Getting Out in the Field as a Skill Workshop

picture3_getting out in the filed
photo by C. Kassel

Fieldwork is an essential component for many in the geosciences, and it provides opportunity for gaining skills in everything from temporal and spatial reasoning to organization, planning and preparation. There are many challenges associated with fieldwork, including physical, economical, managerial, and legal concerns.

This workshop provided a panel discussion on the challenges, benefits, and strategies to being successful at planning, leading, and completing fieldwork in a variety of settings. Panelists were Dr. Bob Hawley (Dartmouth College), Dr. Fiamma Straneo (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), Dr. Julie Brigham-Grette (University of Massachusetts Amherst), Allen O’Bannon (CH2MHILL Polar Services). The panelists began the workshop by providing background information on how they became involved in field campaigns and key tips for successful field campaigns (listed below). The panelists then answered questions from the audience: the questions and answers are summarized below.

This workshop was made possible through a partnership of the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN) and AGU Education and was co-organized by the ESWN and Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS). We extend our thanks to the partner organizations and panelists: this event would not have been successful without your participation and support!

Key Tips from Panelists

Dr. Bob Hawley:

  1. Experience will lead you to even more field opportunities so take the opportunities you can get without over-selling yourself/exaggerating your current experience level.
  2. Even if you initially take a secondary role, you will likely end-up leading a field campaign at some point because you will know what to do through past observational experiences.
  3. Prepare in advance for a variety of scenarios and know what you are bringing, what you are trying to accomplish, and assign duties.
  4. Be persistent. Keep applying or volunteering for opportunities and when they are given to you, don’t be afraid to take them!

Dr. Fiamma Straneo:

  1. You’ll make a lot of mistakes, and they may be costly, but you’ll learn a lot from them and you’ll get better at executing field research because of those mistakes.
  2. Don’t be afraid to try something new or different. You may not start as an expert but you’ll develop the right skills and knowledge.
  3. Have back-ups: redundancy in observations is key!
  4. Talk to experts. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

 Dr. Julie Brigham-Grette:

  1. Doors of opportunity will open and you have to decide whether or not you should take the available opportunities.
  2. You learn that sometimes you have to take risks in remote places but always have plans B, C, D… so that you don’t have to take costly risks and endanger yourself.
  3. Sometimes you need mental or physical help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.
  4. Get advice, listen carefully, and don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong.

Allen O’Bannon:

  1. Some skills can be self-taught but sometimes that may not be enough. Formal training can be incredibly valuable. Field safety courses will teach you a variety of skills but even participating in outdoor club adventures on a college campus can provide you with additional knowledge and skills.
  2. Experience/practice can teach you a lot so get out there.

Questions & Answers:

Q: How do you transition to leading field campaigns? A: Ideally your advisor/supervisor should gradually increase your responsibilities so it’s a natural transition. Sometimes you need to ask to take-on more responsibilities and step-up to fulfill them because your supervisor had past experiences where someone was not capable of leading fieldwork and they are unsure whether to give you more responsibilities.

Q: How do you convince funding agencies to give you money for fieldwork when remote sensing techniques are much more efficient and cheaper? A: All remote sensing techniques need to be validated with field observations, so weave validation into the proposed project. Tiered mentoring, where you teach a graduate student then they teach an undergraduate student, can also serve as a broader impact in a proposal.

Q: How do you obtain more experience while you’re in a break between undergraduate and graduate degree programs? A: Networking is key! Researchers may need to hire a technician that has basic science skills or is looking for an intern to complete work on a project. Everyone values initiative so it doesn’t hurt to ask about opportunities.

Q: How do you deal with a lack of confidence in someone on your field team? A: Work on getting a sense for your teammates knowledge and skills before going in the field then incrementally build trust. Ultimately, you need to listen to your instincts and not let ego get in the way because ‘no data point is worth your life’.

Q: What do you have to consider when planning fieldwork if you are bringing an inexperienced teammate? A: Define responsibilities, expectations, and a work schedule for each teammate before going into the field so that you can be proactive and make sure everyone does their part. At each step, make sure you identify any potential problems and look for a way out because you don’t want to get trapped in a situation for which you are not well prepared. Similarly, make sure your teammates know the risks and are comfortable telling you when they feel unsafe or unprepared. Also try to slowly build confidence in your teammates and let them know it’s alright to take a break to add layers, get a drink of water, tend to a blister, etc. because otherwise these small problems can lead to much bigger issues. A good leader may sometimes need to lead by example, such as asking to stop and take a drink or eat a snack to show others that breaks are totally acceptable when necessary.

Q: How do you find good field assistants and how to you build their confidence? A: If you can conduct interviews, present them with some worst-case scenarios in order to gauge their ability to handle difficult situations. Know what you need before trying to make any decisions on team members because you never want to be in the situation where you are the only person that can perform a specific task but you cannot complete it for some reason. Also, be sure that you pick people that are interested in the science, not just being outdoors because that will really help with motivation.

Q: Do you recommend survival training courses? A: Yes! CH2MHILL Polar Services (CPS for short) offers survival courses that are really worth the initial financial investment. If you’re going to Antarctica, you will be expected to complete the ‘Happy Camper’ course, which will provide you with some basic skills.

Q: How do you deal with gender inequality issues? A: It doesn’t hurt to be asked to get the same opportunities as other teammates because sometimes bias is unconscious. If you still encounter problems or don’t want to say anything while in the field, try your best to cope with the problems while in the field and present the issues after the field campaign. Be persistent and ‘pleasantly’ assertive and people will often realize your ideas are important and will eventually be more supportive. However, don’t be afraid to admit your limits: you can get yourself into a dangerous situation if you are not physically capable but refuse to admit you need help.

Q: What do you do if you keep getting looked-over and you need some initial experience to get your foot in the door? A: As the leader of a field campaign, you can include an inexperienced team member and give them some small/easy duties initially until they build the correct set of knowledge and skills needed for a more difficult role on the team. If the fieldwork will not be dangerous or life-threatening, you can always find a simple task for someone that will give them the initial experience they need. Undergraduate students can also participate in a research experience for undergraduates (REU) program that will help develop basic field skills.