The Doctor’s (not) in (yet): Head first into the Second Doctoral Year – Collecting your Data!

With the successful defence of my full doctoral proposal and the approval of research ethics this month, the two biggest obstacles in a PhD journey are out of my way. The third one, and not any less scary, will be the submission and oral defence of my doctoral thesis but this is still waaaay in the future. Now, “the most fun part”, as described by those who have been there already, begins – it’s time to collect my data!

I have planned this phase since 2016 but still, you don’t feel ready when you realise you have to go overseas next week (it’s a trap – you’re never really ready, haha!). It is great to get out of your office, which becomes more crowded and noisier due to the sheer amount of PhD students that start their own journeys in our School…The truth is, that universities want to increase the number of doctoral students but that institutions often do not provide space to host their students adequately. I am extremely lucky because I have my own workspace where I can leave my stuff, even if I’m now away for three weeks. From my point of view, any doctoral student needs to have his or her own work desk to be productive.

Anyway, there won’t be a desk in the next few weeks but lots of networking and talking to people and potentially plenty of coconuts! Niue is pretty small scale (there are only about 1000 Niueans living on the island) and the time I’ll spend on the island will allow me to describe this study site in-depth. I’ll be able to immerse myself into Polynesian customs and culture and to explore the significance of marine life for the local communities as well as tourism. It’s a totally different life you’re living as a scientist since you have thought a lot about theory, while this time is about hands-on exploration. This can be pretty scary, too as you need to move out of your comfort zone. I’m an introvert so approaching and talking to strangers surely is a challenge for me. But doing a PhD will not only helping you to develop as a researcher but also personally. In the preplanning of my fieldwork I came across some obstacles already which, however, is totally normal. Remember, the road to success (or a PhD) is never linear! To cope with disappointment will shape you much more than having it your way all the time. To conduct research overseas, you need to get a permit from the local government. Although an early application, this took a while, and this made me feel pretty uneasy. Because let’s face it: If you don’t get it you’re not allowed to collect your data, so your whole purpose of getting to a location won’t be given anymore. In the worst case, you’ll lose lots of money and sometimes even worse, time. The time frame for me to conduct research in Niue is fairly small: The Humpback whales arrive in July and will migrate back to Antarctica in late October. That’s something you always need to bear in mind when you work in marine wildlife tourism: It’s often highly seasonal!

Besides getting all of the permissions, flights and accommodation (good luck with the latter when you decide to travel in high season!), you need to make sure that you have all of your research tools! Audio recorder, if you’re doing interviews, printed surveys and information sheets, clipboards, notebook for fieldnotes and so on…The list can be endless really! It is also clever to test your interview questions in various ways before you’re asking your target groups. This helps a lot to see whether you need to change anything. However, interview questions are likely to evolve in the process of data collection and are therefore highly flexible. It is advised to start with a good basis though.

Maintaining relationships is vital, too, as already emphasised in an earlier blog post on working with tour operators. People will sacrifice their time to help out, so you should let them know about any changes or other intentions. I believe, having strong partnerships is invaluable for the success of a research project! As a researcher, you do mostly work on a  particular project by yourself but you’re still not an island…we’re heavily dependent on other people’s support. This can be the operator, local researchers or the tourism organisation. And therefore, it is critical that we, as researchers, also give something back. Something that can be beneficial. It is not my intention to go somewhere, get my data, and disappear forever. I hope that my work will have a higher purpose, that it won’t collect dust in our library. But maybe that’s the naïve thinking of a second-year doctoral student, who knows ;)

Apart from being all nervous to become a field researcher shortly, I am filled with joy knowing that I am with the whales again, soon. I’ve read and wrote a lot about them already but as I said, the hands-on aspect came a bit short in my first year. I am extremely lucky that in the upcoming weeks, I’ll be able to talk about whales all the time so the excitement definitely prevails. And maybe it’s a good thing that my first stopover for data collection will focus on the humpies since I’m a cetacean person, so I’ll probably feel more to be in my element and the access maybe easier then.

Hermann Hesse said in “Phases”:

In the core of every beginning lives magic

Magic that protects us and helps us live.

 

Can fieldwork be magical? Let’s find out!

 

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