Fieldwork’s Unspoken Challenge: Reverse Culture Shock


By Sara Dada

Fieldwork comes with the territory in the international development profession. Some LIDC members have been working and living around the world for most of their lives. Others may have set off on their first foray into a remote community this summer. The anxieties that come with your first fieldwork experience are numerous. Planning your research, settling into a new neighbourhood and even figuring out what to eat on a daily basis can be daunting tasks. While these challenges sometimes seem insurmountable at the onset, a routine is eventually established and we begin to feel, dare I say, comfortable in a community where we look and sound completely out of place.  

The Challenge

But the challenge we rarely discuss, potentially the biggest challenge of all, is what do we do when that fieldwork term ends? What happens when you’ve gathered all your data, said your goodbyes, and taken your last complicated journey to the airport?

When I got back to London after my first month of fieldwork, I thought I would be ecstatic. As an American student in London, I have become accustomed to and even fallen in love with this metropolis. It was very easy to consider London my home. And when I was leaving Sierra Leone, I felt excited to be returning home.

But as I sat on the increasingly crowded Piccadilly line taking me further away from Heathrow and the heat of West Africa, I felt a new uneasiness. Suddenly, everything around me was too loud. The English chatter was too clear. The ground beneath my newly calloused feet was too clean. I chided myself for feeling like a stranger after only one month away. A month in the field is nothing, I told myself. After all, the academics and role models I look up to have spent years on end in conditions far less comfortable than mine.  

What To Do After Fieldwork

What makes reverse culture shock so difficult is how surprising it is. We expect to come back to comfort and familiarity. Instead, the differences from what you became accustomed to for two weeks or two years are jarringly obvious. I must admit that I do not have the answers to the questions I have posed. All I can do is offer the same advice that was given to me: take a breather and let yourself feel it. There are a few tips to unpack your fieldwork experience in a constructive way as you readjust to your norm: 

Talk about it.

Don’t shy away from telling your friends, families and colleagues about the experiences you had away from home. More likely than not, they’re already asking you more questions than you can answer. Talk about the good and the bad when you are comfortable, and don’t be afraid to express your discomfort as well.  

Give yourself a break.

Chances are you planned to jump right into the next steps of your project the moment you landed in your home country. Instead of trying to check off the next item on your to do list, let your brain and body recover from the stress of travel and intensive work. Unwind and reflect or journal on the experiences you’ve just had.  

Have patience.

With the people around you as well as yourself. Those asking about your time living in x country may have never been in a similar position themselves. If you have trouble sharing your story with the people around you, try other forms of communication like blogging or photo journals. Additionally, be patient with yourself and give yourself time to settle into a routine.  

Looking Ahead

With more experience and opportunities to conduct international fieldwork, this process can become second nature. But to get that point, young researchers must continue to seek out those opportunities. Chasing that passion for development work around the globe will make us confident and competent field experts.

Sara Dada is a Fulbright Scholar who is currently studying for an MSc One Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Royal Veterinary College and doing an internship at LIDC. She is researching the community engagement model practices around the Ebola vaccine trials in Kambia and Mambolo, Sierra Leone. By interviewing trial team members and local community members, Sara hopes to understand the barriers and facilitators to community engagement around biomedical research by using the model first set up in the Salone-EBOVAC trial. The overall purpose of this research is to determine the viability of rolling out this model in other disease preparedness programs.