14 Tips and Advice for First-Time Field Assistants

Julisa with binoculars.jpg

Hello! My name is Julisa, and I am studying for my MS in Data Science at Indiana University. When I wrote this article, I was an undergraduate student studying Conservation Biology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. It was my first time working as a field research assistant and also my first time working outside of the United States.  I was coming up on the 4-month mark of being in Ecuador, working on hummingbirds with Anusha Shankar on her PhD work, and I learned a lot! Although I am now stuck in a windowless room coding most days, I cannot wait to return to fieldwork.

When applying for field assistant positions…

1) Don’t be too picky about what you’re studying; be picky about who you’re working with.
I internet-stalked Anusha extensively before deciding to apply, and I really wanted to work with her because of her enthusiasm for teaching.  In your interview, make sure to get a good feel for how your supervisor runs a team, their expectations, and responsibilities you’ll have.  The help that I received applying for a Visa, booking a hostel, getting a cab when I arrived, etc. said a lot about how much Anusha cares about her field team before I even met her.  Honestly, I never thought I would end up working with birds, but now that I have, I really enjoy them.  I am learning many things that I never knew about physiology, ecology, the scientific method, and working in a team that are applicable in areas other than ornithology.  I’m glad my decision was based more on working with Anusha than on what she studies.

If you’re deciding between college and the field for a semester…

2) Choose the field.
I’m so happy I did. Plus, your school may even have ways you can earn internship/independent study/study abroad credit for working as a field assistant. (This does require a bit of planning, so the moment you think you might be taking off for a semester – talk to your advisor!)  School will be there for you when you return.  If you take my advice from #14, you’ll learn a lot more in the field than you would’ve at a semester of school anyway! My experiences here are completely invaluable and will shape which classes I will take, the contacts I will make, and the experiences I will gain during the rest of my undergraduate career.

When packing…

Hummingbird packing mess
Packing for the hummingbird project. Photo by Anusha Shankar.

3) You will over pack, but you won’t bring enough socks. You’ll never bring enough socks. 
If you’re like me and my coworkers, you might have to wear the same outfit for many, many days in a row.  Bringing 1,000 t-shirts isn’t useful.  You’ll end up wearing your favorite 3 the entire time. You will, however, run out of socks. I would estimate a good number of socks to bring would be the number of socks you’re planning on bringing multiplied by 3*.  Also, bring black socks.  Your white socks will turn interesting shades of brown.  I think it’s safe to say I’ll be tossing the majority of my socks before I return to the states. #n0ob
Disclaimer: Just a rough estimate. It might be impossible to bring enough socks. I’ll have to reevaluate this after my next field position. 

4) Bring camouflage/neutral colored clothing. 
You know what the University of Wisconsin’s school color is? Bright red.
You know what color hummingbirds are attracted to? Bright red.
My bad. Go Badgers.

5) If flying, don’t put your pocket knife in your carry-on. I repeat: DO NOT PUT YOUR POCKET KNIFE IN YOUR CARRY-ON.  
You will end up not having a pocket knife. The TSA will end up having your pocket knife. They also took my insect-kill jar from my checked luggage.  Apparently bringing cyanide on an airplane is NOT cool. Or maybe it was because it had “KILL JAR DANGER CONTAINS CYANIDE” written all over it…? Anyone working for the TSA comment below and help a sista out.

6) Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. 
You might think you’ll have running water the entire time, but anything can happen.  I’m very thankful that I brought dry shampoo and soap that doesn’t require water.

7) Bring the Essentials: Watch (that shows seconds), waterproof rain jacket (don’t leave this in a club in Quito…*cough*JOSHUA*cough*), pocket knife, comfy shoes, chargers, pens/pencils, hat, favorite candy, tea, camera, a good playlist, an outfit to wear around civilization (not just field clothes – showing up to salsa dancing in hiking boots and camo is also a no-go), zip-lock bags, medicines + first aid, TUMS (LOTS OF TUMS), gloves, towel, thermos, field backpack, headlamp.
Don’t Bring the Non-Essentials:  Soap/Toothpaste/Shampoo/etc. (99% sure you can buy this when you get there, no matter where you are), a TV (I’ve heard horror stories), hair dryer, books (Bring E-books instead!), anything you can live without.

When working internationally…

8) Make sure you can flush toilet paper down the toilet in the country you are traveling to. 
In Ecuador, you cannot. I found this out the hard way when my pee started clogging the toilet.

9) Remember you will be immersed in a different culture.
Especially if you have local co-workers. It’s important to be culturally empathetic when communicating with international coworkers, because some of things they do or say may offend you, but may just be because of their cultural norms.  Also be prepared to learn a lot scientifically from your local co-workers.  They know the most about the environment you’ll be working in!

10) You will get homesick. 
This is normal and temporary.  Just try to remember you’re only in the field for a relatively short time, so cherish it while you can. (And call home once in a while! Hi mom.)

When on the job…

11) Bring toilet paper and water into the field.
‘nuff said.

12) This isn’t a 9-5 job.
Schedules are practically useless and very weather dependent.  Get ready to be exhausted at some points.  You may have to collect data at 2:55 AM and then go catch birds in the wee hours of the morning.  Other days you might just have to sit around and enter data.  If the person who’s leading the project is a human and needs sleep as well, you will likely have a good balance of this. But if they are super-human and seem to never tire, don’t be afraid to speak up and say that you’re not.  Sleep-collecting data is not good for either of you!

13) Prepare to live, work, and play with your co-workers. 
Mentally prepare to be isolated with the same few people for however long the field season is.  Spending all of your time with the same people comes with its advantages and disadvantages. You will get very comfortable with them, and they will end up being great resources.  Being the youngest on the team, it’s been enlightening to see Anusha work on her PhD, Josh begin to apply to PhD programs, Anita work post-graduation, among other things.  For me, these people have become great co-workers, mentors, wonderful friends, travel buddies, and salsa partners.

14) Take charge of how much you learn in the field. 
Know that your job description is to essentially be a data-collection monkey, but you don’t have to be a mindless data-collection monkey if you don’t want to be. Ask questions and really understand why you’re collecting the data; an understanding helps you learn more.  Ask for independent projects or to take on larger responsibilities such as analyzing data. This won’t always be possible, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.  The person who is leading the study is likely the expert in their field. Learning from them is a once in a lifetime opportunity!

So hopefully from these few pointers, you can avoid getting your pocket knife taken away, apply for enriching field experiences, and learn the most that you can from a field experience! Comment below if you have any other pointers for me and other field work newbies.


Hummingbird field techs
The hummingbird field team.

Julisa Ricart is now a Master’s student at Indiana University studying Data Science. She loves analyzing citizen science data and public environmental data collected by federal agencies. She believes it is an absolute crime how less than 0.5% of the world’s data is actually used. In her free time, she enjoys leaving her windowless office and pulling out the old binoculars.

This article first appeared on anushashankar.weebly.com/blog.

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