For the past couple months I've been planning a trip to Rome, Italy. Sounds wonderful right? Wrong. I'm here doing some pre-dissertation research that will be pivotal to not only writing grants but doing my dissertation proposal this Fall (you can read about what I'm working on at my blog: Bones Don't Lie). This trip has a lot of weight in how the next couple years are going to proceed. I understand that I shouldn't be complaining or nervous about going to Rome, I mean it is a beautiful city full of amazing archaeological things to do. However, I'm not here to be a tourist. I'm here to do research that could change the outcome of whether I get funding or pass my proposals. I had this discussion with a friend of mine who is dealing with a similar problem, although her's is worse because she's worried about going to Hawaii.
Doing research abroad presents more problems than just dealing with friends and family rolling their eyes every time you say something negative about a trip to a location that they would love to vacation at. In addition to having to collect data, network and maintain all of your grad student obligations, you have to deal with all the foreign problems. The first and most obvious issue is the language barrier. I know enough Italian to say that I don't know Italian, order a proscuitto and cheese sandwich, and find a nice bottle of wine- none of these language skills help with my research. That means that when ever I want to do anything I have to look up the necessary words ahead of time or stand awkwardly with my language book open.
I've been in Italy now for a week doing research, and here is my advice for doing research in a foreign country (regardless of language barriers).
1. Do your research: Beyond your dissertation, look up the area and learn a little about the culture. Life in Italy is a little bit slower, so you have to accept this or constantly be impatient. It can be quite frustrating if you don't understand how things work, for example some places really like their lines (like the UK) and others are about pushing your way to the front (Italy). Just take a few minutes, peruse the Lonely Planet website, and learn about the people. Look up the area you will be staying in so that you know the restaurants and places you need to go. Sure you can just throw yourself into the experience, but you are already going to be freaking out about the research, so just take some time before hand to look up the area and culture so it will be less of a concern.
2. Leave yourself wiggle room: Things are going to take longer than you like. You won't master the bus or train system on the first morning. You are going to get lost. You will have trouble figuring out how to do simple things like mail a letter or shop at the store. Even if the language doesn't change, things are different. When I moved to Scotland I was shocked by how difficult grocery shopping was, I could read the words but they didn't make any sense. What the hell is a corgette? Which type of bread is whole wheat? What? Give yourself time to learn this new place.
3. Take time to enjoy yourself: You will regret it if you spend your entire time in a new country inside a library or museum. Try to give yourself time to enjoy the city a little, take a weekend trip some where new or try some new foods. Maybe go into work a little later one morning so that you can sip a cappuccino while overlooking the ancient Roman Forum, or take the long way home so you can wander through the Borghese gardens where handsome Italian men play football shirtless.
4. Bring something of home: Chances are that you are going to get a little homesick, so bring some things that you know will be comforting. When I'm getting stressed out, its nice to have a piece of home to remind myself that I have support even if I'm alone here. For me its having an iPod full of 1970's music to remind me of summers at my cabin and a full jar of peanut butter (seriously, I never travel abroad without peanut butter). Its an instant cure for any impostor syndrome, or moments of doubt, or pangs of fear.
How do you deal with doing research abroad? What are your techniques? Any words of wisdom?