Summer time, field work time: a beginners guide for a successful field season

I never valued summer enough before I started grad school in the US.  I come from a place where summer never goes away, and where changes in the rainfall make up the seasons. But nowadays, after some winters have passed, I get it , and I share the american obsession with the hot and shinny days.  

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All because, during summer, you can spend some time with Ryan Gosling at the beach…

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or hang out with your buddies at Bernie’s…

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and maybe even take some dance lessons…you never know.

But, if your are in grad school, summer time most likely means: Field work!

The reality of doing field work in the Caribbean - you gotta leave all that fun behind you.

The reality of doing field work in the Caribbean – you gotta leave all that fun behind you.

Field work can be one of the most inspiring, energizing, fruitful, and stressful moments of your research work. Here, I share some thoughts I gathered after some field seasons during my years in grad school.

If you are in the first year of your degree, and have just started a research project, chances are that you still have lots to define, understand and narrow down (including your questions and hypothesis). Usually, the field season that takes place in the first year is the one where you’ll rule out what can and cannot be done, as well as what can be improved in your research. The first planning strategy for a successful first field season is to always have at least two back up plans for everything, meaning that if plan A is your ideal scenario of how things will work, you should also have plan B and C for less ideal working situations. The second planning strategy that cannot be highlighted enough is: LISTS! You can avoid forgetting materials and equipments by retracing your work in the field several times, and listing everything you will need to get the work done. I usually bring some copies of the list of materials to the field, to make the organization on the way back easier. Third, have your methods very well clear for yourself, and for the ones that will work with you. Oh man…such an important detail that is frequently forgotten…specially if you’re coordinating interns for the first time. Have a data collection and annotation guide, and make sure that in the field, you and whoever you’re working with keep a copy of it (and shamelessly use it when needed). The last, but not least, advice is: prepare beforehand a detailed field schedule and stick to it – don’t forget to include rest days if you’re staying in the field for prolonged periods. The amount of days you’ll be able to have a healthy and efficient performance in the field depends from person to person, and on the type of field work, of course. Some people are ok and functional with working in the field for a long period of time. In my case, more than 30 consecutive days of waking up at 4 am, and working 15 hrs a day, usually don’t work very well. My ideal schedule is 15-20 work days followed by 1-2 days off.

After the field, organize the data as soon as you can, making a summary of effort and accomplishments. In my case, for instance, my field work involves mist netting birds, taking blood samples, and making blood smears. Thus, my field work summary consists of total captures per location and species, as well as detailed info on sampling location, and mist net hours (which gives me sampling effort, and also gives me an idea of my sampling efficiency). With the summary in hands, it is a good moment to ask yourself wether your project deserves a second field season or not. And, believe me, It’s OK if the answer is no – at this point drastic changes can be very beneficial – and better than sticking with something that has been tagged to failure. Reasons you should consider moving on towards something else can include: 1) overly expensive project for the amount of resources available for you; 2) excessively time consuming data collection (be realistic and think about statistic significance); 3) megalomania – oh yeah, there is a limit for what you can handle in the life-time of a PhD.

Like sex, jeans and hot yoga, field work only gets better with time – you become more efficient, more adapted to it, and more aware of your (and your project’s) limits. My final thought is: be a biologist, be an ecologist, be a naturalist, and enjoy your summers of field work. At some point in your degree summer time will mean lab work time, or data analysis time, or writing time…which are not bad, but cannot be done outdoors!

Good times during field work in the Caribbean. From left to right: Maria Pil, me and Bob Ricklefs.

Good times during field work in the Caribbean. From left to right: Maria Pil, me and Bob Ricklefs.

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