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The value of field experience – what the job descriptions don’t say

May 16, 2011

Reading through Steve’s post on ‘Why am I doing a PhD?’, after ten months in West Africa, I realised I had never really addressed why I am here. I used to get frustrated when before leaving, people would imply that I was taking a ‘year out’. This year has been in many ways all about work, the difference is that I am lucky enough to say that what could be called work, doesn’t always feel that way (admittedly when I am dealing with Microsoft Excel, it really, really does)

More than anything my decision, along with many others who are volunteering abroad and trying to break into the international development sector, was about gaining that valuable field experience, assuring future employers that you weren’t going to freak out in a position where you are paid to be on the ball in difficult situations.  It is now well acknowledged that gaining some field experience is vital for establishing yourself in the sector, and showing you can cut it.

I had acknowledged this for a long time before I came here. It was only living in West Africa though that I finally got it. Why its not enough to say on your application form that you are ‘patient’, citing an example of a tricky work situation in the UK, or that you can work under pressure and tight deadlines, citing your Masters. Nor is it enough to cite various 2 or 3 month summer research trips or internships as examples of how you navigated different cultural situations.

Because field experience is not about ticking some type of box, saying that you ‘did it’. It is about living through the highs and lows that can only really come when the initial glamour wears off, and you are put face to face with the physical, personal and professional realities of your new home. When each day you have to wake up and confront those difficulties, and treat them as a part of your new life.

The value of field experience is assumed by many, but explained or elocuted by few.

So why then, is field experience seen as so important? You learn a lot of little new things living in Africa, from how to survive Bamako’s hot season and not snap at your other half when its midnight, 40 degrees, and you only have a little fan, to how to deal with the practical realities of regular and repeated power cuts.

But then there are the things that you come to learn, but don’t necessarily expect. Long term field experience is important because it teaches you to ride the highs and lows of culture shock, which can take you by surprise and hit you again, and again. It is important because it removes the sheen of excitement and glamour that you experience in the first few months of a country, and forces you to confront its often unpleasant realities.

It is important because it teaches you how to be ok with sitting on a mat, on a hard floor, with your back hurting, and not understanding a word being said all day, all in the name of empowerment and local participation.

It is important because you rapidly learn how to let go of control, accepting that you taxi commute may take 20 minutes, or if the taxi driver takes another route, 45. That rendezvous will wait.

Or more importantly that if you really are all for community led development, then you have to work with a community’s time frame, and despite your best laid plans, a way of doing things which can seem unnecessarily slow and complicated.

Long term field experience teaches you how to make a bullet proof plan, develop rigorous monitoring and evaluation indicators, then be ready to be told you are wrong, that there’s been a change in the budget or the timing, and throw it all out of the window.

It is important because it forces you to confront your role both as a westerner, and a development professional, when you are faced with people telling you that ‘you are not wanted here’, or you realise that you local counterpart is already expertly navigating the community mobilisation and training programme without your help.

It teaches you the little things, like how to organise a meeting, and actually get people to come, and of the enormous effort it can take to genuinely involve people in a task or process that it would be much simpler to do yourself.

As a women, it can force you to re-engage with feminist debates that once seemed overly theoretical and irrelevant, when you are confronted day in and day out with patriarchal attitudes. More than that it can give you huge respect for your local counter-parts who have grown up with these attitudes, yet have challenged them to become leaders.

It is important as it makes you realise that development work and a different culture can actually be really, really boring. Spreadsheets and reports don’t get more exciting just because you’re sitting in an office in Bamako and not London.

It is important because it makes you grateful for what you have. Not in an emotional ‘ these children don’t have shoes’ sense however, but gradually, thoughtfully, and rationally. When you do the maths and realise what sacrifices your host family has to make to pay for medicine, and how expensive daily life can be for a taxi driver paying off a debt. When you sit next to a local student from a private high school in an exam, and realise that despite his relative privilege, the education system has simply not given him the analytical skills needed to analyse that piece of French text that you have always taken for granted.

And finally, long term field experience is important because it forces you firstly to confront the many, many failures of the development world, and the huge challenges which can surface when trying to get even the simplest things done, and then secondly, to get back to work, and take things step by step.

Any additions?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2011 11:33 pm

    Thanks Helen, you said it all!

  2. terahedun permalink
    July 4, 2011 3:56 pm

    As someone interested in development work this was very well vocalized. I learned a lot. Thank you.

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