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Being adaptable as an international researcher during Covid-19

19 August 2020

2 minutes to read

Being adaptable as an international researcher during Covid-19

Issy Sawkins is a second-year SWWDTP-funded PhD student at the University of Exeter. Her research investigates contemporary Holocaust memory in the Russian Federation; it is supervised by Professor James Mark (History Department, Exeter) and Dr Jenny Mathers (International Politics Department, Aberystwyth).

Adapting your plans for fieldwork

The second-year of my PhD was supposed to be my year for fieldwork and skills training abroad: I was due to spend the majority of the year away from the UK (two-and-a-half months in Poland, three months in Russia, two weeks in Israel, and some international conferences interspersed between the longer trips).

While I was fortunate enough to indeed spend time in Kraków between October and December 2019, both learning Polish and conducting primary research, my other plans were abandoned as a result of the pandemic. This has forced me to reorient my project in fundamental ways, including planning for the possibility that fieldwork in Russia may not be possible at all during my PhD.

Receiving help and support

However, I have been fortunate enough to have received invaluable help from people I know, including those based in Russia, UK, and other countries. For example, several academics in the field have sent me physical and electronic copies of books that pertain to my topic of research.

I have also managed to conduct several interviews, albeit not as many as I would have conducted had I been in Russia myself. Whilst conducting interviews remotely has indeed allowed me to speak to interviewees across the Russian Federation, in regions that I may not have had the chance to visit in person, obstacles have remained. They have included both a limited WiFi connection amongst several of my participants, and a relatively low uptake on recruitment emails because people in Russia are not particularly likely to agree to an interview with someone that they have never met in person.

So, even though there are digital ways for me to continue with my research, the need to navigate several cultural norms means that it isn’t always a straightforward process.

Adapting and adjusting your research during Covid-19

As a researcher that needs to conduct fieldwork abroad, I have had to swiftly adapt during Covid-19. I have had to adjust my project in light of the high possibility that I will not be able to conduct this research in person for the purpose of my PhD and will therefore be forced to do whatever I can remotely. At times this has been incredibly frustrating, and caused severe delays to my work, but I am persevering and trying to remain positive.

I am lucky to have a wonderful group of friends and family, as well as amazing supervisors, who have supported me through this unnerving process. But I know that I am not alone, and that the way in which academics now have to conduct research, particularly research abroad, has fundamentally changed.

Follow Issy on Twitter: @IssySawkins


Issy Sawkins


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