This is a guest post by Charlotte Marie Cable, she is a doctoral graduate student from Michigan State University studying archaeology.

“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]


6 Responses to Fieldwork: An Unexpected Lesson

  1. Stephanie Hilliard says:

    Who would guess, going into the experience, that something as small as a mouse would be such an overwhelming thing? And yet sometimes it really is the little things that stop us in our tracks, far more than the big ones. Sounds like you came through with flying colors!

  2. Katy Meyers says:

    The biggest hurdle I faced when doing research in Poland was the food. I’m not a picky eater, I’ll pretty much eat anything. However, the pork meals four times a day, combined with plain white bread and butter soaked vegetables wore me down. The field work and research went swimmingly, but what brought me to tears and almost sent me home was the food. I tell the horror story of the pork meat wad for dinner one night, followed by the pork meat log with cheese, followed by the pork meat ball, followed by pork cold cuts. The only reason I was able to make it through was a jar of Jif that my parents sent me (it ended up costing $40 bucks to do so).

    This did teach me an important lesson about when I do field research: always bring peanut butter and you will survive.

    • Julie Platt says:

      When I went to Taiwan ten years ago, my mother insisted that I bring a jar of peanut butter and a box of Ritz crackers. Even though Taipei has incredible food and I ate well, I wasn’t above chowing down on some peanut butter and crackers when the meal wasn’t exactly to my taste. Anyway, I agree with you, Katy–a jar or two of PB is the way to go.

    • Rebecca Miller says:

      I can relate. In Russia I was lucky enough to have the students cook vegetarian meals for me, but because of an unfamiliarity with vegetarianism and a lack of vegetables (and food in general) available in Siberia over the summer, I consisted on borcht that was simply potatoes and pasta floating in MSG broth. I started sleeping through meals because the idea of sitting down and eating one more bowl of soup was a mental hurdle I simply could not get over. Peanut butter and power bars got me through.

  3. My biggest challenge working in Rome was navigating the byzantine visa/permit-to-stay system. Even with the visa I got before leaving the US, I had to apply for a permit within 3 days of arriving in Italy. That involved an entire day going from the post office to the tobacconist’s (to buy the special stamps needed) and waiting in lines with postal employees who didn’t want to deal with my broken Italian. A month later, I was finally summoned to the police station to be fingerprinted – twice – and give them additional copies of things I’d already submitted (insurance, passport, etc.). Still, I didn’t get a permit, and was told that eventually I’d get another summons. After 8 months in Italy, I never did get a permit, but was afraid the entire time that something was wrong with my application and that if I left the country, I wouldn’t be able to return.

  4. […] languages, foreign cultures, and in general faced with an unknown world (See Charlotte’s post on fieldwork for more information on what we face). Right now I’m faced with the problem of deciding […]

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