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I am a PhD student in the social sciences at an American university. I have completed coursework, my prospectus, qualifying exams, and teaching. I am about to leave for one year of dissertation fieldwork.

As is the case for most PhD students in my position, the project is larger, longer, and more independent than anything I have done before -- conducting one year of full-time original research, writing a dissertation, and then writing a book. Although my prospectus outlines a research plan, it feels too abstract to give day-to-day, week-to-week guidance.

What strategies have you used to succeed in a large, long-term research project, especially when it is based on fieldwork and for a dissertation? Personal anecdotes, experience, advice, and tips are welcome.

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  • Make sure you have all permissions and approvals from your home institution before you leave. For example: if your field work involves human subjects, advance approval will be required. – GEdgar Feb 22 '15 at 15:37
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For each of the components, have a plan B, even plan C: Be flexible about pretty much everything. For example, if you rely on making copies of questionnaires, would you still be able to collect data if the copier in the field office fails? Etc. It's always good to mentally play a couple what-can-go-wrong scenarios when planning the study. Do so within reason, however, or you may risk stressing out yourself.

Incorporate some immersive observation of the field: If safety and cultural environment allow, try to observe more as a bystander. For instance, a patient with diabetes may tell you that she always wears shoes to protect her feet when walking on the dirt, but in fact the local people may only own one pair of shoes and they only wear them in festivals or when meeting with visitors.

Learn the local languages: Interpreters in some places are not exactly fluent in English, knowing some of the local languages can help you better engage with the process like interview or daily dialogue. It will also facilitate your mixing-in with the community.

While you're there for your research, also think how you can benefit the community: For instance, you may volunteer some time to work, train some locals to empower them, share with them your results at the end, liaise local stakeholders to address your questions and give input to your solutions, etc. If possible, be more "by the community, for the community."

Back up and back up again: If you use field note, get the ones with the brightest cover so that it's easily recognized and less likely to be lost. Written and drawn field notes should be photographed and archived regularly. Computer records should be backed up into at least two other media (external hard-drive and/or encrypted cloud storage.) Don't store your external hard drive and work computer at the same place (e.g. left in the car or office together.) For people who might have picked up your lost notes and wanted to return, make sure your equipment and notes have a contact method (like the address and phone of your host organization) to reach you. If possible, do not leave your personal address if you'd be living alone.

Backward engineer from your products: A day-by-day routine may be difficult, it's easier to set up milestones along the way. I found it useful to decide what the product will be (say, a 1,500 word literature review x 5 parts) and then give them an estimated duration to complete, followed by fitting them into the calendar. Once the big skeleton is in, then do the finer level like weeks/days to determine daily word quota you'll need to fulfill. Give everything some cushion time. Most of the time, I found myself underestimate i) transportation mishaps, ii) local festivals and holidays, and iii) administrative difference, like some clinic can just close for the day because they gave out all their medicine in the first hour after opening.

And I totally agree with another answer that you should start entering and evaluating the data as soon as they are ready. Time to time I've found questions being misunderstood. E.g. I had respondents answering an English-to-Portuguese question "What is your top three favorite foods?" with "Breakfast, lunch, and dinner." Knowing something has been lost in translation allowed us to correct the question quickly.

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The most relevant advice (about the research, not life in the field) I can give is to keep on top of the analysis as the data comes in, and do not stockpile data in the hope that you can make sense of it when you're home. Analysis will reveal gaps and problems, which you need to address before you go away. Though if you're stuck with a rigid methodology where everything has to be set up before you go and then you just grind through the questionnaire, then you have my sympathies.

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I suggest that you create no more than three Post-It notes to attach to your computer screen. On these, write your most concise statement of:

  1. Why am I doing this research?
  2. What is significant about the way I am doing this research? (new? different?)
  3. In the end, who will care about these results? How can I make my results vivid for them?

Look at these Post-It notes every day as you do your research and write your dissertation. If what you are doing deviates, either re-write your Post-It notes, or rewrite your research.

This advise comes from my decades of experience. My best writing and research comes when I can feel direct and visceral connection with the people who might benefit from what I'm writing.

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