Hard earned lessons of fieldwork planning

By Stephanie Brittain. Originally posted on the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science (ICCS) website (click here for original post)

DSC_0142As I’m writing this blog, it’s my second day in the field.  Fieldwork is a really fun and exciting ‘perk’ of conservation research and my colleagues always seem to be heading off to unusual and sometimes exotic locations. I can understand why fieldwork may sound glamorous to some people (e.g. my mum, who keeps asking me how my ‘holiday’ is going). Yet, the reality is that fieldwork is actually really hard work. It’s also easy to underestimate the often gruelling process we have to go through to plan it.

Preparing for fieldwork can be a steep learning curve. With that in mind, I asked a few colleagues what they wish they had been told before they started their fieldwork, and the responses ranged from the practical to the hilarious. So, I’d like to share a few of the things we have learnt (sometimes the hard way) that aren’t always obvious, but could make a real difference to your fieldwork experience.

“What do you wish you’d been told before doing your fieldwork?”

  1. Everything takes longer than you think. Roads become blocked in rainy seasons, cars breakdown, people don’t come to meetings, people get sick, documents take ages to process, equipment doesn’t arrive in the post when it should…. the list of ways your research can be held up is pretty endless. Best be cautious and allow some time in your schedule as contingency.
  1. You may be lucky enough to have plenty of funding, but fieldwork costs can mount up rapidly, even if you are in a remote and developing part of the world. Putting together a half decent budget early on and being aware of funding opportunities can help to avoid financial disaster half way through your PhD
  1. Believe it or not, your family (and your supervisors) do care, and they will want to know that you’re alive. Lack of reception in remote areas can be tackled by carrier pigeon, or a satellite phone (there are ways of making expensive calls considerably cheaper now). At the very least, tell people when you are meant to be back in contact. A stress free supervisor is a happy supervisor.
  1. Have a solid exit strategy out of the field. If you are a woman, remember that field research is still quite male dominated; important to note when filtering advice from male colleagues, especially for transport and safety. Risk assessments and contingency plans are NOT a chore, they are a necessity. Do them. Properly.
  1. What you think you will do in the field may not work out as you imagined. Your study village may change their minds about their involvement or, perhaps that species you’ve based your entire PhD on is nowhere to be seen. I tend to get over excited and think of 1001 different things I could do in the field. It’s fine to have an ambitious goal, but it’s equally important to have a backup plan if your ideas aren’t realistic. The key to tackling most of these issues? Always do a pilot study!
  1. Don’t underestimate the value of local fieldwork assistants. They know the site better than you, know a lot about the topic you are interested in and can help you to access and be accepted by usually inaccessible groups. Remember that you are going to spend a lot of time with them, so personality fit is equally important as their capability. Taking photos of friends, family and places at home is a good way to bond with them (or anyone that’s interested).
  1. Gender plays an important role in the way you interact with people and making efforts to understand thegender politics can make a huge difference. As a woman – be culturally sensitive in the way you dress and act but never be ashamed of being independent, intelligent and educated, because we want this for all women.
  1. Don’t rush– a well planned survey design is equally as important as the number or surveys carried out. Equally, take care with your note taking; people, place, time and context must always be included in your field notes or you’ll regret it later on.
  1. Ethics– Think about them. Know them inside out. Adhere to them. Think about how to manage people’s expectations and don’t make any promises, like ‘I’ll print this picture and bring it back’ or ‘I’m here to save you all’ – you probably won’t.
  1. Boredom and loneliness can be the hardest things to deal with. Just remember, even though it feels awful, these feelings are temporary and you will get through them.

And on a less serious note (but I think equally important):

  • Travel wash is the best thing ever – one bottle for everything
  • Check, double check and triple check your equipment. Just because you bought a brand new tent from a supposedly reputable retailer does not mean it will have poles
  • Cold concrete is super nice to lie on when you feel ill
  • Yes, your ears need suncream
  • Rice and beans are your bland, safe and filling best friends
  • Smiles and high fives are universal

Before doing your fieldwork, talk to your peers who have been through the process before. There is a wealth of experience out there (both of success and spectacular disaster) that you can learn from.