I’ve been a field tech for several conservation biology/ecology-focused projects in remote and muddy places over the past two years, and I’ll be conducting research of my own in the tropics in the years to come. So here are some thoughts on the other end of the equation – how to be a responsible and successful field assistant.
Field work, especially when it takes place in remote and rugged areas, is challenging: it’s physically rigourous, it’s a test of emotional endurance, it demands compromise and flexibility, it forces you into close proximity with people you’ve never met, the hours are overlong and unpredictable, communication with family and friends is often sporadic, the monetary compensation always sucks, there are risks of illness and injury, and often the local culture and language is completely different from that of one’s home country.
There are also, obviously, rewards: spectacular landscapes, unique wildlife, living in places few people ever get to see, meeting likeminded people, and participating in interesting and possibly useful research. If that list seems sparse to you, you’re probably not a biologist.
Here are what I think are the most important things to keep in mind as a field assistant. If anyone has advice to add, feel free to chime in in the comments.
1. Sometimes you will be miserable, even during a “good” field season. Here are some coping strategies for day-to-day morale lapses.
Remind yourself that the field season will come to an end – count down if it helps. Basically, contact your inner child: Tell yourself you’re an adventurer/explorer. If you study birds, remember that they’re really dinosaurs! Make a game of collecting data, or do something goofy to take your mind off of things (for example, I once decided to pick a bouquet of flowers for our dinner table in the field, and it cheered me up disproportionately!). Take a short sanity break if you need to.
Just don’t get sucked into the game of fantasizing about what sort of foods you’ll eat as soon as you get home. This never helps morale.
If there are more serious problems, do what you need to to take care of yourself, and report them to a supervisor if at all possible.
2. You don’t have to be the toughest one there.
Everyone at your field site, including yourself, is there because they like challenging themselves physically and perhaps psychologically. You don’t have to prove this to anyone, and don’t let anyone make you feel like you have to. So if you can get access to some luxury like a hot shower, or if you feel like pampering yourself somehow, do it. Likewise, don’t look down on other people who take these opportunities. Does someone feel like putting on makeup once in a while? Has someone complained to you that they’re sick of being covered in mud? That’s fine; it doesn’t make them a wimp.
3. Be meticulous.
You’re probably working for a graduate student or postdoc who feels, rightly or wrongly, like his or her entire future career is riding on the data you collect. Do the absolute best you can to collect data accurately. Don’t be afraid to suggest improvements to the protocol to your supervisor. Most importantly, if you can’t remember or don’t understand how to do something, ASK. Don’t make stuff up. And if you realize you’ve done something wrong, admit it.
4. Before you go, ask lots of questions.
Contact your supervisor and/or previous years’ field assistants to find out things like what you should bring, what sort of internet/phone access you’ll have, how often you’ll have time off, how secure your field site is, etc. Also, I’ve never had a really bad experience in the field, but keep in mind that bad experiences do happen, and previous field assistants might be able to warn you off. For example, a recent survey of people who worked at anthropological field sites shows that incidents of sexual harassment are far from unheard of.