Fieldwork – “leaving one’s home institution in order to acquire data, information, or insights that significantly inform one’s research”

(Kapiszewski, MacLean, and Read 2015: 1)

– has long been a cornerstone of social science research. It is a remarkably diverse enterprise: ‘doing fieldwork’ can mean carrying out archival research, interviews, surveys, focus groups, participant observation, ethnography, or experiments. Fieldwork is also quite valuable: it helps orient scholars toward under-addressed ontological questions, including whether many of the concepts that we routinely study actually exist ‘out there’ in the world, or at least exist in the form that our theories postulate. Fieldwork also enables scholars to take measurement seriously, as sometimes our indicators and scales do not accurately describe or quantify our concepts. Fieldwork, in short, is vital in aligning social science concepts and measurement with the real world that we seek to study.

Despite these significant benefits, fieldwork prompts vexing ethical considerations, and sometimes places scholars and/or subjects in situations of extreme risk. Moreover, fieldwork is undeniably mentally and physically taxing. It is this last concern that is the focus of this post. I offer a range of suggestions for maintaining one’s mental and physical health while carrying out fieldwork, based on having spent three years living in India conducting archival research, interviews, surveys, and ethnographic work (meaning I am focusing on overseas fieldwork). Some of these insights may seem obvious, but they are all worth reiterating. With a proper understanding of the potential pitfalls of fieldwork, as well as a clear plan for combating problems, scholars can mitigate – although never entirely overcome – fieldwork challenges to health.

Your Mental Health

Studies show that graduate students in the United States experience high rates of mental illness, including depression and anxiety. Although there do not appear to be studies that are focused specifically on students who conduct fieldwork, it is easy to hypothesize why spending time overseas could exacerbate mental health issues. Fieldwork cuts you off from your institution, and – more importantly – your family and friends. And fieldwork is frustrating: it often involves surmounting myriad bureaucratic hurdles, understanding and adhering to new cultural norms and mores, and scholars may feel that time spent in the field has to yield publishable findings. But there are concrete steps that can be taken to maintain one’s mental health while abroad.  

The first step is preparation. Before going to India for my dissertation – with a plan to study six cases over the course of 200 years – one of my advisors asked me, “What is the minimum amount of work you could do that would still constitute a dissertation?” Was it, for example, three cases over 100 years? It was a good question. You will have a plan of what you want to accomplish during fieldwork, but your chances of accomplishing all of it are slim. So what constitutes ‘success’ and ‘failure’? Answering this question before you travel will spare you a lot of grief. Similarly, one other question to ask is: “What happens if everything goes wrong?” What if the people you wanted to interview suddenly decide they don’t want to be interviewed (this happened to me many times)? What if the archival material you thought existed doesn’t actually exist? Think about the worst case scenario(s) and have a back-up plan before you start your research. And reach out to those who have worked in your field site before – they can probably help you avoid the grimmest outcomes.

Once you are in the field, I would suggest three things for maintaining your mental health. First, stay connected with others. My advisor’s advisor once told me a story about mailing letters from India to the United States (via boat) and waiting months for a reply. Thankfully those days are long gone. Today a range of widely-used apps – Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, etc. – enable easy communication with loved ones back home, including the opportunity to make video calls. This is invaluable. Sometimes communicating like this is not possible in locales with weak (or no) internet connections, but if you have an internet connection (tip: invest in mobile broadband if you can afford it), you should be using it to connect with people back home on a regular basis.

This only solves half the dilemma, however. What do you do in country to forge social connections? Joining clubs, going to cafés, and taking up hobbies are all good bets to meet new people. Local universities usually have a range of social events that you can attend. Another thing that has made a major difference for me is meeting other expats. For example, when I was a Fulbright scholar in India from 2017-18, the Fulbright Commission sent out a monthly email spreadsheet with the location of all of the other Fulbrighters in the country. This way, you could always reach out to other Americans in your city. If you’re not on a grant that does this, you might reach out to professional associations – e.g., the American Political Science Association, or the American Sociological Association – to see if they maintain data about scholars currently doing research abroad.

A second suggestion for maintaining mental health is to spend time writing each day – not your research findings but your research experiences. Keeping a journal can be useful, if for no other reason than to vent and list all of the things about living abroad that you dislike. These notes will be valuable in the future when you try to make sense of your research, but in the meantime they will enable you an outlet for your anxieties and frustrations. Conversely, this practice might also help you remember all the things that you like about fieldwork, and remind you of all the positive experiences that can be easy to overlook.

One final suggestion for maintaining your mental health is to ask yourself what you will do during your downtime. And if your answer is “I don’t have downtime,” then you are doing fieldwork wrong. One of the great advantages of overseas research is the ability to see new places (and presumably you understand this otherwise you would not have traveled to another country in the first place). It would be a mistake not to take advantage of these opportunities. I have been in remote Indian cities where I have visited Hindu temples that are a thousand years old. I have eaten foods that I could not pronounce and likely had no chance to ever eat again. Long after a book or article has been published, these are the experiences that you will remember about living abroad.

However, fieldwork isn’t always as lofty as seeing UNESCO World Heritage sites. You also need to save time for occasional indulgent and/or mindless activities. For example, going to India allowed me to catch up on my Netflix queue (tip: use a VPN in order to access the U.S. version of Netflix, which spared me from having to watch a lot of Bollywood films). Buy fiction books to read. Take the time to learn a musical instrument or practice your hobbies. Try new restaurants – finding a place in one Indian city that served really good French toast dramatically boosted my weekend happiness. In any case, whatever your academic discipline, you need plenty of activities to work on in the field that have nothing to do with it.  

Your Physical Health

Aside from your mental health, your physical health can also suffer in fieldwork settings. Once again, preparation is key: you need to see your doctor before you travel abroad. You’d be surprised how many scholars I’ve met that don’t do this! There are a range of vaccinations that are often required (or strongly recommended) for the country you plan to visit. Similarly, ask yourself: do you have allergies that will be problematic in the field? Will you develop protein or vitamin deficiencies due to new cuisines with which you are unfamiliar? Can you get the medications you need abroad (tip: the one thing I never forget to take to India is Gatorade packets to help with dehydration)? These are all things to consider long before you travel. Again, seek out the advice of those who came before you.

Once in the field, I would recommend three things to maintain your physical health. The first is locating a good doctor and knowing the location of good medical clinics and hospitals (and dentists – if you’re abroad for more than six months you still need to get those teeth cleaned). I once crashed my bike in India and was worried that I had seriously injured my arm. I saw a doctor who quickly squeezed my arm and proclaimed, “You’re fine.” In retrospect, that may not have been the best clinic. But where is the best clinic? Is it in the city where you will be staying, or is it in a city three or four hours away? And are there doctors in your locale that specifically work with foreigners? Many tourist hotels, for example, have a doctor on call that is well-versed in dealing with foreigners. That doctor would be a good contact to make.

A second important suggestion for maintaining your physical health is exercising. This is always good advice – if there is any ‘miracle cure’ in medicine today it is exercise – but it takes on added importance during fieldwork. Join a gym or yoga studio or kick-boxing class. Keeping a regular workout schedule has done a lot to alleviate stress, anxiety, and frustration during my fieldwork trips to India. Additionally, gyms and similar spaces are great places to meet new people and forge new friendships. Of course, you do not have to be a workout warrior to benefit from exercise. A daily walk can be enough to provide physical (and cognitive) benefits that will make a difference in your life. The bottom line is that you should ask yourself how you plan to stay physically active while abroad.

The last suggestion for maintaining your physical health is to focus on getting enough sleep every night and drinking enough water. This seems rather obvious, but I mention these two things because I have found them particularly difficult in India. I’ve had many nights of restless sleep due to intense heat, power cuts (taking out the AC), rock hard mattresses, and, worst of all, all-night wedding celebrations. Getting eight good hours of sleep often took me ten hours. But in time I came to prioritize my sleep, and the effects made a major difference in my overall well-being. Additionally, it’s easy to think you’re drinking enough water in the field, but I’ve found that the old adage of ‘eight glasses a day’ was far from sufficient when I’ve been abroad. Relatedly, many countries like India do not have tap water that you can drink. Will you only drink bottled water? Or buy a water filter? Or try to start drinking local water (tip: do not do this)?

Conclusion

My fieldwork experiences have been some of the most enriching and rewarding of my life. They have also been some of the most annoying and frustrating. This is the duality of fieldwork. But the suggestions I have made here have consistently improved my experiences over the years, and each time I go back to India I feel a little better prepared. If there’s one thing that I try to remind myself, it is this: all of the problems I encounter have been encountered before. I am not alone, and neither are you.           

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