When I was planning my first field season in Puerto Rico - which was the first time I was running the show on my own - it was really difficult to figure out where to start. I had participated in field work numerous times, but this was the first time it was me planning a field season start to finish. On this page, I talk about what I did to prepare: building my field work schedule, permits, grants, lists of what I packed, and how I recruited, worked with, and thanked field assistants.
Preparing for Field Work
Field season calendar: Book your flights or schedule the start of your field trip as soon as possible so that you can iron out your day-by-day or week-by-week field work schedule. I make a calendar in Excel or Google spreadsheets for each one of my field trips/seasons and I lay out my day-by-day plan to the best of my ability at the time. The schedule can be very rough, but it can still help you in the long-run. For reference, this was (part of) my field season calendar for my 2021 field season.
Field season check list: I recommend putting together a field season check list of all the things you need to do before you begin your field season. This list can include everything from applying for permits, booking your flight/rental car, practicing a technique you use in the field (for me, it was tying slip knots), and anything else you need to do and/or want to make sure you do before you field season begins. I organize the check list by what needs to be done first/soonest to what can be left for right before the field season begins. I also include a column where I can enter in the date at which the task/to-do list item was finished. For reference, this was my check list for my 2021 field season.
Down time: Build at least one day per week of time off from field work to maintain mental sanity. I understand that the more time you spend in the field, the more data you collect, but if you burn yourself out by not permitting yourself at least one day off per week then this will result in you collecting less data or lesser quality data.
IACUC (International Animal Care and Use Committee): If you're handling, measuring, capturing, tagging, etc. any animal species, you'll like need an IACUC permit through your institution. If you search "IACUC [your institution]" you should be able to find the web portal where you can work on and submit your IACUC. If not, ask someone in your department who works with animals and they should be able to provide you with more information on the protocol for acquiring an IACUC permit through your institution.
Permits through the location (state/country) of your field site(s): For almost any work on animals and non-animals, you'll need to acquire permits through the pertinent environmental office that oversees wherever you are working. If it is field work based in the United States, you might need to get your permit through the Department of Environmental Conservation (or a similar organization). However, if you are conducting field work abroad, you'll need to identify through which organization(s) you'll need permits to legally conduct your work.
If your boss/advisor/supervisor does not have you on one of their grants and/or cannot allocate you any funds for field work, you will likely need to apply for your own grants. Although a tedious task, grant writing is a great skill to have. It is also valuable to show that you are capable of acquiring your own funding when necessary. You can apply to both internal and external grants. Internal grants are those through your own institution, while external grants are those through organizations outside of your institution.
Finding grants that you are eligible for and/or that are relevant to what you work on can be difficult. There are several ways to find grants relevant to you (other than endless Google searches), including:
- Check the CVs/resumes of those who work on similar systems to you to see from which grants they have received previous funding
- Check from what grants other researchers at your job / in your department have received funding.
- Join various scientific society email lists. Some send out funding opportunities in their regular newsletters.
- Check to see if your institution has a web portal that allows you to search through funding opportunities and filter based on eligibilty, area of work, type of grant, etc. One populat site is called Pivot.
I have applied to the following external grants: American Museum of Natural History*, the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles*, Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation*, The Explorers Club, National Geographic, Herpetological Conservation International*, American Philosophical Society Lewis and Clark Field Grant, Sigma Xi, and the American Society for Ichthyology and Herpetology (* indicates grant received). I have also applied to, and been awarded, a number of internal grants through my institution. Internal grants are often less competitive because the applicant pool is reduced to only members of your institution, but they can still be an excellent way to acquire funds for field work.
- Field bottoms (long, lightweight)
- Field button-downs (long-sleeved, lightweight)
- Tank tops to wear under button-downs
- T-shirts, other shirts
- Thick hiking socks, ankle socks
- Lightweight, linen shorts
- Sweatshirt/long-sleeved shirt
- Sports bras / underwear
- Baseball cap or other hat to block the sun
- Pajamas (lightweight pair, warmer pair)
- Hiking boots
- A nice outfit (not for field)
- Toothebrush, toothepaste
- Cotton swabs
- Nail clippers, nail file
- These ones from the Zero Waste Store are my favorite because they're bars, long-lasting, and are easy to transport
- Chapstick, lotion
- Hair ties
- Face wash, face cream
- Feminine hygiene products
- Any prescribed medications
- Duct tape
- Leatherman (or other multi-tool)
- Solar-powered charging device, like this one
- Headlamp + charger/batteries, flashlight
- Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad
- Rite-in-the-rain notebooks
- Insect repellent
- Toilet paper
- Sharpie markers
- Backpack with rain cover
- Laminated permits
- Measuring tape
- Well-equipped first-aid kit (examples below)
- Bandaids (of varying sizes)
- Antibiotic ointment (like Neosporin)
- Benadryl cream/gel
- Gauze, tape
- Tylenol, Alleve, Advil, etc.
- Sanitizing wipes
- Purifiying water tablets (just in case)
- Bleed Stop (just in case)
- Laptop + charger
- Phone, phone charger
- Camera, camera charger, extra memory card
- Leisure book(s), reading light
- Glasses, sunglasses
- Water bottle
- Laundry bag
- External battery pack
- External harddrive
- Little daypack
I fundamentally believe in having field teams created predominantly of individuals who are local to the area where the field work is being conducted. For this reason, my mentality for recruiting is based in recruiting local undergraduate students who are interested in either A) careers in that area of field work or B) are interested in learning more about their local ecosystems/widlife, regardless of whether or not they are pursuing a career in line with the field work.
To recruit field assistants who are local to the area of field work, I recommend doing several of the following:
- Contact professors in the relevant departments at the universities near the field site(s) and ask if they have any students who may be interested
- Create fliers for the field work opportunity and ask the professors you have contacted at the universities near your field site(s) if they can post the fliers around their department/school. Make sure the flier includes your email or an alternative way to contact you.
- Determine if the universities near your field site(s) have any Facebook pages for the various deparments at the university, such as a university Department of Biology Facebook page, or something similar. If this is the case, contact the admin of the page and request permission to post your field work opportunitiy flier on the Facebook page. This was the primary means by which I recruited my field assistants.
- If you are able to get in contact with any students at a university, kindly ask them if they can disseminate the opportunity to their friends and peers.
- Contact any local organizations that conduct work similar to yours and ask if they have any volunteers or interns. If they do, kindly ask if it may be possible to contact the volunteers/interns to tell them about the field work opportunity.
Once someone contacts you expressing interest in the field work, set up a Zoom/video or phone call with that person. If possible, one-on-one conversations are best because they often make even the most shy of individuals feel comfortable asking questions. After the desired number of field assistants are recruited, hold a field team Zoom/video call so that field assistants can meet each other and learn who they'll be working with during the field work.
Leading a Field Team
Although everyone's experiences will be different, I have found that my field assistants and myself most enjoy the field season together when we can reach a balance between having fun and collecting a lot of data. I believe that when your field team has more fun, they are more excited to be there and, in turn, work harder to ensure the project and field work are successful. Unfortunately, not all field assistants thrive in an environment that is both fun and hard work at the same time. You need to be able to adapt your leadership and mentorship strategy to the individual level whenever needed.
Something that I struggled with when leading my first field team was being strict/firm with a single field assistant when I definitely needed to be, verses being more fun-loving with other field assistants. This later came back to bite me. If you notice problematic tendencies or behavior, a lack of interest in the project, or an attitude towards others or towards yourself, it is in your best interest to pull this field assistant aside and have a conversation with them. If the conversation is unproductive, or if their behavior has not changed a week or so after the conversation, it is again in your best interest to remove the field assistant from the field team. This is not a fun thing to do, but it will be better in the long run for you, for your project, and for the other field assistants, if you address this as soon as you begin to notice it.
Thanking Field Assistants
- Letters of recommendation
- Opportunity to be authors on subsequent publications
- Help applying to graduate school and internships (assistance with writing/revisions to personal statements, mock interviews, guidance on the process of applying)
- End-of-field-season BBQ with whole field team
- Custom-made T-shirts, certificates of participation, handwritten thank you cards, a letter to all field assistants, stickers of some of our study species
Truthfully, my field assistants made my research possible and I'll never be able to thank them enough.
Finally, make sure your field assistants know how appreciative and thankful you are for them. Lift them up. Make them see how amazing each and every one of them are. Show them that they can be scientists if they want to be!