Friday, July 17, 2009

Field season structure

Among biologists I know who do their Ph.D. research abroad, there are
two extremes for how field work gets done: one long trip or several
short ones. I think it's interesting to consider the merits of each of
these and why they might be chosen.

Sometimes it makes sense to collect all of your data in one long
stretch abroad. During the summer before I began grad school, I met a
woman who had recently completed her Ph.D. research in Africa so I was
eager to discuss logistical field work issues with her. She got all of
her classes done as quickly as possible, and then spent nearly two
years at her field site collecting data. Her fiance visited her for a
few months in the middle, but if I recall correctly she didn't go back
to the US during that time. The advantage of this was that she saved
money on the cost of flying to and from Africa (and also polluted less
by making the trip just once). She worked at a site where her advisor
had been working on the same organisms for many years, so she was
surrounded by people doing similar things for much of that time. One
long field season is advantageous if you need to collect data in all
months/seasons or your field site is exceedingly remote (hence very
lengthy travel time). This may also be the strategy of choice for
students with extremely limited budgets for whom the cost of getting
to their field site prohibits multiple trips.

However, one long field season can be difficult and frustrating if you
never (or rarely) see your advisor. This is entirely likely if your
research isn't directly under the umbrella of your advisor (i.e. not
in their grants unless you write one with them), which is fairly
common in ecology. (I, for example, do not expect Herb to visit Nyota
during my research). Even the best-laid plans can fail in the field,
and it may be difficult to recoup or change directions without someone
more experienced around to advise you. Internet may be nonexistent,
unreliable, slow, and/or expensive, making communication with advisors
as well as access to scientific literature very difficult. Also, it
may be difficult or impossible to have any kind of income if you
aren't on campus for months on end (this is why I doggedly pursued

Several short field trips allow time in between to discuss ideas and
findings with advisors, classmates, and colleagues. If a project is a
total disaster, you can make a new plan before the next field season
begins. It also gives you another chance in the field after you think,
"If only I'd measured this/brought that/looked there/read these
papers!" I think the greatest advantage is basically the ability to
synthesize and reflect between trips and then try again. Depending on
how you are supported, several shorter trips to the field can make it
possible to keep a teaching assistant position if that is your only
means of income.

The disadvantage is that multiple field trips can really add up. How
much time, money, and emissions are you willing or able to spend
getting back and forth? Also, permitting issues may add financial and
logistical considerations. If you've had to pay a lot of money for a
year-long permit, it might make sense to try to get everything done in
one year rather than pay more money and go through the hassle of
getting approval for another year.

Ultimately, I think the most important factors to consider are:
-Your research question (this will put the first and most important
constraints on field season structure)
-Intellectual isolation of your site (will your advisor or other
scientists be there?)
-Budget (how much can you afford to travel? how will you support
yourself while you're gone if you normally TA?)
-Permits and other logistics
-Your life outside of science (are all of your friends or family
members getting married or having babies? or are you?)

Given that my greatest fear is coming back to Big City to find out
that all of my data are total garbage, I'm glad that this isn't my
only trip to Ukenzagapia. If it's all junk or missing important
pieces, hey, it was only my first field season! I'll fill in the
blanks when I return. I'll have time in Big City to think about what
exactly I need accomplish during my next field season, and discuss
these things with my advisors and committee members. I'll probably
tend more towards the several-short-seasons end of the spectrum,
though at this point I have only a rough idea of when my next field
trips will be. I'm hoping to return in January-February 2010, and then
for a long field season winter 2010-2011. But who knows? First I have
to finish this season and see what the data look like.

No comments: