Travel before Field Research?

For any of you who have ever applied for, or looked at a field researcher position you will be more than familiar with phrases like; “Must have experience living abroad”, why do so many researchers ask for this and should you travel to increase employability?

When you think of what being a field researcher is about many images may be conjured up. For me I picture a researcher walking through a steamy tropical forest, perhaps working with a small team of locals to find exotic species. Whilst this is still what I expect for when I begin my research in Sumatra this year, but for many weeks before I make it out to the rainforest I will be living and working on permits in some of the busiest cities on Earth. Jakarta is said to be a city of contrast with some of the population living in poverty whilst others are extraordinarily wealthy, some aspects remain very traditional and strict whilst others are modern and liberal. Currently I have been asking myself, am I prepared to live and work in a country of such contrast? I have answered this question with a resounding yes. But it was not without some issues that I now believe I am ready to go to the authorised of the world.

I had been applying for countless research positions and whilst I had some success, many other researchers wished I had more travel experience before they took me on. I had travelled around Europe a bit, but nothing more than holidays really, however, I felt that nothing  in Africa, Asia or South America could make me regret going to conduct research. So I started looking online and trying to find why my lack of travel would make me untested to do research. After looking through countless travel blogs, websites and books  one answer kept coming up. Culture shock.

It was constantly spoken about, but rarely described, about how the culture shock can make it difficult to settle into a new area, how some develop awful home-sickness because of it (Luckily I have never been homesick). So, I did what anyone would do to prove I would not be put off from research by experiencing unfamiliar customs. I tried to find the country said to have the biggest culture shock to Westerners. This led to me and a friend heading out to India, and travelling for a couple of months to prove to myself how I could handle whatever it had to throw at me.

So off we went. The excitement was intense. I would count down the weeks, days, how much money I would save and what I would spend it on. I would trek in the forests, climb mountains, stay in the madness that is Delhi and push myself at every opportunity I could. I kept saying how nothing would shock me. Then we landed.

Arriving in the middle of the night in Delhi the adventure was about to begin. before we had even left the airport I was stunned. My friend and I found our bags and made for the security checks to leave. The signs pointed down a single escalator to get out of the airport, and at the top of that escalator that my jaw dropped.

When people say that India is home to a lot of people the image is not make it clear. When you say over a billion people live in India that sounds mad. But when you see the crowds in Delhi, that made it abundantly clear. Thousands and thousands of people everywhere. Its staggering. I often find Manchester, or London to be too busy for my liking. Delhi, was a whole other thing. I think its safe to say I had my first dose of culture shock before I left the airport. But that was not the last of it.

Anyone who has visited India I am sure knows what I am describing. I had heard stories about what to expect and I can now firmly believe they were all true. Cows in the street, slums that go on forever, monkeys everywhere, the litter burning in piles  and the smog. The smog was like nothing I had ever experienced. It was like breathing through an exhaust the whole time in Delhi. But none of this to deter anyone from visiting India. The people are some of the kindest I have ever met, ever walk to the shops is an adventure and the scenery is astounding.

It took about a week for me to start to relax in India. Once out of Delhi we travelled around the North from the deserts of Jailsemer to the Himalayas at Dharmkat. We travelled by sleeper trains, hung out with the locals, made some good friends, trekked the mountains, saw the biggest spiders I have ever seen, saw the wildlife and ate the best food I have ever tasted.

It wasn’t until the third week that I no longer felt like the culture shock was hitting me. I was getting used to the way things were. Even things I thought I would never get used to seeing soon just melted back into regular life there. As we were leaving I thought I felt safer walking around in Jaipur then I ever did even walking around in my home time.

Fast forward to now. In a few months I will be on the other side of the globe. Living, working, researching there for almost a year without a break. But this time I am far more prepared. I am sure things may still surprise me a little bit. But I cannot imagine myself in the same shock as I was in India. This time I am ready to get off the plane and get straight to work the next day. Yes I am excited to experience life over there. But its a different type of excitement. I’m more excited to get the research underway than to see the country.

So for me, I feel that should you travel before committing to field research? Yes. Definitely yes. Push yourself way out of your comfort zone. Go to the other side of the world. Scare yourself if you must. So that when you get to your research you won’t be dealing with the culture shock. Instead you can just get straight to work and do what you are there for. The research.



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