Where To StudyNew ZealandMy PhD Field Work at Zanzibar

My PhD Field Work at Zanzibar

Rachel Tan
Rachel Tan
Rachel is a PhD candidate at the Higher Education Development Centre, University of Otago. She likes to meet people and is a big fan of nature and photography.

My PhD on globalisation in higher education provided an exciting field trip to Zanzibar in January 2016

My research looks at how globalisation has impacted on an emerging university in the developing world.

I interviewed the staff at the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA).

I learnt two lessons:

  • First, as a Malaysian student of Chinese descent studying in New Zealand, the trip widened my cultural horizon on East Africa.
  • Second, I learnt the skills of data collection as a social scientist. This process is what I’m sharing in this post.


How to distinguish formal from informal data

In my field trip, I learned to distinguish formal data, such as interviews, from my informal data, such as my field notes.

Formal data

For the former, I conducted semi-structured interviews that were recorded and transcribed. During interviews, I kept notes that highlighted potential key topics for further probing with in-depth questions.

Conducting interviews gave me on-field training on how to build rapport and the confidence to probe for deeper answers.

To build rapport, I started by asking simple questions such as about respondents’ background to break the ice.

I could then comfortably engage in probing questions to ensure that respondents could carefully explore very complex issues.

At other times, when my questions were vague, they would ask me for clarification. To help me clarify, I tended to reflect upon my own experience or knowledge to give examples for a clearer understanding of my questions.



Informal data

For my informal data collection, I recorded my observations of specific events that seemed to connect to my research framework. For instance, I spent time with respondents outside of the interview context and I consciously noted down their stories and anecdotes that seemed relevant to the project.

The role of field notes is to add new data, contextualise my observations and to trigger my memories of key ideas and events.

I had my field notebook in my backpack all the time during the field trip. When I could not stop to make an entry (e.g. walking on the street with colleagues), I made a mental note of what was interesting to be recorded at the end of the day.

Before bed, I would spend 30 minutes to make a timeline records key events of the day. Now that it has been months since the trip, my field notes have provided very useful data and allowed me to interpret the formal interview data in a different way.


The field trip was a privilege as it was the first time I had travelled to Africa.

It expanded my global views and trained my observation and communication skills as a researcher. I am thankful that SUZA was accommodative and hospitable to me. I am also glad to have my supervisory committee, which has been a great support in making my field trip come true!