Roadblocks & perseverance… Research is hard!

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I’ve been working on my undergraduate research since September 2014 when I started writing my research proposal.¬†After months of revisions, ethics approval, and bureaucracy battles with the government of Botswana, I finally began my data collection a couple of weeks ago. What have I learned since then? Research is hard!

I’ll admit I knew it was going to be hard from the start. I knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. I knew things wouldn’t always go my way. … But I’ll also admit I thought things would go a little more smoothly than they have so far. Frustratingly, there have been so many bumps along the way.

Most recently, I’ve had issues accessing my research sample, secondary students between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. I specifically designed my research so I’d be interacting with students during ‘down-time’ in their scholarly schedule. Since January is the beginning of a new term, the students aren’t as busy with exams and projects as they were in November and December.

But while they aren’t busy with school,¬†I’ve still had trouble getting enough time with them to complete surveys let alone get some interviews in! There’s always something else going on that mucks up my research schedule. I’ve had situations where schools have double-booked their students, situations where the teacher I’m working with isn’t around on our agreed meeting day, and even sticky situations with disorganized administration, when schools I’ve been working with for the past three weeks to set up a meeting with their students forgot to tell the right people I’d be coming, resulting in chaos or rescheduling.

Since I am now into my last week of placement in Botswana, data collection is now in full crunchtime mode.¬†I have some data now and I should be collecting more over the next few days. The truth is, though, that it just might not be enough. It’s hard to admit that all this work has culminated into such a whirlwind but I’m working on focusing on this experience as a time of growth instead of a time of disappointment. I might as well find the silver lining because I can’t change anything now.

All I can do is my best. I can work as hard as I can to get as much done as I can. And then I can take what I’ve learned from this experience to become better for the future. For example,¬†I’ve learned how best to liaise with government institutions and educators. And I’ve learned to become even more of a self-starter, to advocate for my needs when no one else will. I’ve also learned that I need to let things go when they don’t go my way, especially since the roadblocks I’ve run into along the way are out of my control.

There are only five more working days left of my placement, which means there are only five more research days as well. Fingers crossed the worst of the challenges are behind me but, realistically, I’m sure I’ll¬†be flexing my problem solving muscles this week too to get things done. Wish me luck!

My Thesis Research (DUN DUN DUNNNN)

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As an international development studies (IDS) co-op student, I am required to do two things in my fourth year abroad. First, I’m supposed to live and work in a developing country for¬†eight to twelve months. And second, I’m tasked with choosing a research topic for my undergraduate thesis and collecting data for this research while on placement. During our first three years university, the IDS-ers tend to become very excited about the work part of placement and very scared about the thesis side of things (hence the dramatics in this post’s title!). But we need to do both to graduate so thesis research always manages to get done.

For those who regularly read my blog, you know I’ve had a turbulent past eight months on placement. My first three months were spent in Bibiani, Ghana,¬†a country I grew to love but¬†left early due to concerns about the Ebola outbreak in neighbouring countries (to date, thankfully, there have been no confirmed cases of Ebola in Ghana). Then, after just about three weeks back home in Canada after Ghana, I jetted off to Botswana to finish my placement here, where I’ve been for almost five months.

What has this got to do with research? Well, in Ghana I planned to do research on one topic. I even wrote a pretty good draft of a research proposal for my supervisor. But as soon as I left, I was forced to throw that away and start fresh in Botswana. This was nerve-wracking because I have a lot less time to complete my research in Botswana, with a placement of only five or so months in comparison to the eight months I was going to have in Ghana.

When I arrived in Botswana, I was a little disoriented. I had experienced a lot of change in a month (from West Africa to North America to Southern Africa) so it took me a while to settle in and finally start thinking about potential research topics here. After about two months in Gaborone, Botswana, I finally chose my topic. With all the media about street harassment around the world, I was interested in looking at this phenomenon here, too.

Street harassment is sexual harassment that happens in public places between strangers. Traditionally men are the harassers and women are the targets of street harassment, as it is widely considered a symptom of gender inequality. Even though street harassment is a global issue, there is little research done on it in general and even less done on it in the developing world, especially in Africa. Moreover, the youth voice is often left out of what research there is.

My research is focusing on speaking with youth – secondary school students here in Gaborone. I am looking for their stories, experiences, and conceptions of street harassment as a way of gaining insight into the gender inequality that exists here as well. I hope that my research will show that street harassment is an issue that we should be exploring as development researchers and practitioners. I also hope to add voices from the developing world to a topic that tends to be very North America focused.

I’ve already started setting up meetings with schools in the area to begin my data collection. It’s been a long time coming, since I started writing my research proposal for this topic almost three months ago. Preparing for research is almost as taxing as actually doing the research because there are numerous bureaucratic processes that need to be fulfilled with my university and also with federal and regional government here in Botswana.

I’m excited to get started with the data collection but¬†also quite nervous, which I think is to be expected. I’ve only done much smaller research projects in the past – nothing on this scale before and nothing outside of a university context. But that’s why we go to school, right? To be challenged because that’s when we learn the most. I’ve already learned so much preparing for this research so I know I’ll learn even more over the next few weeks during the¬†data collection process. Hopefully everything goes smoothly.¬†Wish me luck!

Music Lately

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Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to great music, either as a way to procrastinate from writing my research proposal or as background music when I finally sat¬†down to actually write the proposal. This means that¬†I’ve been discovering some pretty epic music, either through friends, sifting through my old songs, or through perusing YouTube and SoundCloud. I thought I’d share some of the songs on my ‘favourites’ playlist right now. Some are new, some are old, and I’m obsessed with them all. Enjoy! While you listen to these, I’ll get back to writing that research proposal….

Carry Your Throne by Jon Bellion

Bloodstream by Ed Sheeran

Chimes by Hudson Mohawke

Flaws by Vancouver Sleep Clinic

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Plans A, B, C… Z?

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I’m one of those people who’s always pursuing the next opportunity. I’ve got emails and newsletters coming into my inbox filled with possibilities: internships, workshops, jobs… I’m often seen perusing job boards. And I love sifting through these options and figuring out which ones might work for me. I put time and energy into imagining myself doing different the things I’m applying for because, for me, it’s exciting to explore all my options. The world is my oyster, as they say.

I won’t lie;¬†it can be tiring when things don’t work out. As an optimist, I’m pretty resilient because I’m an expert silver-lining finder. But I’m also¬†a perfectionist, so rejection can be hard. And plans often fall through, which can be frustrating, especially if¬†I’ve spent precious energy pursuing something that ultimately comes up short. Despite my positivity, disappointment can be as bitter for me as everyone else.

Recently, I was faced with one such situation. I had found out that there was a possibility of me taking a term abroad in Australia after my co-op placement in Botswana from March to June 2015. It was the perfect option in so many ways but some bureaucratic issues out of my control put a stop to all that. So I’ll be flying back to Canada in early March as originally planned instead of jetting off to Sydney for a few months to finish my anthropology major there.

At first, I was angry and disappointed about it and, while those feelings are still there, they’ve dwindled as I’ve started to look into other options. Like I do, I’ve begun imagining myself doing other things, being other places. Always moving forward is my motto about these things and¬†I’m looking forward to discovering exactly where I’m going to end up come March.

Many of my¬†friends in the same program (international development co-op at U of T) as me are beginning to think more and more about what’s next – not just after we finish our co-op placements but also about where we’ll go once we graduate… After all, we’ll all be graduating from university in just about a year and a half. I think the fact I love exploring future goals and making all sorts of plans so much will help me navigate my next year and a half and beyond that, too.

Right now, I’m pleased that I’m not stressing about what’s happening after graduation too much. I’m pleased because this is a little uncharacteristic of me, since I can be an intense over-achiever. Somehow, though, over the past six months in Ghana and Botswana, I’ve experienced so much instability in my life that now I know that I can handle little hiccups along the way (like having a plan to study in Australia struck down) as well as bigger hurdles (like moving across the world for months or like writing a thesis).¬†Perhaps, like a puppy, I’m ‘mellowing’ or maybe this is simply what growing up feels like?

Whatever it is, I’ll not stop being the planner that I am. I’ll always going to be looking for fun and exciting experiences that I can grow and learn from. I guess, now, I’m just not taking things as personally if they don’t work out. Or maybe it’s that I’m more confident in myself now; even if a plan falls through, I know I’ll be alright. Better than alright even! I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter if I’m in Botswana, Australia, or back home in Toronto, I’ll make it work. And, if these past few months are any indication, I’ll have a mighty amount of fun as I go.

To my fellow overachievers

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This week, thousands and thousands of students at the University of Toronto chose their courses. This yearly routine is met with a lot of frustration from upper years. This comes about when we don’t get into the courses we need in order to graduate on time or when we are number eighty-seven on a wait list for a class that we’ve wanted to take since our first year. And some of us experience the true hell of having two majors whose requirements have constant scheduling conflicts, which can lead to academic existential crises. (Who am I? A biological sciences student? Or a visual artist?) The struggle, as we say on Twitter, is very real.

The biggest fears about course selection, though, I find come from first year students. As an active member of campus community – even thousands of miles away on my co-op placement – I am one of many upper year students who spends time on social media (often in Facebook groups) quelling the fears of freaked out incoming students. So over the past couple of years, I’ve been there to notice a trend with these first years: some of them are¬†keen on enrolling in more courses than the usual courseload or attempting dramatic academic feats such as triple majors or double specialists.

Here’s where I put in a disclaimer: I took an above-average courseload in my first year of university and I’m working to complete a specialist as well as a major. So you could say that I easily fall within this category of wannabe overachievers. It’s for this reason that I am writing this post. This is written to these keeners, those are worried about standing out as they transition from being a ‘big fish in a small pond’ to attending a campus where they’ll be surrounded by other amazing people all the time. My message to you is: working ridiculously hard and sacrificing your self-care to be a ‘special’ student isn’t really worth it. Continue reading

On Graduation & Being ‘The Best’

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Over the past year, I’ve begun to notice a pattern: people are graduating. Now, this is to be completely expected, as this is how university is generally supposed to go. Nonetheless, I have noticed I have a funny internal reaction to the phenomenon: I often¬†feel threatened by the fact that I will be graduating in five instead of four years like most of my peers. My program is longer because of co-op and there is no way around it because we write a thesis in our last year. Simply, you cannot graduate early.

This is not something I should be bothered by but I know that I am on some small level because I¬†find myself thinking in response to all of these graduating people, “well I¬†could graduate after this¬†summer with the number of credits I¬†have but I’m not because of co-op”. This is such a silly disclaimer.¬†I would even go so far as to say that it is petty, as if I somehow think so highly of myself that I need to remind myself that I am, in fact, an exception to this five year rule, as if my choosing to take five years for my degree makes it more acceptable than if I was forced to.

It’s an embarrassing confession, Internet, so please don’t judge for it.¬†I think¬†my brain just needs to get over itself and accept that it is actually very normal. It does not need to graduate early to somehow prove that it is unique and fantastic. It needs to be a little more humble than that. I think if I go deeper into the issue, though, I will find that my little brain glitch about wanting to graduate early is actually all about¬†the desire to be¬†The Best.

One of my teachers in high school would tell me “your best is good enough”. While I loved this teacher, I’ve come to believe that this is a completely inappropriate affirmation for a perfectionist because if I’m doing my best for everything that I’m doing, I’ll burn out quickly. So my best (and consequently The Best) becomes this far off impossible goal. It’s this goal that leads me to think that I need to do unnecessary things like graduate early.

Working to be The Best¬†is just far too much pressure for a twenty-year-old to put herself under. I’m not saying I should throw in the towel and become a Netflix-binge-watching doing-nothing kind of person. What I’m saying is that I’m intrinsically motivated so I don’t need an unachievable external goal to get me moving. Perhaps I should just try on normal for a size. Perhaps there’s a little freedom in normal. Perhaps there’s a little wiggle room. I think this something I could really use.

The value of research

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A few days ago, my¬†co-op class had a potluck at our professor’s house (I know, my program rocks). Before we ate, we sat around and chatted about what we’d learned this term and also about some of our anxieties about our approaching co-op placements. As it turns out, many of us are anxious about the research portion of placement.

During our time abroad, we are expected to spend eighty percent with our placement organization (our job) and the other twenty percent on our personal research projects, which can be on any topic we choose and will be written into a thesis in our fifth year. If it sounds scary… that’s because it is! While many of us have taken a few research courses on methods, design, or¬†ethics, none of us have spent any real time ‘in the field’ so placement will be our very first experience. Because of all this newness, thinking about research on co-op comes with a wonderful mix of fear and excitement.

Over the past term, we’ve really been focusing on why we do research and what its benefits and disadvantages are. I’ve realized more and more that I want to do research while on placement that will not only add a valuable academic voice but that will also add value to the community with which I am working. I want to make sure that I am using my research to give back because, as one of my classmates pointed out, all research does some harm as it is inevitably disruptive in some way. So, for me, an ethical research project is something that I am fully committed to in order to produce the best possible results and something that I have the ability to share and disseminate, hopefully within the academic community and beyond.

It’s funny that I’m twenty and I’m almost done my third year of university and yet still haven’t figured out what to do with my life – but I’m actually completely okay with that. I haven’t decided how I want to use my undergraduate degree: will I fall in love with the doing of development work while on placement or will I fall in love with the research process? What if I love both? I know I’m going to graduate school but I’m not sure when and I’m sure even sure what I’ll study. I guess I’m using placement to explore what I want and where I see myself fitting in the world. My research, too, will help me explore my interests and – I’m sure – my limits. It’s all going to start when I step on a plane to Ghana in just under forty days!