical ones–because you have to figure out how to navigate this new, unusual world for the next couple of hundred days. You have to figure out where to find your new favorite coffee, how to make new friends, and perhaps revisit your rules against long-distance relationships. All sounds like an adventure, an opportunity for discovery, right? Right. Except it can turn into a pretty darn exhausting affair when you’re on this adventure while also trying to work on this little research project that will, oh you know, just define the rest of your entire career.

Ok I’m being dramatic. But you get it: the typical fieldwork duration–a year or so–is long enough to require that you settle in, to put down some roots, but short enough to actually preclude you from really doing so — especially if you’re doing multi-sited work that has you moving back and forth between different places. For that reason, I consider figuring out how to feel at home while in the field to be of the utmost importance for a positive (or bearable?) Fieldwork year. The first step is to figure out what makes you feel at home/settled/grounded.

what being away from home feels like, at its worst

what being away from home feels like, at its worst

For me, I’ve distilled that down to a few things: feeling connected to people–having people who (might) miss me when I’m not around; incense; knowing how to get from one place to the next, and how to get the things that sustain me in this new place; access to healthy, preferably flavorful, vegetarian food; living in a clean place where I have room to withdraw and binge watch Netflix as needed; a regular workout routine…


3. Take as many as possible of the things that make you feel safe with you.

Of course you can’t take everything, but find a way to pack that sweatshirt you always change into as soon as you get home from school–even if it’s too bulky; or a couple boxes of your favorite incense sticks, or your favorite lotion, or your favorite coffee–find a way to make it fit. You’ll of course come to have a new favorite sweatshirt and a lotion you like even more than the old one from home, but it might take a little while. And having these things on hand as soon as you land will feel like slipping into home for just a few moments each day.

A little gesture that might make you love yourself forever, is to pack some of the things that feel like home and that you weren’t able to take with you in an easily accessible place, for when you first get back. Reuniting with your favorite winter hat two hours after landing at home can be just the reminder you need that you do have a place/fit somewhere.


4. Cultivate your support network.

With the folks at home: have a plan for staying in touch–not only does it lessen the feeling that life at home is moving on without you, but it also makes it quite a bit easier to fill people in on your time away when you come back; have people visit you in your field site, if possible; ask folks at home to connect you to good friends they know where you’re going; know when you’ll be home next, make plans with folks for when you come back (I may be especially emotionally needy, but I would even recommend planning something for the day you come back–while there’s something tremendously heartwarming about the guy at au bon pain saying he hasn’t seen you in a while, it can be a bit depressing if he’s the only person welcoming you home after a long, isolating trip abroad).

In the field: figure out how to connect with people who are into the same things as you; if that fails, consider at least knowing where the expats hang out. (I often find expat communities very disturbing and problematic; but you may hit a rough patch where you really just want to moan to someone who gets it firsthand about how hard it is to be a foreigner “in this place.” so even if you don’t make them your new BFFs, it’s often worth it to know where to find them, the expats).

And as corny as it may sound, I’ve found meetup.com to be quite useful–typing in “running group Amsterdam” landed me what became my anchor throughout the summer: my Saturday morning running group. Turns out that people in Amsterdam who get up early on Saturday mornings to go running for fun have quite a lot to talk about with people from Cambridge who get up early on Saturday mornings to go running for fun.

If you like having an academic community, your advisor might have contacts (or know someone who has contacts) at a local institution; see if you can join seminars, or attend talks.


5. Take some downtime during fieldwork.

Watching people do what they do, talking to them, and taking notes on it all doesn’t seem like such backbreaking work. Except when it is. It can feel like being in a seminar for 8 straight hours a day, 5 days a week, for 9-12 months straight. You have to be “on,” pay attention, you’re constantly trying to make sense of what you’re seeing, checking in with yourself to make sure you’re on track, coming up with new things to follow up on, thinking about how you’re going to put it all together, sorting through how to not screw up the relationships you’ve worked so hard to develop… At its best it can all be exhilarating; at its worst, exhausting. So make downtime a part of your practice.

A big-shot academic in Amsterdam told me I shouldn’t plan on being at my field site 5 days a week, for starters. Work in some half-days, a weekday off here and there to collect your thoughts, fill in your notes, or just to think about something else, do something else–nap, take a daytrip, watch movies, go check out that exhibit you’ve been meaning to.. Plan a short vacation in a nearby city–maybe when friends come visit? Mark the milestones in your research—like reaching the halfway point, wrapping things up at one site, having a breakthrough in your archival digs. Take a week off even if you’re not going anywhere… You and your work will be better for it in the long run. I not only came back from a long weekend escape to Paris this summer feeling refreshed, but also with a newfound sense of gratitude for doing this work, and new fieldwork ideas and possibilities. Remember: you don’t get extra points on the dissertation for having a nervous breakdown or getting mono while in the field.

what fieldwork can feel like, at its best

what fieldwork can feel like, at its best


So there you have it: a few tidbits from a slightly neurotic 5th year, 3 months into her fieldwork year. Hopefully something in here makes your time out in the wilderness of The Field a little bit less miserable.

Now go–go forth, and make Papa Malinowski proud!

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