On beginning dissertation research in a new country

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?

11 thoughts on “On beginning dissertation research in a new country

  1. Find the means to be able to do one thing that makes you feel like yourself. I’m talking about things like regular exercise, a coffee shop to frequent, or even just making a simple snack or meal that reminds you of home. Small things like this have really helped me when I’m feeling homesick, especially during the first “what have I gotten myself into” days.

    And to your last point, I would add that it is okay to have days where nothing gets done. I have spent hours waiting to interview people who never show up, or have had many days during which I simply don’t know how to proceed. I think those days will happen, but they’ll also pass.


  2. This is great, Rachel! I would add though in the social network part that it’s not just about forging relationships with expats, but with locals as well. My greatest friend here, Jocelyne, has not only been an awesome friend, but also helped me learn the lay of the land when I arrived in 2012 and made numerous connections for me! Immersion with local folks can also really help you understand context – eating alloco at the neighborhood maquis I have learned a lot about how everyday Ivorians feel about the elections (and a lot of other subjects!)


    1. Definitely! My point about the expat scene was just that I’ve found it to be an easier way to meet people socially when you first arrive. Other expats are generally quick to welcome new arrivals, since they’ve been in the same position, and in my experience people who are really settled in a place often aren’t as interested in getting to know someone who’s just turned up and might only be staying for a few weeks at the start of a project. This is equally true in the US, for that matter. But of course in the long term getting out of the expat bubble is the goal!


  3. Hello! Rachel, the U.S. Department of state intervenes everywhere in Africa and Ukraine, Central Asia and the Balkans, where “uncle Sam” will intervene: everywhere there’s war, disease, famine, suffering … There is a saying “good intentions paved road to hell”!


  4. Love this. Especially the last one — working on that one now. Uganda is familiar to me, but as I settle in to a new region, city, job, etc I find patience and grace during the adjustment is so crucial!

    Excited to keep following your journey!


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