My research experience – a guide for the research novice

So far I haven’t directly spoken about the research process on this blog; how I am going about collecting data, and how I have encountered and navigated the many challenges this process involves. On my second day in Banaras I got in touch with a PhD student from my university searching for some advice from someone who had been in my shoes. In writing this post I hope it might offer students like me some guidance or reassurance in their future research adventures.

For this research project I am aiming to elucidate the everyday experiences and realities of water in order to interrogate the Swachh Bharat, Clean India Campaign. As such, my research involves three elements; ethnographic techniques, semi-structured interviews and participatory methods. This means living the research topic – for me living in the city and experiencing and feeling its water woes, watching people – literally sitting by wells watching how people interact with and use water (you get some strange looks). It also means talking to people from all walks of life – I aim to interview 30 individuals  (currently hitting around 17). And lastly it means giving people the power to articulate water challenges in their own words using participatory diagramming, this involves staging focus groups and getting people to draw large cause and effect diagrams to illustrate the interconnectivity of water fragmentations here in Banaras.

Easy?! Far from it. I arrived in Banaras without a single contact – no NGO partnership, no ties to the university here, no friends – nothing! Just a plan and some research questions. I’m not a Hindi speaker and also needed to find a translator. This was also my first time living in a city effectively alone. 2 weeks in and I have a lot to be proud of, all the connections and progress I’ve made has been completely brought about by determination and persistence, as well as a bit of stepping outside of my comfort zone.

The masters year can be an awkward stage in life between being a student and fearing the reality of graduation and real life in September. It has required persistent hard work, which has been incredibly rewarding but can also be challenging, as this can be a time in many students lives where they have additional challenges ongoing in their personal lives. Some people move to a new city just for one year, friends from the UG degree move away, friends and loved ones embark on new chapters – and from the experience of many of my peers and I, it can be a turbulent time! So here’s a summary of the key challenges i’ve faced during my 2 weeks in India and some advice on how to conquer them, relevant if you are doing research either at home or abroad.

Challenge 1 – being your own boss

For every student undertaking an independent research project, the idea is entirely conceived by you, and you now have the challenge of actually going out and finding answers to those beautifully crafted and intellectual research questions you set yourself in your proposal. So first don’t set the bar to high! It is better to draft a simple and achievable proposal and ace it than design something so elaborate it is unrealistic.

Doing research home or abroad means waking up everyday and deciding what steps you should take to further your project. This is harder than it seems. No one is going to push you to go out and attend an event, or arrange an interview and sometimes it is hard to know what your project needs. I’ve been keeping a list of what I hope to achieve and what I am achieving so that I can see what gaps I need to fill – important for me as I only have 3 weeks to collect the data – when I leave there’s no popping back!

Everyone is different, but for me being alone and doing research is hard. It is a very solitary process even though you are meeting new people everyday. Being your own boss and taking charge of a project is exciting, but also scary and it can be hard to know if you are doing the right thing. Sometimes it’s hard to push yourself to go out in the heat and get more data, rather than thinking oh I probably have enough. It is hard not having someone to share the experience with. I think that accepting that it is hard and that it is lonely is a positive step. So many people will say, this experience is amazing make the most of it, you are so lucky to be in India and that is true – but it is also okay to feel homesick or anxious – just as long as you keep pushing forward!

I’ve also learnt that life is about balance and things don’t go to plan or go your way. As soon as everything seems to be on the right track, an interview gets cancelled or something goes wrong – or as I experienced a few days ago, all the ATMs in the city get shut down due to a cyber attack and you are stranded on the cities opposite side with no money in 45 degrees. Not ideal. Equally, as soon as I reached the point where my research was on track and I got some great results from some pieces of coursework back home, things in my personal life back home made a U-turn. As such, I’ve taken some days to just do what I feel – not planned too much and made time for some fun. When you are working abroad it can actually be really hard to know when it is okay to take a break.

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Taking myself for a day trip to some temples

Challenge 2 – being taken seriously

I’m not an assertive person by nature and occasionally I come across people who won’t take me or my research seriously. This could also be heightened by cultural differences and my positionally as a young girl. I’ve been told “you don’t understand”, “that’s a stupid idea”, “listen to me”. I’ve also found myself in some positions people feel threatened by what i’ve found or experienced or by what i’m asking – particularly if you are being slightly critical of their ideas. In speaking to a politician about their commitment to ‘common people’ he even left after I outlined an experience I had had in the slum and asked him what he thought about it – leaving me feeling frustrated.

You also get some dodgy looks standing next to wells or hand pumps taking a few notes or just hanging out. You do have to stop caring what people think a little bit and accept what you are doing is a bit weird.

In trying to talk about fragmented experiences in religion, caste, class or gender it is important to be sensitive. Don’t ask questions outright but pose scenarios – what would you say if, or have you heard this happens here? It is important to be neutral but also not let people walk all over you! Research is about asking difficult questions sometimes.

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Wedding gatecrasher, why not!?

Challenge 3 – what is the truth?

Naturally when you are doing research and collecting the opinions of many different people you engage yourself in often deep-set conflicts of interest or ideology. Not only can this be an uncomfortable position to be in, but it is also very confusing.

I’ve found myself sometimes directly engaged in debates over the rights of illegal slum dwellers – some of whom I’ve grown to know quite well. While I want to stick up for them and their opinions – which I have aimed to do as best I can when appropriate – for the purpose of this project I have to respect the views of everyone and can only aim to collect as much information and knowledge as possible in order to give an accurate description of everyday life here in Banaras. I think that being analytical of my findings will take time and distance from the project.

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Indian sister – daughter of the family I’m living with

What I have learnt 

So the reality of research is that it is rewarding, fun and a great life experience. But it is okay to struggle, face set backs, feel lost and lonely. I think that more people need to say it is okay to feel these things as long as you don’t let them overwhelm you – a research trip is not the same as a holiday! Being honest about the difficulties is just as important as embracing the great moments. Research is harder than you think, I’ve had to learn not to be too hard on myself. Being kind to yourself and looking after yourself, particularly when it is 45 degrees, is just as important as collecting good data.

Hopefully my honesty will be helpful to someone as they embark on their research journey! I think being realistic with your goals, stepping outside your comfort zone, thinking something is scary and doing it anyway are all important. And I am completely grateful to the continuous support of my family, friends and strangers which has helped me to feel a little less lost and make the most of my time here. Sorry for any 3am phone calls!

Sending love and luck from the City of Light!!!

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And dogs are always great companions!
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