Reflections on Fieldwork Experiences
Conducting fieldwork is in itself a rite of passage for me. It symbolises another milestone in my PhD journey. Through these reflections, I wish to highlight the procedures and the learning process that took place while preparing for my fieldwork in the UK and during my fieldwork in Malaysia, my home country. Before I started my fieldwork, like other PhD students at Manchester Institute of Education, I had to go through the first year review panel. I had mine in March 2015. During the review, I was assessed by an independent reviewer to determine whether I was capable of doing PhD and that my works were sufficiently developed as of the required standard. From the review and the feedback, I learned many things to improve my study, for instance, conducting the document research earlier prior to fieldwork is crucial to build contextual background for my study.
After the review, another task was waiting for me- completing all the necessary paperwork: the RREA form, the MIE Ethical Approval Application form, the PGR fieldwork form, The Fieldwork Allowance form and the Fieldwork Risk Assessment form. True indeed, completing the forms is more than just a box-ticking exercise. You need to focus and not to rush while going through it. Having your proposal (and a big mug of coffee) in front of you is advisable, as you are required to fill in the information as clear as possible. Apart from that, asking helps from your supervisors and other research students, especially those who have completed their forms can be very helpful too. Although ethics requirements are different from one research to another, I found that by learning from other students; i.e. how they planned and justified their approaches to their studies, gave me some ideas of how to carefully plan and execute my study in my local context.
After completing the forms, my research design, methodology and research procedures became clearer and more robust as I had to describe my research design, data collection and analysis methods, participant details, participant recruitment plans, participant’s consent, risk assessment for both participant and the researcher. I also had to address the ethical issues that are raised by my methodology, like issues of participants’ anonymity and vulnerability, and how would I tackle that, for instance by utilising the consent form, in my research context. In sum the experience of panel and completing the forms was very useful in ensuring that my work-plan was appropriate and sufficient within the time that I had (4 months) to achieve my research objectives.
My fieldwork experience in Malaysia can be summarised as a remarkable and humbling learning process -a process that is characterised by trial and error- that has taught me how to manage and overcome challenges. Challenges in my research came in different forms: Firstly, the physical challenges of going back home, settling down, visiting family members, attending weddings, birthdays, (the list goes on). In the beginning it was overwhelming, but slowly I learned to prioritise. The key is to communicate with others (i.e.family members, friends) and inform them of your situation and your time limit.
The second challenge involves overcoming psychological aspects of anchoring myself and preparing myself to undergo the transition from being a student to a researcher-in-action; exercising the skills to think on your feet, making quick but informed decision that would help me to best achieve my research needs, and (re) engaging with the local cultures. These transitions or transformations are in itself a complicated psychological role that took me some time to become familiar with. I slowly learned to embrace and adapt to how things work back home. I tried not to dwell on the disappointment or the frustration when things did not turn out the way I planned. Instead of suffering in silence, I turned to my supervisors, and other PhD friends for advice, ideas and comfort.
Looking back, I have learned many things about myself and my research- the strengths and the limitations. I have also met a lot people and I have made some new friends. Most importantly, I learn that having a good work-plan and effective social support group (family, supervisors, friends) puts you in control of your research. On top of that, maintaining a good system to document all your research process is very crucial; for instance, writing your reflections immediately after each session, re-read your interview notes and reflect on those. Finally, to be able to enjoy what you are doing will make the experience more worthwhile.
Now that I am back at the university, my next task is to settle down, familiarise myself with the great Manchester weather, disengage myself from my researcher-in-action role and prepare myself to face the new challenges of making sense of all the data that I have acquired during my fieldwork.
Till then, wish me luck and thank you for reading.