Tips for Lone Working & Interviewing
When I started my PhD I knew I would be working alone for the majority of it but nothing quite prepared me for some of the issues that can come with that. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines lone working as: “those who work by themselves without close or direct supervision”*. Depending on the School you are in, you will probably identify as a lone worker for most of your PhD. Lone working also comes with some important health and safety considerations, including your physical safety when conducting fieldwork outside of the university. You will have to identify these safety considerations for your ethical approval when preparing your research. The key to tackling these concerns successfully is to plan for the various situations you might find yourself in. However, despite all your planning efforts you might still encounter difficulties when doing fieldwork. This post is about those difficult interactions that might occur despite all of your planning efforts. These can arise from meeting strangers on your own in an unfamiliar place (if you are recruiting participants) or travelling to certain areas that are possibly unsafe. Anything that is outside of UofG's control (and grounds) can carry some risks.
Planning for your physical safety is important for the obvious reason but also because feeling comfortable and in control during the interaction will help you do a better job of interviewing someone. It is not always a matter of feeling in grave or immediate danger as sometimes it is just a situation where you are not quite comfortable with the other person’s behaviour. For example, when I met a potential participant in a park, he was 50 minutes late and when he did arrive, he was acting really strangely - pacing, answering in monosyllabic ways, and trying to sit quite close to me on the bench. Although I did not feel unsafe, I did feel really uncomfortable. In this post, I'll share some things I have either done, or wish I had don,e based on things I’ve learned from our School and College training.
Make it Public
When meeting someone for the first time, choose a location that you feel comfortable with and you know has good access. I’ve found that libraries are incredibly good for this as they are quiet but someone is also always on hand. Parks are definitely not a good place as although they are public, you can be left feeling exposed, and they are often empty. When going on field work or an interview, it’s always a good idea to let someone know (roommate, friend, supervisor, etc). If you have to go into someone’s house It is always useful to tell someone close to you exactly where you are going and how long you think you will be. There are apps for your phone, like bsafe that can notify your friends of your location.
If an interview doesn't go to plan
If you do experience an uncomfortable interaction, it goes without saying that you should remove yourself at once, but that is not always easy as you might not actually be in danger but not feel fully comfortable either. When you have managed to remove yourself, tell someone immediately - friend or family. That in itself can help alleviate some of the stress you’ve experienced. If you feel really distressed, the university counselling services also offer drop-in counselling sessions on a day to day basis.
You should also tell your supervisors what happened, as they can most definitely relate and can offer insightful advice on how to deal with difficult interviews and uncomfortable interactions. It is not always easy to negotiate the balance between friendly and professional and sometimes your desire to speak to people in the course of your research might be misunderstood, especially as a female researcher. This is something I have found quite tricky to navigate at times and I know other female researchers have had similar experiences. It also goes without saying that you should probably politely terminate any participant you do not feel comfortable with! This was something my supervisors were very adamant about.
This might seem strange, but do not feel guilty if you do have a difficult interaction with someone. As an early career researcher, it is normal to doubt yourself and wonder whether it was your fault for difficult interactions and whether you could have foreseen that. The reality is that you cannot know how someone will behave.
Finally, it is important to find a comfortable point being accommodating to your participants and your own safety and limitations as you will be better at your job when you feel most at ease! Your supervisors are your first port of call for these issues but UofG also has comprehensive policy to do with doing lone working.
If you’re just starting, don’t be put off! Remember that proper planning for these circumstances will solve a lot of your potential issues, and there is plenty of training and information available to you (including ethics and risk assessment). You can also check out previous posts on fieldwork and interviewing here on the blog for additional advice.
Want to share your experiences and tips for lone interviewing? Get in touch with us via the comments or our contact form. Don't forget that you can also tweet us @UofG_PGRblog.
Feature image- copyright PhD Comics
*Working Alone: A health and safety guide on lone working for safety representatives, Unison, 2009.