Out of the frying pan…

Erica Dobbs

Fulbright-Schuman 2010-2011 (Spain, Ireland, UK)

Like most Ph.D. students, I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I left my home university to begin my fieldwork. When you write your dissertation proposal it all seems to make sense: you believe you have a GREAT project, and you just know you will meet GREAT people (who will all want to sit down for interviews, of course!), and everything will come together nicely. Perhaps you will even have enough time to explore other parts of the country before returning to the United States.

Or not.


Fieldwork, for most of us, is a disorienting process. You don’t just show up and get to work: you have to find an apartment, figure out where to buy groceries, get a phone and an internet connection, and – most importantly – get used to doing all of this in a culture or language that is not familiar. If you do archival research, you often need letters of introduction; if you do interview research, you desperately need someone to pick up the phone on the other end.


In the midst of this chaos, Fulbright-Schuman is an amazing resource for any researcher, especially those trying to get a grip on the changes that have touched different countries in different ways; immigration, economic crisis, and fiscal reform look quite different if you are in, say, Germany rather than Spain! Upon arrival, you have not one but multiple anchor points of contact: not only can the Fulbright-Schuman Commission provide assistance, but you are also connected to each respective commission in the countries where you are carrying out your work. And not only do you get hooked in with the staff – who can help with making contacts, finding housing, etc – but you also get plugged into the Fulbright grantee network, which is great whether you are looking for advice on how to get a library card, need somewhere to crash on a quick visit to archives in another city, or just need someone to kvetch with. In addition, the Commission really helped contextualize the experience by bringing researchers from across Europe to Brussels, not only to learn about key European institutions, but to learn from each other. As an immigration researcher in Spain and Ireland, it was fascinating to hear about other peoples’ experiences studying migration across the EU. Finally, Fulbright-Schuman gives you the rare opportunity to think about different phenomena as a system, rather than in isolation. In short, I cannot think of a better program to facilitate comparative research.


Having the space, funding, and flexibility to do multi-country research has made my dissertation project immeasurably better. By comparing multiple cases, I have not only been able to refine my argument, but support it with reams of both archival and interview data. During my write-up process, I was able to generate several working papers that I have presented at academic conferences and am now sending out for publication. Most importantly, the ability to understand how others make sense of the world across a number of settings has, I believe, made me a better researcher – and I hope it will help me become a better professor as well.