Collaborative Fieldwork

Having the opportunity to conduct fieldwork is, for me at least, one of the best bits of being a researcher. What’s not to love about travelling to exotic (or even not-so-exotic) locations and meeting interesting people? I also enjoy the serendipity and unpredictability of fieldwork. Despite the best-laid plans, there is no knowing what might happen tomorrow or when your research could take an unexpected turn.

Now that I have completed several trips to ‘the field’, I can see that my own approach to fieldwork has changed considerably. Perhaps this is just indicative of a learning curve that all researchers experience. In any case, I thought that I would raise the idea of collaborative fieldwork for those of you who are preparing to set out for ‘the field’ yourselves.

PhD research is, almost by definition, an individual pursuit. Earning your doctorate will ultimately depend on your ability to demonstrate to the examiners that you have made an original contribution to knowledge. In the social sciences and humanities, this is rarely achieved through group work. I suspect that this has something to do with why our fieldwork is, by and large, an individual activity as well. After all, it is at this stage of the research process when you collect the evidence necessary for making your all-important original contribution.

When I conducted my PhD fieldwork in Madagascar, I intuitively adopted the mindset of a solo investigator. Sure there were plenty of other people involved: research assistants, gatekeepers, participants, community leaders, and local acquaintances. But at the end of the day, the research was mine and I called the shots.

Compare that characterization to the fieldwork that I conducted in Papua New Guinea last month. In this instance, I was conducting research with a colleague from PNG and had brought along an Australian student to work as our RA. The research was also embedded in a longstanding relationship that my colleague has with our host community. So the research was not only mine and ours (the three-person research team), but also theirs (the participants). Coming up with an agenda that suited everyone required negotiation and flexibility. Not everything went to plan. But the three-person research team configuration in particular proved incredibly beneficial.

While my colleague and I facilitated the research activities, our RA documented the process. This meant that I could focus all of my energy on the participants and our interaction without worrying about whether the video cameras were working or trying to simultaneously lead a discussion and take detailed field notes. In the evenings, all three of us would get together to go over the day’s activities; often we recorded these conversations as well. Initially, it was surprising how we had each picked up on quite different details. Sometimes this could be attributed to vantage point, at others language skills. There is no doubt, however, that three heads were better than one.

This experience has made me wonder how much richer my PhD research might have been had I adopted a similar approach in Madagascar. I did arrive in the country on my own, but I could have easily built up the sort of three-person team described above. In fact, simply fostering a more collaborative relationship with my research assistants, rather than using them primarily as translators, might have made a considerable difference. It would have taken some work early on to train someone in documentation skills or set a precedent for discussing the day’s activities before heading our separate ways, but I now suspect that it would have been well worth the effort in the long run.

So, if you are starting to think about your own fieldwork, I would encourage you to consider how you might adopt a collaborative approach. It is still up to you to do the work, collect the evidence you need and write it up in a compelling way. But in the heady chaos of fieldwork, collaboration has strong advantages over going it alone.

Reasons For Starting A PhD

The other day I overheard someone say that he was planning to start a PhD because he thought he’d ‘make a good academic’. Fair enough, I suppose. There are any number of reasons why you might be thinking of (or already) pursuing a PhD, and when I overheard this particular comment I didn’t give it much thought. However, reasons why – or why not – to pursue a PhD became a recurrent theme last week, so I decided it was probably a topic worth writing about.

Good reasons for embarking on this particular brand of marathon could include:

  • You are passionate about your subject area
  • You love research
  • You love writing
  • You are looking for a new challenge
  • You are passionate about your subject area
  • You want to try your hand at fieldwork
  • You want to try your hand at teaching
  • You want to research and write a book

There are, no doubt, many others. But if you’re in the social sciences or humanities, ‘getting a job’ (or, indeed, that you think you might make a good academic) is not one of them.* It’s a bitter pill to swallow. But there it is just the same.

I don’t have any hard data on this, but the circumstantial evidence seems to strongly suggest that universities are producing far more PhD graduates than academic jobs. Meanwhile, tenure track positions are going the way of the British hedgehog: they’re still out there but fewer and farther between. You don’t have to take my word for it. These two articles about the plight of junior academics landed on my desk just this past week:

Meet your new professor: Transient, poorly paid

Thesis Hatement: Getting a literature PhD will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor 

If you are still determined to have a go at carving out an academic career, there are some things that you can do to improve your chances of landing that first adjunct or postdoc position.

First, seek out early career academics in your field and ask them about their strategy for landing a job. They almost certainly got lucky somewhere along the way, but at least some of that luck will have been the product of a lot of hard work. Also ask them about what they do in a typical week, and how that relates to their career-building strategy. The answers may surprise you.

Second, start taking on additional academic responsibilities. In addition to chipping away at your thesis research, a full time job in itself, consider:

  • Teaching undergraduate courses
  • Giving guest lectures
  • Enrolling in teaching training courses
  • Working as a research assistant
  • Helping senior academics with grant writing and development
  • Presenting at major international conferences
  • Organizing a regional or post-graduate conference
  • Enrolling in advanced methodology or analytical software courses
  • Serving on School or Departmental committees
  • Developing your ideas for your next research project
  • Publishing journal articles

All of these opportunities exist, and pursuing them shows that you are serious about an academic career. Being able to list these accomplishments on your CV will also set you apart from other applicants who focused solely on their thesis for the past however-many years.

That said, gaining this experience will require that you take a risk in putting yourself out there. Not all of your conference abstracts or journal articles will be accepted. Many of the opportunities listed above aren’t advertised, and securing them will require knocking on (perhaps more than) a few doors. Time management skills are also critical. None of this ‘extra’ experience will help you in your quest for an academic job if you don’t actually finish your PhD.

The road to full employment is no less precarious for social science and humanities PhDs looking for work in the private sector. And there is even less advice available. A good place to start, though, is So What Are You Going To Do With That: Finding careers outside academia by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. Also try finding a mentor outside of the academic bubble who can help you construct a resume that hiring managers might actually read.

There are plenty of good reasons for starting – and finishing – a PhD. Top among them, that we are creative, determined, hard-working, curious people who love research and are passionate about what we do. On one hand a PhD is a remarkable achievement, and on the other it is just another degree. Your PhD probably won’t land you a job. But there are other reasons to still pursue it.

*NOTE: This post primarily applies to people who will be looking for academic jobs in the United States and Europe. My experience of tertiary education systems in other parts of the world is severely limited, but I have heard that there are indeed places where the sector is growing. Your prospects might be better, for instance, if you’re willing to move to Asia.


It’s ok to fail

In his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson tells the harrowing story of Guillaume le Gentil:

Le Gentil set off from France a year ahead of time to observe the transit [of Venus] from India, but various setbacks left him still at sea on the day of the transit – just about the worst place to be since steady measurements were impossible on pitching ships.

Undaunted, le Gentil continued on to India to await the next transit in 1769. With eight years to prepare, he erected a first-rate viewing station, tested and retested his instruments, and had everything in a state of perfect readiness. On the morning of the second transit, June 4, 1769, he awoke to a fine day, but just as Venus began its pass, a cloud slid in front of the Sun and remained there for almost exactly the duration of the transit: three hours, fourteen minutes, and seven seconds.

Stoically, le Gentil packed up his instruments and set off for the nearest port, but en route he contracted dysentery and was laid up for nearly a year. Still weakened, he finally made it onto a ship. It was nearly wrecked in a hurricane off the African coast. When at last he reached home, eleven and a half years after setting off, and having achieved nothing, he discovered that his relatives had had him declared dead in his absence and had enthusiastically plundered his estate.

This is what we’ve chosen as researchers: a life of failure and rejection. In all seriousness, though, research is a process of trial and error almost by definition. It is hard. We do not always succeed. And that’s ok.

If our hypotheses were always spot on, if our procedures always worked exactly as expected – if life was really that predictable – there wouldn’t be much point in conducting research at all. Thankfully for those of us who love research, there are still plenty of things that we don’t know and don’t understand that require investigation. That said, the arduous process of developing new knowledge is replete with surprises and setbacks.

Not knowing any more about le Gentil or his story than what’s written above, I would still question the assertion that he “achieved nothing.” He may not have achieved what he set out to, but that should not by default mean that the entire adventure was without merit. I suspect that the experience of spending eight years in a foreign culture mastering his instruments must have had some unanticipated (and perhaps undocumented) benefits. In my own case, arriving in the field only to find my methods unsuitable was a fortuitous fork in the road. A nightmare at the time, this wholly unexpected scenario presented an opportunity to change tack and experiment with visual methods. Five years later, visual methodology is at the core of my research agenda. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but it has certainly been an interesting one.

In some ways, I have also been incredibly lucky. Although my PhD fieldwork did not go at all according to plan, my essentially made-up method worked well enough that I was able to return home with sufficient data to successfully complete my thesis on schedule. Not everyone is so lucky. And I’m not so lucky all of the time. Sometimes despite doing everything right, our research still goes awry. A cloud passes in front of the sun. What then?

I don’t know when or how it started, but a culture has developed in academia that rewards ‘success!!’ at the expense of knowledge and understanding. We are under enormous pressure to get it right. Some, though not all, of this pressure comes from the need to publish (‘as much as possible!!’). Journals accept papers that present significant (i.e. positive) findings. Professor Keith Laws recently observed that:

This publication bias* is pervasive and systemic, afflicting researchers, reviewers and editors – all of whom seem symbiotically wed to journals pursuing greater impact from ever more glamorous or curious findings.

He goes on to say that the solution is not the creation of special journals that publish negative or null findings. (An idea I’ve personally heard discussed on more than one occasion.) Instead, Laws argues that we need to make room for these “unloved” findings in mainstream journals. True, this depends in part on the cooperation of reviewers and editors. It also depends on us; we supply the content.

About a year ago, I submitted a manuscript to a top methodology journal. The article details three attempts a photographic data collection, two of which were only moderately successful. The third attempt was undertaken in conditions that were far from ideal and was largely unsuccessful as a result. One reviewer picked up on this, questioning why I chose to proceed with the research. I responded truthfully that that’s the nature of my work. The article is now in press.

In a previous post, Monica voiced concern that university metrics encourage the mass-production of ‘plywood’ rather than oak- or mahogany-quality research. The expectation that our research will churn out positive results (within a 2-3 year timeframe) compounds the problem and changes the very nature of the endeavor. Sometimes your procedure won’t go to plan. Sometimes your results won’t be what you expected. Sometimes a cloud passes in front of the sun at exactly the wrong moment. That’s the harsh reality of research. And, it’s ok.

(And if we’re bold, we can even get it published: warts, failings and all.)

*I don’t think that psychology is so different from other social science disciplines.

Call for Papers – IVSA Annual Conference

Lisa Petheram and I will be co-chairing the panel Who, when & why: Critical perspectives on (new) visual methods at the 2013 International Visual Sociology Association (IVSA) Annual Conference in London from 8 – 10 July 2013.

The full call for papers and details about the conference are available on the conference website

Abstracts are due 31 March 2013

Who, when & why: Critical perspectives on (new) visual methods

Visual methods are now accepted across a range of disciplines and seem to be attracting the interest of a growing number of researchers. Reflecting on these developments, Pauwels[1] has recently suggested that there “should definitely be room for more experimentation” in visual research, further specifying that “audacious” experimentation must always be accompanied by an explanation of what the audience is looking at.

We welcome this invitation to explore the validity and potential of innovations in visual methodology. When writing up their use of visual techniques, however, researchers commonly prioritise the what (i.e. type of visual material) and how (i.e. approach) of their work. As new visual methods emerge and existing methods are adapted, the whowhen, and why of visual research demand critical reflection. Is it appropriate, for instance, to use visual methods with all potential research participants?  How might contextual factors influence the ultimate success or failure of a visual research project? Researchers adopting visual methods could also be more open about the limitations of their approaches and the potential dangers of implementing existing visual methods in new contexts. This panel will critically reflect on these less-discussed aspects of new visual methods and practice.

We are particularly interested in papers that:

  • Explore the limitations of new visual methods or innovations on established visual techniques;
  • Challenge established parameters of visual research;
  • Problematize the process of integrating visual materials and methods with other research techniques;
  • Investigate the replicability of visual methods with different types of participants, in new contexts or for novel research purposes;
  • Emphasise the importance of (researcher and participant) reflexivity in the development and implementation of new visual methods;
  • Reflect on the production and use of visual products as a way of representing findings (derived from visual research) to stakeholders, decision-makers and other audiences.

Paper proposals can be sent to l.hinthorne [at] and Lisa.Petheram [at]

[1] Pauwels L (2012) Contemplating the State of Visual Research: An Assessment of Obstacles and Opportunities. In: Pink, S. (ed) Advances in Visual Methodology. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, pp. 248-264.

Making up for Lost Time: Some thoughts on working from home

It has been a while since my last post. The Christmas holidays soon gave way to January; February came and went in a blur; and here we are. Time flies – whether you’re having fun or not. (And particularly when you’re coming up against a deadline, whether for your PhD or a journal publication.)

I also made the decision that I wouldn’t post merely for the sake of posting. There is far too much nonsense populating the internet already without me adding to it. For the past several weeks I haven’t felt like I had anything worthwhile to say.

…And then Marissa Mayer (the CEO of Yahoo) announced that Yahoo employees would no longer be allowed to work from home.

For many PhD students, working from home is not so much a choice as an inevitability. When I was completing my PhD, office space was at a premium. Those with teaching responsibilities had priority, but with three of us sharing a tiny room containing two desks, the only time I set foot in that cubbyhole was during my office hour. I could be wrong, but I suspect that my experience was not all that unusual. I had a friend at a different university who even held her office hour in a coffee shop.

So, given that many of us work from home – for lack of an office or otherwise – how can we make sure that we work from home effectively?

The decision at Yahoo has prompted a fair bit of discussion on this topic. The Guardian, for instance, recently posted 5 “Golden Rules” of working from home. I found two of these particularly relevant to my experience of writing a PhD thesis from home.

The first golden rule is to “make a sacred space.” Even if you aren’t going in to the office every day, it is still a good idea to have a dedicated workspace. Easier said than done, you might be thinking. Few PhD candidates that I’ve known have had a spare room that could be converted into a home office. Odds are, you’re probably living in a shared house or, like me, in a studio apartment. Even in cramped conditions, it is still possible to carve out a little corner for your regular workspace.

The other option is to adopt a coffee shop. I wrote my entire Masters dissertation and the better part of my PhD thesis at Starbucks. I would aim to be there by 9:30am and would often stay until 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Whenever possible, I would sit in the same spot. Whether at home or in a coffee shop or someplace else, your sacred workspace should be somewhere that you actually like to be. You’re unlikely to be at your most productive in an environment that you hate (like my 3 person, 2 desk cubbyhole of an office). I’ve yet to find a coffee shop in Brisbane where I can work as effectively as I did in York. Now when I work from home, my sacred space is my kitchen table.

The second golden rule is to “go on a digital diet.” For many of us, checking our email (or facebook or twitter) has become a compulsion. The internet can be particularly seductive when you’re meant to be writing a thesis chapter. Pausing to check a reference on the electronic library catalogue is the first step down the slippery slope to online procrastination.

The Guardian rules suggest rationing your time spent online, using an internet blocker if necessary. I’ve found that it is best if I get up and start writing as soon as possible. If I can get from the bedroom to the kitchen table without doing anything other than brushing my teeth and making a cup of coffee, it will be a good writing day. By contrast, if I check my email first thing in the morning (which, coincidentally, generally happens on days that I’m in the office), I almost inevitably end up succumbing to the various other demands on my time and am lucky if I get any writing done at all.

As in all things, moderation is key. And, for me, the key to cutting down on digital distractions is to implement a working-from-home routine that cuts out those distractions altogether for at least four hours. If I need to check an obscure reference or follow up on a particularly relevant journal article, I make a note of it and do all of my checking in the afternoon.

We all work differently – the main thing is to get the work done. As a PhD candidate, you have the luxury of setting your own hours and maintaining your own schedule, but you should still be putting in full days. Establishing some rules of working from home for yourself can make the difference between a drafted thesis chapter and a whole lot of lost time.