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Life Lessons From Research Abroad
May 15, 2014 - 8:55pm

GradHacker robot boards a planeJustin Dunnavant is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Florida. You can find him on Twitter @archfieldnotes or at his blog AfricanaArch.

Last month I came back from a two month research trip to Ethiopia. I conducted archaeological excavations, lab analysis, archival research, and an exploratory survey of potential archaeological sites for my dissertation. In addition to helping my advisor with the research and logistics associated with his project, I also supervised five undergraduate students– for whom it was their first time out of the country. It took a lot of effort to organize, but in the end everything turned out great. We learned new archaeological methodologies and got a behind-the-scenes look at some of Ethiopia’s most prized artifacts and heritage sites.

For graduate students in archaeology, fieldwork is pretty much an unspoken commandment, sometimes requiring us to spend six months to a year in another country for prolonged archaeological excavations and lab research. Although this wasn’t my first study abroad trip, this last excursion–with all its challenges and opportunities–left me with four invaluable life lessons that will continue to guide me through the rest of my academic career.  Since I’ve started implementing these lessons, I’ve acquired a better grasp of my research agenda and reduced a lot of needless stress in my life.

1. Don’t skimp on the important stuff.

Our first night at the dig site I was assigned a spacious but cheap Coleman tent. When it was time to turn down, I retired to my tent only to find that it was squashed like a pancake as the wind attempted to blow it away. I went to sleep with a prayer that I wouldn’t blow off the side of the mountain and woke up periodically to replace stakes as they came loose. The ultimate lesson that night…sometimes it really is better to pay more for quality.

I have since applied this same principle to other areas of my life as a graduate student. I’ve heard countless horror stories about computers crashing, usb drives losing data, and cheap audio recorders not picking up sound during interviews. Spending some extra bucks to purchase high-quality materials can save you a lot of time and headache when it comes to processing and archiving research materials later in the future.

2. Patience is a virtue.

One of the biggest challenges in doing international research is coming to terms with the fact that if anything can go wrong, it will. Working in Ethiopia these past couple of months has taught me to embrace the unexpected and keep a book on hand. Halfway through the 8-hour drive to our archaeology site, our truck got a flat tire which kicked up debris and cracked the oil pan which, in turn, caused all of our motor oil to leak out onto the ground. We stayed stranded on the side of the road for hours while we waited for the rest our colleagues to continue on to the nearest town, unload the equipment and return to pick us up. I learned to enjoy the waiting process and be thankful for the fact that I was able to wait safely in a car–especially when we heard the hyenas starting to howl. Since I’ve been back, rescheduled meetings, late appointments, and waiting 30 minutes for the bus have no affect on me. I always make sure I have something to keep me occupied whether it’s listening to a podcast or or jotting down some notes for a project; I come prepared and ready to wait.

3. Keep a journal.

As archaeologists we are required to keep journals of our fieldwork. It allows our colleagues to reference our work in relation to particular findings and provides better context for people interested in the details of the project. Furthermore, it forces us to reflect on the day’s work. Digging and hiking from 8:00 am–4:00 pm everyday can be draining but maintaining a journal forces us to “connect the dots” and make sense of all the chaos. I use my journal to note aspects of fieldwork I plan to adopt for my future research as well as to keep track of potential areas of further inquiry. I’ve found it particularly helpful in thinking through ideas related to my dissertation, and it has even helped me keep up with my personal blog when the internet was sporadic.

Since I’ve been back I’ve made a concerted effort to continue keeping a journal to reflect on possible dissertation topics as well as academic publications. I use DayOne on my Mac and iOS devices to jot down reflections on research and add tags to sort through them later. As for the physical journals, I shelve them all in my personal library and reference them from time to time, particularly when I’m writing up my analysis. They may even come in handy if I decide to publish some personal reflections on my fieldwork.

4. Plan downtime to recuperate.

Finally, everyone needs downtime when they finish a long research trip. When I got back from Ethiopia I hid out in my apartment for a couple days and told everyone I wasn’t coming back until the following week. I took those days to catch up with magazines, blogs, movies/tv shows, and a huge stack of unopened mail that was sitting on my counter.

If you need a few ideas to help unwind, learn how to “enjoy the little things” or take an early mini-vacation and recharge. In my continued quest to satisfy my need for creativity, I recently started learning Adobe Illustrator and plan to learn how to write code in Python in the near future.

Each time I travel I find myself picking up new skills and learning new life lessons. I love the idea of conducting my research abroad, and even though it extends the PhD, it’s the life lessons and stories that make it all worthwhile. I take every experience as a learning opportunity and hope to be able to incorporate these life lessons into various aspects of my academic career.

What life lessons have you learned during your journey as a graduate student?

[Image by the author used under creative commons licensing.]

 

 

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