Katy Meyers is an Anthropology PhD Student at Michigan State University and a founding editor of GradHacker. You can follow her on twitter at @bonesdonotlie.
Last summer I did research abroad in Rome, Italy for my dissertation. As you know from my post on accepting setbacks, I had a major dissertation topic change from focusing on the Roman Empire to focusing on Anglo-Saxon England. While the change is for the best and I'm really looking forward to this new research, it means that I have to do my pre-dissertation field work all over again. Having done this before last summer, I've picked up a few more tips and tricks on how to prepare. Doing research abroad has its own complications and challenges, so it's good to consider these prior to leaving.
Last year, I made a number of suggestions that I still think apply (See this post: An American in Rome, Thoughts on Research Abroad). These include doing your research on the country you're going to, leaving some wiggle room in case something happens, taking time to enjoy yourself, and bringing a little bit of home with you. While I think these are good suggestions, this trip is a little bit different, so it requires different things. First, I don't need to worry about language. I speak American English, and I've lived in Scotland so my British English isn't too bad either. I know I'm supposed to say 'cheers' instead of 'thanks' when I'm given a pint of beer and I know I'm to avoid places described as naff. Second, I've been to England a number of times before, I have friends there, and I feel very comfortable in this country. I even did my Masters research in London.
However, I have a very short window of time I can be there and a lot I need to accomplish. This time it isn't about taking time and enjoying the country, it's about getting things done. That means a lot more prep work. Here are my suggestions for preparing for research abroad to make the best possible use of your time.
1. Make contact far in advance with people you want to meet while abroad: Try to make contact with any one that you might want to visit prior to leaving, and think about doing this around the beginning of your spring semester. Most academics are doing their own research in the summer, so you want to contact them early. Also try to prioritize this contact. If you have three people that you must meet and two that you'd like to meet, prioritize the three people and ask them first. Also, ask them for advice on getting there and doing your research. They may have some good suggestions of where to stay, what trains to take, and how to contact other people. Most people are extremely helpful and are willing to give you some guidance on your research abroad.
2. Set up a strong schedule but leave wiggle room: Plans work best if they are well crafted and leave some extra time. If you need to meet two different people on opposite sides of the country, leave a day or two between them in case something happens. When I was in Italy there was a random transportation strike that meant I couldn't do any research at the museum one day. In case something like this occurs, try to leave space if possible. Also, by having a strong plan you won't leave important tasks to the end of the trip in case something does happen.
3. Ask for advice on your plan from your committee and peers: Your committee is there to guide you and give advice when crafting your plan for research abroad. They may be able to point out obvious flaws or give guidance on who to contact for certain things. Also, try to find other grad students or academics who have been working in the area and can prepare you. Each region has their own idiosyncrasies, so it's good to be aware of them. The fact that I've been to England before doesn't diminish the need for advice- this type of trip is field work and is completely different from the trips I've done before, which were lab work or for vacation. Advice is always a good thing!
4. Make a list of what you want to accomplish before you leave: Come up with deliverables of exactly what data you need to collect and exactly who you need to connect with. Make a specific list of every single piece of evidence that you should have. Check with your advisor or committee to make sure you've got everything listed. This way, you'll be prepared and won't forget some pivotal step in your research.
What's your advice for preparing for research abroad? Let us know in the comments below.
[Photo via Katy Meyers, taken in 2010 during MSc research trip]