Fieldwork as an Undergrad

What is fieldwork?

Fieldwork, a mode of research typically found in the social sciences like anthropology and sociology, and natural sciences, like geology and biology, involves stepping out of the lab and theoretical mind-space and into “the real world” to collect evidence. This methodology can include observation, interviews, surveys, and even archaeological digs and helps researchers gain firsthand knowledge of a topic. Fieldwork is all about observing and documenting phenomena that exist in nature from a distance, without intervention or manipulation.

Credits to the author.

My fieldwork experience

As I share in my post on my current project, in my senior capstone thesis (completed in Spring 2020) I employed ethnographic field visits and interviews to explore the role of the Sharjah Biennial in shaping aesthetic preferences. Before I could begin my summer research, I formulated a research question, was assigned a mentor, drafted a detailed proposal and plan, and applied for funding and IRB approval. Given that I’d be making many trips to Sharjah throughout the summer to collect primary source material, I had to make sure that every aspect of my plan was set before my research period.

Pre-fieldwork checklist

With the right tools and mentorship, conducting independent fieldwork as an undergrad provides a rare and exciting opportunity to explore a topic you’re interested in, build connections in your field, and get a taste for a career path you might pursue in the future.

Based on my experiences, I’ve written a short list of questions to ask yourself and things to consider before embarking on your fieldwork journey (if circumstances permit, of course):

  • Crafting a research plan
    • How will you answer your research question: surveys? interviews? archival trips? How long will your research take? What needs to be arranged ahead of time versus on-the-ground? Do you have backup plans in case anything doesn’t work out?
    • Having a plan before you hit the ground running can help you stay on track and will allow you to visualize your project’s timeframe, steps, and goals. Some things, like interviews, may be hard to plan ahead, especially since rapport is often best built in person. By having as much of your fieldwork organized and as many of your interview questions ready before heading off, you can leave room for any additional prep necessary at your research location.
  • Selecting a research mentor
    • What theoretical or methodological framework lies at the heart of your research question? Which faculty member at your institution would be best suited to guide your research and provide support and knowledge to pursue your topic?
    • While a mentor working on the same exact field, era, or subject as you are would be ideal, it’s not always possible. Having faculty or an external mentor who could at least provide you with either the methodological support or theoretical knowledge needed for your project enables you to have their insight when needed while allowing you some leeway in pursuing your own topic. And who knows? Their semi-unrelated expertise might end up taking your research in directions you didn’t think possible!
  • Securing fieldwork funds
    • Are you eligible for research funding, whether from your university or externally? What kinds of research activities are covered? Are funds disbursed before fieldwork or will you be getting reimbursed?
    • Inquiring about funding, whether from your institution or from external grant providers in your field, is key in expanding the physical scope of your research. Applying may take a bit of extra work, but it is definitely worth the time if it means getting to access materials in person and learning on-the-ground.
  • Budgeting for fieldwork
    • How much funding are you able to receive and how much do you anticipate your field research will cost? Are there archival fees, accommodation/travel/transportation costs, or research tool purchases needed?
    • Creating a spreadsheet of your funding and costs can help you organize your fieldwork budget, book accommodations and transportation, and begin the interlocutor outreach process.
  • Getting Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval
    • Will you, or is there any chance you might, be engaging with “human subjects”? Will your research require IRB approval? Which of your research activities won’t need approval?
    • Though it is often said that IRB approval isn’t mandatory for undergraduate theses since you likely may not publish your research, it always helps to have it just in case you do publish parts of your capstone in a later article, thesis, or dissertation. Make sure you secure approval for your interviews and surveys well in advance of your fieldwork to avoid any delays.

Though it may sound intimidating, fieldwork is a great way to enrich your understanding of a research topic, especially when you feel prepared and confident to take it on. Following my 5-step pre-fieldwork plan can help you lay the foundations for a successful research journey!

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