“How was Oman?” In Grad-Student-Speak this is code for, “How was data collection?”
When I left in mid-September to begin my fieldwork (an archaeological survey surrounding a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Oman) I was as prepared as any graduate student could be. I had worked in that part of the Arabian Peninsula for four years; I had conducted successful pre-dissertation research; I knew some local Omanis; I had a residence waiting and equipment with which I was familiar; I spoke, read, and wrote some Arabic.
When I left in mid-September I was as prepared as any PhD student could be. I wasn’t prepared for how much I didn’t know.
Suddenly I was responsible for… well, everything. When the house ran out of water and cooking gas, I had to text the appropriate tanker driver (in Arabic) to arrange for new deliveries. Without internet-based businesses or a shipping address, food and equipment shopping could take all day. And the freak rainstorm that had water leaking in through the roof, the windows, under doors, and … how the heck did it get there? I unplugged everything, mopped up the mess, and tried to find replacements.
But the final straw was the mouse that found its way into my kitchen.
At home I’d know in which cabinet to look – but the house was virtually empty.
In the US I’d know which aisles in which stores to visit – but I only found bug sprays and bee killer.
In the English-speaking world I’d know how to ask – but my Arabic attempts to describe the creature, the contraption, or the sought-after result proved both frustrating and embarrassing (perhaps I shouldn’t have squeaked at the cashier?).
The first month in Oman was a lesson in insecurity. How could I trust my research if I couldn’t trust my ability to banish a three-inch-long furry (and increasingly chubby) rodent?
One would think that the turning point would come when I realized that I couldn’t do everything. As grad students, we are frequently perfectionists terrified that someone (e.g. everyone) will discover that we don’t know everything. Instead, the turning point for me came in learning that I don’t have to know, or do, everything. What I must know are the limits of my data and research. What I must do is keep myself and those working with me safe and sane. The next step is deciding how important it is – to my project and to me personally – to get rid of the mouse.
“How was Oman?”
I will not deny that it was difficult. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. It was not, however, the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, and when I left nine months later I knew that I could do it. Now, I know that I could be dropped onto the Mongolian steppe or into the Brazilian jungle, and I know I could conduct an archaeological survey that would keep my research assistants (mostly) safe, fed, and productive; that would get results; and would probably be mouse-free. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it wouldn’t have to be.
When people ask “How was Oman?” honesty demands that I answer, “Overwhelming.” But then I laugh.
What unexpected challenges have you faced in your data collection? What are your experiences with doing dissertation research abroad?
[Image by Flickr user Ernest Vikne and used under the Creative Commons license]
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