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Post-fieldwork struggles: Taking it one page at a time

Post-fieldwork struggles: Taking it one page at a time

The past few months have been, well, predictable and unexciting. Transitioning from fieldwork — and a nine-to-five job — was, and still is, draining. Somehow, I am back to being a student in a university, living in a small room in student housing, leading a student organization, attending seminars in lecture halls and classrooms, and giving talks of my own.

I miss speaking Arabic, my sunny Amman apartment, and so many people. I miss the exhaustion of navigating the field and the excitement of my work. I don’t miss the stress or anxiety — was I obtaining enough data? — or the inevitable loneliness, but of course these are the aspects that have carried on into my post-fieldwork PhD life. I’m less able to appreciate the breathtaking aura of Cambridge and my privilege to be a part of it. Being back sometimes feels like I’ve moved in the wrong direction, or like I never left. Nothing has changed here, from the centuries-old buildings down to particular potholes in the streets.

I’m being honest. Post-fieldwork struggles are rarely discussed in the academe, and yet, from conversations with others who have returned from fieldwork, I realize it is common. I just want to say it out loud.

It took me a while to come to terms with leaving the field and to be able to blog about it. What do I have to talk about when nothing in Cambridge feels new? How do I describe how I’m feeling after fieldwork? How do I sum up my fieldwork in a few words when people ask me how it went?

My radio silence on the blog has been in part because I did not know what to say. But, I have been writing in other ways, namely my dissertation. So far, I’ve written drafts of the first three chapters, totaling 36,480 words to be exact. That’s just a bit more than my entire Master’s and Bachelor’s theses combined.

Writing the dissertation has been my one comfort in this interesting transition. It is the one thing connecting me to the novelty of being on fieldwork, sparking memories of friends I made when I write about them with different names. I’ll often stop mid-sentence to message whoever I am writing about, reassured that even though I may be referring to their story in the past tense, they are still just a message away. Writing has allowed me to make sense of what I witnessed in the field and my positionality within it. Writing for me is catharsis.

I have also come to enjoy the length of a PhD thesis. The thought of writing 80,000 words on a focused topic was intimidating at first, and writing this dissertation continues to be one of the hardest things I have ever done. But I have found this length to be just right, allowing me to delve into points and come to realizations that smaller word counts would restrict. Writing a chapter per month, I encounter many slumps, but overall, I have come to relish the time and space I have to regularly write.

As I prepare to write the next chapter, I decided to pause and reflect on what I have done so far. I am about halfway through the writing process, with two chapters and an introduction and conclusion to go. I have yet to see clearly what exactly my thesis is arguing, and I cannot wait for this argument to emerge from the pages, and for everything to suddenly make sense.

There is much work ahead: editing, re-writing, reading, and analyzing. And I will try to share more along the way. In the meanwhile, I am taking one page at a time.


Melissa Gatter (@melgatter) is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. This story was published on February 18, 2019, on Melissa’s blog, The World Behind the Curtain (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.

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