Thursday, April 25, 2019

How to Do Field Work

I just got back from three consecutive 7-10 day trips into the field: Trinidad, Galapagos, and Argentina. Much of my research life has been in the field. I spent 10 consecutive summers in the Bristol Bay Region of Alaska. I have worked in Trinidad in 16 different years. I have made 14 research trips to Galapagos. I have worked on northern Vancouver Island in more than 10 years. I have done research in Chile, Argentina, Uganda, Panama, Kenai, Haida Gwaii, California, and many other places. Some of these are depicted in the videos that intersperse the suggestions.

From this experience over more than 30 years, I have picked up a few things that can help make field work pleasant and productive – or not. Many posts have been written on important field work topics such as preparation, equipment, and safety. What I will try to do here is focus on other, less often explored, topics in hopes of supplementing the advice of others.

Plan – but be flexible.
Field work can be easy or it can be hard – but most of the time it is hard. It can go according to plan or not – but most of the time it doesn’t. Yet one thing is certain: what seems like it will work on paper back in your office will almost certainly need to be changed when you go to implement it in the real world – even if you are already experienced at your field site. Thus, it is perhaps best to think of your pre-departure plan (including back-ups) as merely a first draft of a plan. That way when you get to the field and the things you planned don’t work out, you won’t feel like your project has failed. Instead, you will enthusiastically work to modify the plan into a second draft or a third draft and so on. Sometimes you even need to start over. But this is field work – and sometimes the complete redo of the plan leads to something better than what you had initially intended.

Be positive – always!
If you spend enough time in the field, things are almost certain to go way south at some point: hurricanes, floods, droughts, difficulties catching (or even finding) the target species, missing supplies, broken equipment, stranded vehicles, power-outages, personality conflicts, etc. These problems can cause small to large destruction of plans. Thus, as noted above, you will often need to throw yourself whole-heartedly into some exciting new plan that you develop on the spot if needed. But what will NEVER help is being outwardly negative about the project. Never complain about it to other people on the team. Never be defeatist. Never – to be blunt – be negative about your experience. This attitude will never help – ever – and it can sometimes deeply infect an entire field crew and cause problems that ramify far beyond the initial problem. Instead, be positive. Seek a solution. Collect new data. Focus on another species. Publish a paper on the effects of hurricanes or floods. Countless examples exist of this nimbleness that works around, or even takes advantage of, what initially seems a disaster.

Don’t restrict/dictate a person’s food
Some people are extremely uptight about their food. Unless supplies are severly limited, let people eat what they want. Nothing rankles and sets some people against each other more than trying to dictate what they eat. (Of course, under extreme conditions of food shortage, this suggestion might not apply.)

If others are working – you should be too.
If someone on your team is working, then you should be too. It can rankle others (and is bad form regardless) if – for example – you sit and read a novel while someone else on the team is processing samples. Ask if you can help. If not, cook dinner, do the dishes, sweep the floor, prepare for tomorrow, write down protocols, look up relevant papers, etc. Only read your book if the person working insists multiple times that there isn’t any work for you to do. Stated another way: try to work harder than everyone else on the team.

Share equally in the cooking and/or other chores.
If someone loves to cook, fine – let them cook as often as they like. But make sure you offer to cook too – or help with the preparation – or do the dishes (this is me!) – or process samples while they cook. Don’t just assume someone else is cooking.

Bring earplugs!
My experience in Latin America is that the dogs bark until 2 am and then the chickens start crowing at 4 am. And my experience everywhere is that people snore. When I discovered earplugs, I was a lot more sanguine about such things.

Make a list of daily equipment – and make sure someone is responsible.
In Trinidad, we once drove 1.5 hours only to find out that we had forgotten the nets – necessitating another 3 hours of driving just to get them. In Galapagos and Trinidad, people have forgotten their field shoes. Probably everywhere, people have forgotten to charge the batteries to this or that piece of equipement. Make a list of the equipment that is needed each day and tape it beside the door. Then assign different types of equipment to particular people. If a person knows they are in charge of the nets, then they are much less likely to be forgotten. Ditto for any other type of equipment.

And  of course:
Don’t be abusive – in any way or under any circumstance
Don’t be outwardly obnoxious – even if you can’t stand the person
Don’t be passive aggressive – it is obvious to everyone
If you drink, drink responsibly

The points noted above are important not just from the perspective of getting the work done but even more so from enjoying the field. And field work is what many of us are in this field for. Best of luck!

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