I’ve had a fantastic time doing preliminary research for my dissertation in Accra this summer. I actually didn’t end up traveling around west Africa as much as I’d planned, but I have been able to connect with lots of local researchers, and should eventually be in a position to collect original data on the Ghanaian government’s flagship social protection program, LEAP (more about this in future posts).
Launching a new project here has been an interesting experience. I spent the better part of a year working in Ghana between 2010 and 2012, but I wasn’t in Accra, and many of the people I knew during that time have since left the country. The academic network I’ve built in the US is largely composed of people who study central and east Africa, as well, since up until about three months ago I also expected to be studying those regions. (Also more on this in a future post!) So whilst Ghana is a familiar place in many ways, I’ve essentially had to start from scratch in establishing myself as a researcher here.
To that end, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned about getting a dissertation project off the ground in a new country. This post was inspired in part by Diana Kapiszewski, Lauren MacLean and Benjamin Read’s new book Field Research in Political Science. It’s a good resource for young researchers, but I felt a few more concrete examples could be useful.
- Strong social networks are an essential part of research. I can’t highlight this enough. When I arrived I found it nearly impossible to connect with anyone working on LEAP directly. It was difficult to find contact information for staff at the relevant ministry, the emails I could send would go unreturned, and I wasn’t certain that simply showing up and asking for meetings would be any more useful. It’s proven much more efficient to connect with other academics, journalists, and NGO employees doing work related to LEAP, and get introductions through them. In several cases, a reference of this type meant that my unreturned emails and calls suddenly got replies.
- If you haven’t got a good network, start building. Much of this can be done before you ever leave home. Email other scholars in your field, both domestically and in your research country, to ask for recommendations. (Senior academics often have higher-level contacts; younger professors and PhD students typically have more up-to-date contact lists and advice for settling into a place.) If there’s an emigrant community from the research country in your current town, connect with them. Look through your university’s alumni database and your extended contact networks on LinkedIn. Reach out to local think tanks and NGOs. Journalists tend to be quite well-connected; read the local papers to see who covers issues related to your topic, and get in touch with them. Ask the public relations officer at your country’s embassy about other people doing work in your field. Browse the hashtags related to your country of interest on Twitter and Facebook and speak to the people who seem to be producing the most insightful content. In general, cast a wide net; it’s worth it to speak to as many people as you can initially, since many people may turn out to have useful contacts even if their own work isn’t directly related to your research.
- Data collection is about creating relationships. This is most obviously the case whilst doing key informant interviews, when creating rapport with the other person can help to move the interview along. (As Naunihal Singh has said to me, it helps to frame an interview not just as “I want this information” but as “I’d like to speak to you because you’re knowledgeable, and I value hearing your side of the issue at hand.”) But it’s also the case when going through an archive, asking the government for permission to do a quantitative survey, or getting introductions from your contacts. If possible, it helps to have something to give in exchange. Offering money for access to data or interview subjects is both questionably ethical and questionably useful, but providing access to information or contacts of your own can be helpful. I’ve been sharing my list of scholarships for African students and recommendations for applying to graduate school in the US.
- Don’t forget the “social” part of social networks. Particularly on a short pre-dissertation trip, the temptation to keep working constantly lest you fail to accomplish everything you’d hoped for can be significant, but it’s also important to take time off and make friends as well. Not only is work-life balance important, but you’re also likely to meet interesting people who could help with your research. I’ve now met great people working on local governance and cash transfers whilst on hikes, at yoga, playing floorball, and out for drinks. If you really don’t know anyone when you arrive, look for groups that fit your interests on InterNations and MeetUp, or search Facebook for pages like “Accra Expats” or “Tamale Expats” – nearly every sizable city has a group these days. Whilst expat circles often make for limited social scenes if you’re staying for a long time, they’re generally quite welcoming, and can be a good place to start meeting people if you’ve just arrived.
- Be patient with yourself. The first weeks or even months of a new project can be intimidating. I’ve found my feet quite quickly on this trip, but during my first days in town – when I didn’t know anybody, got doublebooked by the flat I’d planned to rent, and was spending most of my time sitting by myself in an overpriced hotel trying to get people to respond to my emails – I wasn’t feeling entirely enthusiastic about the project. Remember that it’s going to get better over time. And if there are small things you can do to make yourself feel better about the situation, do them. In my case, I spent some extra money to rent a desk at a local co-working space, just so I wouldn’t be working alone in my room all the time. It’s brought me a lot of interesting people to talk to, and easy access to a very good smoothie shop as well.
What other advice would you share?