The Wait: Lessons Learned from The Unglamorous Side of Research

It’s easy to romanticize field research; when I think of an anthropologist, I think of someone living in a verdant village in a tropical land who spends their days connecting deeply with people about their lives and their dreams. I rarely think of someone sitting at their computer and sending emails, which is what my life has looked like lately.

Real Anthropologist:

Famous anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski



I often fall into “the dream of the glamorous researcher” and think my blog needs to be about my successes: about my revelations or life changing moments. When I haven’t had those idyllic experiences, I dismiss all my current life as mundane and un-noteworthy.

But I’ve made a decision to try to write a blog post every week and so far I’m sticking to it.

So what have I been doing lately? Mostly waiting and making phone calls (and doing lots of reading in between). I’m trying to find an NGO or a health center to do field work with, but I’ve been realizing it takes a long time to connect with people. I’ve been sending lots of emails and phone calls to NGOs and doctors here in Mumbai, with a few successes but many setbacks.

Here is what I have learned:

1) Send an email. if you don’t get a response in 1-2 days, call them.

I made the mistake earlier, especially when I was in Jaipur, of sending emails and waiting for weeks to get a response. Sometimes I would send a follow-up email, but if that did not work, I often considered it a lost cause.

Many organizations in India, especially NGOs, don’t check their email very often, so it’s important to call. Usually when I called, the person would tell me that they saw my email but didn’t have time to answer it. In a place like India, talking to someone in present time is so much more valuable than email. It shows that you are actually committed to your goals and are not just some random person who sent an email.

2) Better yet, show up at their office

Last week, fellow Fulbright friends were visiting from Delhi and since I was still in project limbo, I accompanied them to meet with some doctors for their research. We first met a tobacco researcher, and then she referred us to a cancer doctor for my friend Sara (read her blog or my previous post about her work).  We went straight to that doctor’s office and got a meeting appointment for the next day. Showing up works.

Through them, I got connected to an endocrinologist with whom I am visiting this week.

3) Sell yourself

I made the mistake earlier in this process of simply sending people my proposal and waiting for a response. After discussing my tactics, I realized that I really needed to spell it out for my contacts how my project could be of use to them and why they should help me with it. I previously thought that once they saw my proposal, we could later negotiate how to make the project mutually beneficial, but I’ve realized how important it is to show my willingness to want to help them with their work early.

4) Contact everyone.

A few months ago, a friend told me about how she emailed an author of a famous book related to her project asking for advice. She actually got a reply. My thought was “You can do that?!??” Now, if I read a paper I find interesting, I go ahead and email the authors to tell them about what I’m doing and ask for advice. I often don’t get responses, but that’s okay because it’s worth for when I do. I’ve been able to get some meetings and advice out of this tactic. To quote the cliche: You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. 

5) Strike a balance between patience and persistence

I can’t believe it’s already been a month since I’ve been here. I get anxious when weeks pass and I feel like I’m still in the same place. But it’s important to learn to strike a balance between being patient and persistent. When coordinating with others, you have to work with their schedule. NGOs in India are often limited with time and resources so it’s important to be patient.

At the same time, I have to be my own advocate  and seek opportunities. When I was feeling stuck a few weeks ago, I got an email about a conference at the university  where I am affiliated. I went ahead and submitted a presentation and got a five minute slot to present. It was a great way to meet people, practice public speaking and talk about issues that matter to me. I even got connected to an NGO with whom I may be doing work.

6) Regularly evaluate your productivity and goals

It’s also important to keep track of how time is used. Every week on Sunday, I make time to make a list of the accomplishments I’ve made this week, however small. I then I make a table in my journal where I write my ongoing difficulties in one column, confounding factors in another column (forces outside of my control, that contribute to those difficulties) and an action plan in another column for tackling those difficulties. It helps me stay in a mode where instead of dwelling on my ongoing problems, I take an active stance in addressing them.

7) Just go

I’ve recently realized that while I wait for a more formal arrangement with an NGO or a a health center, I might as well take advantage of more accessible resources. When I was walking to the hospital yesterday, I realized that there were rows upon rows of pharmacies selling drugs. I might as well stop ask about the drugs they sell for diabetes, whether ayurvedic or allopathic and about the number of patients that come. On Monday before I go back to the hospital to try to stalk the doctor I’m trying to meet, I’m going to come up with the questionnaire to ask the pharmacies.

The biggest hurdle is to take the leap: forget my fear and shyness and get out there.  


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