PhD’ing

August 5, 2014 § 2 Comments

So what does doing a PhD and being ‘in the field’ mean? Or: what on earth are you doing there every day? I’ve been asked these questions many times over the past weeks and I suppose it is rather difficult to imagine for outsiders. Perhaps for myself, too. Now, I am not sure to what extent the following has to do with my character, with being a PhD researcher, or a combination of both. Either way, let me give it a try.

It means walking. As you do not have the means to rent a car every day (and no driver’s license either), and taking taxi’s is sometimes inconvenient, not practical or impossible, you walk. And because you believe you should be as close to the people and processes you will be studying as you can. You need to immerse yourself, and being behind the windows of a car feels like closing yourself off from the social life you will need to understand.

So you walk. And walking can be inconvenient, too. Especially since, unless you only walk in the early morning or late afternoon which is practically impossible given the multiple appointments you have on one day, it is hot. It is dusty and you are sweaty, and those shoes you chose to wear in order to look relatively representative are not nearly as comfortable as your hipster sneakers. Your face gets all red and you are sweating, you arrive at your appointment looking as if you just ran half a marathon. Strangely enough, no one else looks like that even though they probably all came walking, or at least a great part of their trip, too.

When walking, you attract attention. People will greet you, shout ‘mzungu!’, ask where you are going. You cannot possible respond to all of them; you’d be continuously caught up in conversations. So you ignore half of them. Which makes you feel bad, thinking: would they think I am an arrogant European? Do they shout in order to get a response or simply out of habit? Should I then just greet everyone, too? But I won’t do that back home either. Then again, people back home do not pay attention to me. Why am I analysing this to pieces?

Because I am doing a PhD. It means thinking, about everything, all the time. Analysing everything you see around you and everything you hear. In that sense there is no weekend: you are in Burundi, you are in your research setting no matter what you do, where you go, who you talk to. Everything seems important and interesting. In a way you are at work 24/7. You connect everything to the things you’ve come to find out, seeing it all in light of That One Thing: the PhD project.

There’s continuous moral discussion going on. Who am I to write something about a place and people I know so little of, and probably will never fully understand? Shouldn’t I write about issues in my homeland, am I not much better placed to do that? Why do I need to come here, taking up the time of people, raising their hopes (no matter how carefully you explain why you are there, your white presence will undoubtedly raise some hope for assistance, one way or the other) without being able to give much back in return – because really, what does the argument of “making people’s voices heard, adding to academic literature, possibly contribute to better policy practices”, as you’ve written so sophisticatedly in your funding proposal, what does it truly mean to the people you have been talking with?

In the meantime you almost forgot what you came to study. So busy trying to figure out how to get from A to Z, by which means and with whom, you almost forgot there’s a whole world of writing articles, of academic theorising. A world that feels far away and sometimes, frankly, irrelevant. Which is probably not a very professional thing to say for a future academic researcher.

You read other people’s research methodology and wonder if you really need to live in a village and take daily walks barefoot in order to build trust and connect better with the people around you, whereas the people you meet already find it hilarious (and ridiculous) that you either walk or take taxi’s and buses. Because you are white, and white people have a car. They do not walk.

You are balancing security and safety issues with (good) academic practice. Until what time can you still take a taxi, will you take public transport upcountry to work as local as you can (even though you have seen numerous car accidents and proper health care is basically non-existent), work with an NGO risking to become too embedded, hire a car risking being seen as a complete outsider? Is it really true you’d be considered less of an outsider when you got out of a local bus instead of your own car? Your means of transportation does not make you less blonde, white and/or rich. Or does it?

You are on an exploratory research trip, so you are testing your initial ideas. You find out that almost no one knows what you are talking about. You refine your phrasing, frame questions differently. You establish a network of people relevant to your research, try to figure out case-studies. You live off a tiny budget and feel quite detached from other people whose skin color happens to be the same as yours. Your native language is not French so after a day of talking with n’importe qui about n’importe quoi all you want to do is watch Ratatouille, but your external hard drive died a couple of weeks earlier.

Which is why it is so great to meet other PhD people who’ve just arrived in the country (thus with all of their electronics still working), as they do understand the need for watching comic restaurant rats, and organise accordingly.

Where Am I?

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