By Sin-Yi (Cindy) Chang, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
A while ago, I came across the oil paintings of Chen Chung-Po and Liao Chi-Chun, two prominent 20thcentury Taiwanese artists that captured the beautiful view of northern Taiwan. Although today the landscape is dotted with more tourists, motor vehicles, and modern buildings, I could immediately tell where it is. The university where I have recently completed my fieldwork is located on the mountain top that overlooks this sea colored by the changing lights of day and night.
Specifically, my research is focused on language policy and practice in higher education in Taiwan, with the aim to explore how classroom linguistic choices are affected by the growing status of English in academia. I started my fieldwork in the fall of 2017, thinking that I was fully prepared to gather the sixty hours of interview and observation data I needed for my research. Pilot study – completed; institutional research consent – obtained; fieldwork schedule – approved by the faculty. What else could be missing?
Different from the serenity that is manifested in the paintings above, the word that best describes the second year of my PhD is most likely “uncertainty.” Looking back on this experience I thought it might be helpful to share some tips with those who are about to embark on their own fieldwork journeys. In the following sections, I highlight some points to think about before, during, and afterfieldwork.
- Seek possibility of arranging an external supervisor
Being away from Cambridge for nearly an entire year, I am truly grateful for having additional sources of academic support during my stay in Taiwan. Aside from working with my fieldwork host who helped me with the nuts and bolts of data collection, I had another supervisor in Taiwan who offered me more general advice on research and career development. In particular, my external supervisor directed me towards key scholars in Taiwan who do similar research to mine. In addition, she also recommended me important local journals and conferences to check out. Although the arrangement of an additional supervisor may not necessarily benefit your current study, it never hurts to build up your research network and learn from others’ work. I would suggest discussing with your primary supervisor whether an external supervisor is needed, and if the answer is yes, who would be the most suitable person to approach.
- Secure fieldwork funding
Most faculties provide some financial support to PhD students for their fieldwork. Items to be funded may include travel fare, printing, photocopying, software, and reasonable in-kind gifts for your participants. The IT department at your faculty may loan equipment for research, too. However, do double-check details with your institution as funding policies may differ from year to year. Again, I suggest asking your supervisor for more information on such issues. It would also be helpful to see if other academic communities offer travel grants or external research grants to ongoing PhD students.
- Be prepared, but also flexible and spontaneous
While trying your best to maintain the integrity of your research, be prepared that the fieldwork does not always unfold as expected. In other words, it is important to have some degree of flexibility and spontaneity when collecting data. Specifically, give your participants time to make decisions and welcome questions gracefully. Sometimes you may feel that you are going through your viva again when people ask “Why do you choose to do your fieldwork here?” “How will you analyze your data?” “What is the significance of your research?” There might also be trickier questions to handle, such as “Who else have you approached?” or “What did the others say?” Talking about your research findings encourages reflection, but be sensitive of what you share, especially in the field. Looking back, with each participant I spent more time answering questions and building rapport than collecting the actual data itself!
2. Consider doing some preliminary analysis during your fieldwork
As your data increases in size, it may be useful to start thinking about how your data can be organized and analyzed. By preliminary analysis I mainly refer to the process of familiarizing yourself with your data. From the perspective of doing qualitative research, this could mean doing transcriptions and translations, as well as identifying initial themes that slowly emerge. Of course, before completing the fieldwork, avoid diving too deep into analysis as you don’t want to unintentionally impose meaning from one data set to another.
- Know when to stop collecting data
The line that draws the end of the fieldwork is often somewhat artificial and not necessarily well-defined. Some researchers stop when they run out of funding; some come to a halt when they are no longer permitted to stay on their fieldwork site. In most cases, a conclusion is marked when the intended sets of data are all collected (some people may obtain one or two more to ensure that there is enough evidence to support their research arguments). In general, perhaps it is best to stop when your data reaches some kind of saturation. Having too much data could make you feel very disoriented during analysis!
- Invite your participants to give you critical comments on your research
Consider doing member validation when something tangible can be shared. Immediately after my fieldwork, I sent copies of the transcribed data to my participants as an invitation for commenting (e.g. refining what they intended to convey or adding any after thoughts). Additionally, I also informed my participants that they can see more advanced analysis of the data at later stages if they wish. The process of member-checking not only increases the validity of your research, but also allows you to maintain a continuing conversation and professional relationship with your participants.
There is no denying that the fieldwork experience is fraught with many uncertainties, but I cannot express how rewarding it is to see a research project come to life in its various colors and forms. As with most of the challenges that we eventually overcome, remember that “Everything will be ok in the end. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end.” You are not alone on this journey.
Chen, Cheng-Po. Sunset at Danshui. 1935. Christie’s. https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/chen-cheng-po-chen-chenbo-1895-1947-5001359-details.aspx
Chen, Cheng-Po. Tamsui. 1933. Wikipedia. https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chen_Chengpo_1933.jpg
Liao, Chi-Chun. The Landscape of Tamshui. 1962. Ravenel International Art Group. https://ravenel.com/artwork.php?id=1869&lan=en
Sin-Yi Chang is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. She obtained her BA in Foreign Languages and Literature from National Taiwan University and MPhil in Second Language Education at Cambridge. Before her PhD, she was an English teacher at Shipai Junior High School in Taipei. Her research interests include English medium instruction, language policy, internationalization of higher education, and other topics related to the global spread of English.