The post fieldwork blues

Are you doing fieldwork as part of your PhD?

This post is by Michelle Redman-MacLaren, who is passionate about working in the Pacific, especially with women. She is currently undertaking a PhD about the impact of male circumcision for women in PNG, including women’s risk of HIV transmission. Michelle and colleagues are also exploring faith-based responses to HIV and research capacity strengthening PNG and Solomon Islands.

If you are preparing to undertake your fieldwork for your PhD, have been on a field trip for your PhD or maybe you are in the middle of fieldwork right now, either way this post is for you. And it has the distintion of being our first post to contain an original poem 🙂

I have just returned from fieldwork in the wonderful, scary, full-on adventure that is Papua New Guinea, a small nation in the South Pacific with the overused but apt byline, ‘The Land of the Unexpected’. A 1.5 hour flight from my home town of Cairns, Australia transports me to this amazing country with over 800 languages, incredible cultural and spiritual diversity, some personal risk and many more wonderful opportunities.

Coming back to Australia from PNG brings on the blues.

I love being ‘in the field’.  I learn so much more when in situ, there is so much action, I have instant feedback about ideas and observations, build amazing relationships, speak in a different language with material for writing thick descriptions everywhere I move!

Coming back to the rarified university environment after such an experience is a real downer. The return is hard. Literature seems boring and one-dimensional in comparison. Some of it may be culture shock, but I suspect not as I have been visiting or living in Melanesia on and off for 20 years. The real problem is that I have had trouble settling down to my PhD since I have come back.

The implications for me are:

  • I having trouble getting back into ‘mundane’ activities such as writing
  • I feel ‘lonely’ for my Pacific colleagues…the solitary nature writing a PhD crashes with relational experiences in the field
  • There is a lack of opportunity for immediate feedback from the people I am working with (second guessing positions instead of ‘co-creating’ knowledge)
  • My perspective changes about what really matters, with writing my PhD sometimes sliding down that ‘what matters’ list.
  • My perspective has changed when I return from the field, but this is not always mirrored by my supervisors. How do I authentically express this shift and not lose my ‘good student’ cred?

This poem captures some of these implications (written upon my recent return to Australia).

Post Fieldwork Blues

I’m back home

to my loved ones

my cat, my barista.

Clean nails, quiet streets.

Water runs, phone rings

but the night is empty

Little family, couple or person


Each in their big house

TV on, internet flashing

One, by one, by one

All in a row.


I breathe you in chaos

As the field returns

Swirling, swinging, memory to memory

Busyness to busyness

Images whoosh, rush,

Scream on in

Red teeth spitting, bus brakes screeching

Women gardening, men gossiping

Bright colours mismatched

Against the backdrop of blue.

Pikininis play, a Milo can their ball

Clanging on the rocky, potholed street.

We women walk hand-in-hand

The drains are dug and redug, the path eclipsed by

mud, even now between my toes.


As evening falls, harmonic singing begins

Food is consumed, laughter is shared

A fight is heard down the street.

The night settles, guitar softly strummed

Fragrant frangipani fog.


How will I write this? How is this new?

Defensible, academic it must be

I want to return

To share in some more.

My soul and blank page

Are unsettled.

So what can be done to turn around the post fieldtrip blues? How do I integrate the experience and get on with the task of writing the PhD? A few ideas that have worked for me include:

  • Reconnecting with my PhD support network here in my home town (and in e-space)
  • Email those that I can in PNG to tie up loose ends, say thank yous and express the joy of being in their country. It is nice to for me to know I can still be in touch, even if it is a different kind of ‘touch’
  • Hug my husband and kids, all at once if possible!
  • Take the time to be gentle with myself, initially not too hurried
  • Write, journal or write poetry about observations that become clearer out of the fieldwork context
  • Revisit my academic calendar. How many days do I really have left to write that thesis?

What is it like for those doing PhDs who go home to do fieldwork and then return to Australia or other countries to continue study? What do you miss about home? What are you glad to get back to?

And for those who hated their field work, felt unsafe, had a bad experience, felt lonely, that the place was nothing like they imagined? What was coming home like for you? Does knowing the field well make a difference to the post field trip experience (and the subsequent disruption to post fieldwork PhD activity)?

Related Posts

Travelling during your PhD

A PhD is like a pilgrimage










33 thoughts on “The post fieldwork blues

  1. helen says:

    I can definitely relate! I carried out fieldwork in the second half of 2010 in Colombia. My work is with conflict-affected young people and peacebuilding. I think I used the same words the post uses: “scary, amazing, full on” while I was there and I felt kind of unable to translate the (very rich) fieldwork experience, data, interviews, fieldnotes etc into some kind of ‘academic’ language or framework.

    While wrestling with that, I was also dealing with coming back from a place that was so full of people and stuff happening all the time (as well as the heightened sense of security you normalise eventually in places like that, just in day-to-day life), and return to my uni office in Australia.

    I think also part of my intertia when I returned was that it was essentially impossible for me to follow up any of the interviews I did (because they were young people, and because of the way I had to gain access to the community to do them), and I spent literally months second guessing myself: “what if I’m misrepresenting things? what if I’m not doing this material justice? etc etc”.

    I found eventually I just forced myself to start writing. I couldn’t articulate to my supervisor how the trip had made me feel differently about the work, and I got frustrated, and decided to write it to show her. Which was probably an excellent idea for her and for me! The fieldwork meant in academic-terms I had to reshape and, in part, re-conceive my project and that took up time, but was most definitely worth while!

    I’m now in the final couple of months before submission. While I still miss the period of my fieldwork, and still second guess myself, I am much more confident in the value of having done the fieldwork and actually think its made me a ‘better’, more reflexive academic and made for a more interesting project. Once I manage to save up some money I’m also heading back to Colombia for a ‘fun’ visit!!

    Sorry for the epic reply! Thanks for the great post (and I loved the poem)!

  2. phillipa carr says:

    I have done off and on fieldwork in PNG for 4 years. I miss the smell of fresh mountain air, my colleagues, driving down the highway, chasing piglets…. everything. I think PNG of all places casts a powerful spell over people who research there… I love it. I’m sad cause I didn’t get to go up for a second trip this year!

    • michelleredman says:

      Em nau! I can empathise with your sadness about not getting back this year. I was disappointed when I recently discovered Digicel had cancelled my PNG mobile phone number as I hadn’t used it for 6 months- a very tangible sign that I had been away for too long!

  3. Lauren Gawne says:

    I love doing fieldwork, but it can be an exhausting prospect. I’ve spent about 10-11 months of my candidature in Nepal across three separate trips. I’ve had the chance to learn new languages, learn about other cultures and make very good friends there.

    Fieldwork can be hard though, because there is always another trip to plan, ethics, more grant applications to write, data to process (and not to mention there’s still that PhD to write). I normally end up working 6-7 days a week on fieldwork, and it can be hard to communicate to friends and family at home you’re not just away for a holiday. I used to try and take a couple of weeks of when I got home from field trips, but now I find that the best thing to do is get back into the old routines, but at a gentler pace. Just coming into campus to see people, have a coffee and get things in order helps me settle back in easier and prevents the data avoidance than can sometimes happen when you’re too scared to go back and look at those field notes!

  4. ASH says:

    Just been reading these posts and was wondering if anyone has written anything on carrying out fieldwork while also being a mother to a toddler/ child who you are taking with you? I’d be keen to read something about this as i plan to do this early 2013.

    • Lauren Gawne says:

      I know some linguists who have, and almost all of them speak very positively about it. I think that you probably want to know the place you’re going to, know that you feel comfortable living there and that you’ll feel comfortable with your kids being there.

      Most places will have ex-pat email groups and message boards which can be a useful way of scoping out some of the practicalities before you go!

    • michelleredman says:

      Hi ASH, I am often in the ‘field’ (PNG and Solomon Islands) with our boys…and have found it to be both wonderful and hard!! The hard parts are the reduced flexibility, needing to be home for critical times (meals, bedtime), dealing with the inevitable sickness/accidents etc, but this is more than compensated by the changed nature of engagement…as I bring my ‘mother-self’ to the field, I have a new way of connecting and being trusted (in particular by other women). The boys build relationships that link me to others in a way I could never do on my own….but it is not always easy!

  5. Tim Budge (@Tim_Budge) says:

    As someone living “in the field” (well actually in the suburbs of Lusaka) and about to return to Australia after 7 years away, I found this post really interesting. Loved the poem! All these things I know I will miss, yet I am homesick for Australia. I think I will be permanently “stuck” somewhere in between for the rest of my life.

    • michelleredman says:

      Thanks for your comment Tim. I was struck by your comment about being “permanently stuck somewhere in between”…what a gift, if you can live with it 😉

  6. drjackiekirkham says:

    It’s interesting that all the responses are from people who’ve done fieldwork abroad and with other languages (I was in a similar position when I did my fieldwork 5 years ago, in Romania and Moldova) – I wonder if people who do fieldwork locally have similar experiences? I found getting married 3 months after my return meant that I had no choice but to get out of the post-fieldwork doldrums! (though appreciate that is a bit drastic and not an option for everyone!). What surprised me was how much I thought in Romanian for some time afterwards, and sometimes struggled to express what I wanted to say/think in English, that took quite a while to wear off!

    One thing which helped me was to write a first draft of my methodology/methods chapter of the thesis quite soon after getting back, as it was all still so fresh and in my head and consciousness. I found it really therapeutic, cathartic even, and I had to do surprisingly few revisions to it when it came to ‘proper’ thesis writing later which was a big help! I also did some reading and writing around one of the main themes which had emerged from my interviews which I had not anticipated in my lit review before I went, and that helped me to stay ‘connected’ to the experience of fieldwork even whilst I was back in ivory towerdom (that also helped as although it didn’t make it into the submitted thesis, one of my minor corrections required was about that theme, so I already had the work done there and it was easier to make that correction than it perhaps would have been had I not written those 2000-odd words when I first got back!).

    • Anonymous says:

      I very much suppor this comment! I wrote my methodology ch right after returning and it was one of the most solid (and unchanged) sections of my thesis to date! It’s definitely hard and sometimes it can be too soon to deal with ‘data’ In any form but the methods and methodology was a great thing to write soon after.

      • michelleredman says:

        I appreciated your suggestions, drjackiekirkham and helenmayb to write the methodology and/or methods sections immediately after returning from fieldwork. It makes a lot of sense to do this while fresh in from the ‘doing’ and sounds a great way to reflect and resettle into life post fieldwork.

  7. robyn74 says:

    Thanks Michelle! I did my fieldwork in Mindanao and Leyte in the Philippines and Townsville (home) and north Queesland and Adelaide and Renmark in South Australia. I only got go to the Philippines for a bit over two weeks as I have two young boys. I was fortunate to have fantastic colleagues at my other sites who helped me set up interviews, mentor me about cultural issues (yes Adelaide is quite different to north Queensland) and take me out to dinner. Having a busy home life I enjoyed nights alone in hotel rooms listening back to my interviews. This was in July, now the analysis… AHH. It seemed fieldwork was a dream. One issue I have explored in the methodology chapter of my PhD (which is on socially accountable medical education) is confronting colonialism during fieldwork. I was able to do things in the Philippines that I couldn’t in Australia (visiting hospitals, arranging interviews with very high level people at short notice, etc). Was I able to do this due to my colleagues’ connections or because of my “status” as a western researcher? Or a combination of both. This is interesting for us at JCU as our uni focuses on the tropics. How do we reflect on the legacy of colonialism and take off our “pith helmets” as “new” tropical researchers?

  8. michelleredman says:

    Hi Robyn, it is nice to meet you here. Your comments regarding “pith helmets” resonate for me…a bit off topic, but I am constantly alert to and reflecting upon the white privilege I experience in countries such as PNG (a former colony of Australia)…would you like to share some more about this? Maybe a post for Thesis Whisperer? 🙂

  9. primalnights says:

    The Pacific! I guess if that’s what you have to do to complete you education then you do it. I’m sure the surf shorts and the flip flops are a challenge but in the end it will be worth it.

  10. finah says:

    Hi Michelle,

    I feel homesick after reading your post. I did my fieldwork (2009-2012) in my home town Port Moresby where I had a great time researching life in an urban settlement. I am looking to finish writing up early 2013 and as the Scottish winter sets in, I long for the warmth and sunshine of home.
    When I returned to Scotland from PNG, I really missed my field site and all the wonderful people who I got to know in the 15 months that I carried out my research. My family, my two daughters and the many resilient people of PNG motivate me everyday to get myself over the line. All the best with you studies. Tenk yu lo naispla post blo yu!

  11. michelleredman says:

    Good morning Finah (although you are probably roamin’ in the gloamin’ there in Scotland right now!)

    Tenkyu tru long reply blo yu- I would love to hear more about your work on the settlements, such a big challenge in PNG. What specifically are you researching? Please feel free to make contact with me via email or maybe we could meet up in POM sometime after your return.

    Stay warm, Michelle

  12. MalMalloy says:

    I don’t want millions of people to see me in a bikini anyway. One would so think unless one is familiar with him and his history. The church wedding is wedding in the present of God.

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