Doing Fieldwork During Your PhD Study

Written by Erza Killian

If you are doing a PhD thesis in social science like me, it is very likely that at some point of your study (most likely in the 2nd year), you are required to do some fieldwork. In fact, during the admission process, you may have also included fieldwork in the research proposal that you submitted to the school. But planning and doing fieldwork are basically two different things, so here’s my account of the six-months fieldwork that I just completed in Europe and Asia, plus the three months’ time required to prepare everything beforehand.

First of all, there are two technical things you need to consider before you can actually leave the University for your fieldwork. First is the funding. Social sciences fieldwork are often costly because you need to account for transportation, accommodation, food costs and in several cases, you are required to stay for a long period of time in multiple locations. However, the University of Leeds provides funding for PhD researchers which differs based on your school’s policy, so it’s necessary to ask your school administrator about how much money is available for you. Another option is to find external funding that can cover the overall cost of your fieldwork, although this means that you must make sure your research is in line with the benefactor’s cause.

The second thing to consider is your ethical documents. The university’s policy requires every researcher to first pass an ‘ethical review’ before they can do fieldwork. In the ethical review, you basically fill out forms (lots of them!) to explain that your research has met the required research ethics of the university. One important document is called the Risk Assessment Form, where you need to explain how risky your research project is and how you are going to mitigate those risks. This is important because the university is also responsible for your safety and well-being during fieldwork (you are insured by the university during fieldwork, by the way!) so they need to make sure that you are safe and healthy during fieldwork.

Once you completed all the necessary documents (mine was about 15 pages long), you need to send it to the committee and they will issue an ethics reference number which means that you’ve passed the ethical screening and you ready to go. Oh, and one more thing before you go, you need to tell your supervisors that you’re off to do fieldwork (obviously!) and report to your school that you’ll be away from the UK (if you’re doing fieldwork outside of UK). Also make sure that you check the regulations regarding your visa status because international students have limitations on how long they can stay outside of UK during their study. So now that you’ve taken care of the technical stuff, it’s time to do fieldwork and embark on one of the most exciting journeys of your PhD life.

I visited a total of five countries during my fieldwork: Belgium, Netherlands, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam, with an average of 1-2 months in each location. During my time, there were of course many problems along the way, but it can be easily categorised into three clusters: logistics, accessibility and communication. Logistics is the first thing you need to consider: which airline/bus/train are you going to use, where are you going to stay, do you need a table/office to work, do you need to cook every day and all other related stuff. During my fieldwork, I applied as a visiting researcher at Ghent University in Belgium so I can get a working space, cheap university accommodation and easy access to Brussels where the majority of my respondents are located. The University of Leeds has many partner universities worldwide so it’s always good to check this beforehand. Being a visiting researcher really helps in keeping my budgets low and making me focused on my work since I’m surrounded by fellow researchers.

Doing Fieldwork in Europe

 Accessibility relates to knowing how to get the necessary information for research and deciding which channel to use. Since I did my fieldwork in Europe and Asia, the mechanisms are quite different. Personal relations are highly crucial in several places, while professional contacts are more valued in others, so make sure to be familiar with the cultural context as well. Get good and reliable local links since they can assist you a lot in your fieldwork and can help explain local context to you. This also applies to communication issues where other people/cultures prefer different modes of communications. I once tried emailing an institution for five times before finding out that they preferred to be approached by phone or direct contact rather than emails. Lastly, always maintain good communications with your supervisors during fieldwork since they can help provide solutions if you’re facing any difficulties abroad.

Fieldwork and Sightseeing in Asia

Whilst fieldwork can be tiring, disheartening, and boring at times (imagine doing 4-5 interviews a day and asking the same questions repeatedly), it is also highly enlightening and occasionally, entertaining. I get to meet and connect to so many people from various backgrounds and even made friends with several people who helped me along the way. I’ve watched, learned and observed the different ways of living and interacting which really changed my view of the world. But for me, the best part about fieldwork is that I get to work and travel at the same time. During the six months’ time, I managed to visit five countries and ten cities, sampled tons of local dishes, visited several landmarks, watched local performances and even managed to take several weeks off to visit my family. It was indeed one of the best experiences I’ve ever had so far during my study in Leeds. Overall, doing an intensive fieldwork for your study can sometimes be daunting, especially if it’s your first time. But based on my experience, the university (and my excellent supervisors!!) have helped a lot in making it an enjoyable and yet, productive experience.


Erza Killian
I am Erza, a PhD student at the School of Politics and International Studies, (POLIS). I completed my Master degree in Australia and bachelor degree in Indonesia before deciding to join the...
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