PhD: the extreme fieldwork edition

This post was written by Linda Murray who recently submitted her PhD on Maternal Mental Health in Central Vietnam through Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. Her thesis was completed on nine desks, in four cities and two countries. She now lives in Hobart, Tasmania and works part-time at the University of Tasmania teaching Global Health. This post details how she broke the PhD ‘rules’ – and lived!

In the first few weeks of my thesis, I remember being directed to a blog post by “Sciencewoman” which gave some sage advice to students on how to complete your PhD in a reasonable amount of time. I recently re-read it only to find I had failed two of her major points. Namely, ‘Don’t pick a topic that requires multiple years of data collection,’ and ‘pick a field site within a few hours of your university/house’  – and definitely nowhere prone to natural disasters.

I ended up doing my thesis, in multiple stages, in a town 14 hours and 3 flights from my house, that experiences major flooding every wet season. However, somehow I managed to submit it in a reasonable amount of time (around 3.5 years).

I’m definitely not going to recommend that anyone else should attempt this; working in an overseas field site proved to be extremely stressful and disorienting at times. However, if you are misguided enough to pursue something similar, here are some of the things I found most important for keeping everything together (in all senses of the phrase!).

 photo“A person’s riches lie in the fewness of their needs”, Anonymous

Anyone who knows me would attest to the fact that I am by nature a piler not a filer. I always worked between my office and home computer and leaving a disorganized mix of documents on the desktops of both. However, I quickly learned that such disorganization only comes with the luxury of having a space of your own to pile in, where no-one else will ever disturb you. At one point my literature review was ‘organised’ in heaps of paper that overtook my desk and spilled onto the floor. I barely noticed until I realized my office mates were stepping over them all the time.

Twice throughout my PhD I had to literally pick up everything and take it with me, with around a month’s notice. I once used my whole baggage allowance taking textbooks and aforementioned piles of articles on a field trip, and quickly realized the cost in physical (and emotional) baggage wasn’t worth it.

Whilst this may sound like contrived zen wisdom, you are actually better off without any of those piles of stuff. I strived to go paperless and now own an e-reader and small laptop. I found this is all I needed to finish my thesis. I believe it saved me immeasurable hassle.

However, if you do have a portable PhD, and are working in a country prone to spontaneous torrential downpours and unearthed electrical storms, you also need to take precautions. I always took an over-supply of surge protectors and had a laptop bag with a heavy rain cover. It goes without saying that you need to make multiple backups, kept in different locations, in case your whole bag gets lost or your office is flooded (which has happened to colleagues of mine).

The only ‘piles’ I couldn’t avoid were the paper-based surveys which comprised my main study, however they were easily stored in bundles of plastic sleeves and couriered back to Australia. I also found out the hard way that laptops with complete drafts of your thesis inside are more vulnerable to breaking on long jarring bus rides than you might expect. Luckily the back up in another bag was intact!

“Plans are nothing, planning is everything”, Eisenhower.

During my final seminar I was told the best chapter of my thesis was my methodology. I was surprised as I thought it was one of the drier chapters to write and most interminable to read. However, I think it was successful because I had to co-ordinate and explain exactly what I was doing to colleagues and supervisors across languages (with a translator) and time zones.

Don’t get me wrong, I know all PhD students put much thought into their methods. However if you are working mainly by yourself, you have the ability to deviate from the plan if new ideas come up. In  my project this would have just caused confusion for all involved. The actual time frames for completing my activities changed frequently and suddenly, based on a everything from the wet season cutting off one field site to my research assistant giving birth. However, the fact I had an overall plan that I was forced to communicate simply and clearly meant we could pull the whole thing off in the end.

“You are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room”, Dr Seuss

I spent a hell of a lot of my spare time in the field by myself, generally in very basic hotel rooms. Whilst other international students could immerse themselves in volunteer work and other fun pursuits, guilt, and the need for some introversion, prevented me from doing this. Since none of the distractions that push their way into life at home are there, I found I had written large chunks of my thesis before I returned from each trip.

The down side of this is of course loneliness, although as other writers on this blog have noted, feeling lonely and marginalized is a common part of the PhD journey. In the end I think the loneliness at home was no worse than the loneliness when I was away. I came to value the solitude and chance to work uninterrupted while away. I also often had limited access to the internet, which I found made me more, rather than less productive.

I hope these tips may be useful to anyone else setting out on a similar adventure. It’s true that by choosing a field site more than 5km from my house I caused myself complications and headaches. However I don’t regret it, throughout the journey I made many valuable connections and strong friendships. I had the time to investigate a topic I love in more than one interesting place. There were times when it looked like everything was about to fall apart. In the end it came together, with a lot of patience and resourcefulness.

Do you have any tips for extreme fieldwork? Or extreme laboratory work perhaps? Did you any thinking ahead that saved your PhD from falling apart?

Related posts

The post fieldwork blues

A Phd is like a pilgrimage

18 thoughts on “PhD: the extreme fieldwork edition

  1. nickhopwood says:

    Reblogged this on Nick Hopwood and commented:
    Valuable and honest reflections on fieldwork, and realities of writing a PhD. For those of you about to start, or in the midst of, fieldwork, there is a salutary tale, well worth reading, on thesiswhisperer’s blog at

    Without wishing to make it all seem gloomy, Amy Pollard’s ‘Field of screams’ also offers useful insights into how fieldwork (particularly ethnography) can be challenging. The message is not ‘fieldwork is awful’, but that ‘if you’re finding it intense, and hard, you’re not alone!’.

    The same issue of the journal (freely available) contains responses from several experienced researchers, ( that help to provide a balanced picture overall.

  2. barbara karpinski says:

    very interesting and salutory tale about the necessity of planning and organization to rise above the chaos of intellectual exploration in a foreign land.

  3. hatfulofhistory says:

    Just a quick thought. This advice of ‘pick[ing a field site within a few hours of your university/house’ would result in few Australians doing non-Australian history if followed.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Indeed. So much of that pragmatic advice would have similar effects on doctoral creativity. Risk is part of the process of generating new knowledge. But needs to be balanced for every student as an individual in my view

  4. Kelly Dombroski says:

    My PhD stats: 1 supervisor, 2 births, 3 countries, four cities, five universities, six years, seven gallstones and eight homes! Made it in the end.

    And my ‘methods; chapter is the most ‘moving’ of my thesis since it details all the things that happened in the field that pushed me into a radically different sort of project. You can read some of it at . Although that left out the majority of crazy stuff that happened. I ended up working fulltime as a lecturer for my final year, with a one year old baby feeding through the night! Fun times…

    • Linda M says:

      Wow Kelly, that sounds like six very full years! Congratulations on finishing, I definitely will have a read.

      • Oanh says:

        Dear Dr Linda Murray, I am Vietnamese student. I plan to conduct a study about postpartum depression in Vietnam. I already read your PhD Thesis about postpartum depression in Central Vietnam. I really want to contact you but I dont have your email adress. If you read this message, please let me know your email adress. Greatfull thank to you.
        My email adress is:

  5. Alexander Henley says:

    I’m not sure many researchers realise how easy it is to go paperless nowadays. Travelling also forced me to do it (8 cities, 7 universities, 5 countries), and I’m really glad because it made me organise my work more rationally and take advantage of even just a fraction of the easily available technology (I’m no whizz).

    OneNote lets me plan my whole PhD (and life) from one place, and store/organise/reorganise all my notes in searchable form. EndNote keeps references and pdfs. DropBox backs it up constantly so I don’t have to worry about my laptop (or even take it with me to the office). A cheap camera avoids mountains of expensive photocopying. And I have a Kindle for when I’m tired of reading books/articles off backlit screens. Those are the first things I’d tell a new PhD student.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Yes indeed – there’s a few posts on going paperless, however many people still find it a struggle. I’ve managed to cut down to about 3 print outs a month now. But it’s taken a few years of work to get there.

  6. Jonathan Downie says:

    I am off on fieldwork early next month. It means taking my entire family on a 1 3/4 hour flight to another country. I am looking forward to it but I do recognise all the headaches.

  7. Sona says:

    That one was really interesting reading, and surprising. As it is completely the opposite in Norway, where MA students are encouraged to do fieldwork as far away from home as possible. Phd candidates as well. And those doing fieldwork at home (Norway, or even in Europe) must work pretty hard to 1) get grants, 2) get other anthropologists’ attention, 3) get “proper” respect from other fellows. Norway is indeed really conservative as it goes for the “real” anthropological fieldwork, Malinowski style etc. So, it’s really surprising to read that travelling IS an issue for anthropologists coming from other schools and traditions and that it is considered as extreme! 🙂

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      That’s so interesting. I think the timid advice given to students might be influenced by the structure if funding, here and in the UK. Unis effectively lose money if students don’t finish in 4 years. This has been talked about in the abstract a lot, but your comment highlights a concrete difference between systems. And, it seems, a problemmatic one….

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