When I was planning my first field season in Puerto Rico - 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 I was planning a field season from 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 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 your 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. Truthfully speaking, two days off per week is even better. I thought one day would be enough, but it is really nice to be able to have one day to enter data, prepare for heading back to the field (i.e., do laundry, buy groceries), etc., and another day to just relax and take a break. No matter how much we love it, field work is draining and it is important that we recognize that.
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.
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.
- 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
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.
Leading a Field Team
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 (e.g., 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
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!