I’m at a conference. It’s 10:30 am, after the morning session, and people are spilling out of sessions all around me, most stopping to look for the nearest coffee station. I meet up with a group of my lab mates. I’m primed and energized from the great talks I just experienced, and I’m preparing myself for more ideas and networking. We are standing in a circle in the large atrium of the convention centre. My advisor introduces us to a faculty member from another university with whom he’s been chatting. After going around the circle, the conversation turns to fieldwork. ‘How long have you spent in the field so far?’ As we go around the circle, my lab mates and I answer: four months, eight months, more often than not. We know we’ve all spent a lot of time in the field. The faculty member meets our expressions with an understanding look, because she’s been there too.

There is a sort of parallelism between being at a conference and being in the field. For one, both are opportunities for a lot of learning, and both can be great opportunities for networking and connecting with people. Maybe most importantly, both are beneficial beyond just the acquisition of information. In other professional programs like social work, medicine, education, and many others, field experience – or practicum – is an integral component. Studies have shown that undergraduate student experience is greatly improved by integrating fieldwork into education. In fact, putting the spotlight on my area of research, all of McClean’s top Canadian universities either encourage or require undergraduate students majoring in ecology to undertake field courses. So, if fieldwork is valued in other pedagogical models, why is there no requirement per se for all graduate students to spend time at their ‘field sites’?

Here I should digress to say that I think of field sites through the lens of an ecologist. In your case, your field site may be your lab, studio, classroom, library, or any other place you can find yourself immersed in the thing you study.

Making your fieldwork work for you

As graduate students we have to juggle a number of obligations. We need to present our research. We need to write, write, and write some more. We need to attend meetings, get involved in our departments, mentor and teach, and somehow find time for ourselves and our personal lives. With the accessibility of shared datasets, ease with which we can collaborate with peers all over the world, and our ability to outsource analyses, it can be tempting to spend more time analyzing data than collecting it ourselves.

Still, there is no excuse for being there. We know Charles Darwin best from his Galapagos Islands exploits as part of the H.M.S. Beagle expedition, but by all accounts, he neglected nearly every classroom-based educational experience before that in favour of being a naturalist. He spent his adolescence exploring plants and animals, then the rest of his life synthesizing and writing about what he had experienced. Setting out from Wales in 1831, I wonder if young Darwin knew that his ideas would one day form the foundation of much of modern biology.

Few of us will be as preeminent as Darwin, but the process of fieldwork is itself productive and leads to discovery. We observe patterns and processes as they exist naturally, and using inductive reasoning, generate hypotheses about the mechanisms driving these patterns. When we test these hypotheses and our predictions are not supported, our familiarity with our systems allows us to generate alternative hypotheses to explain our findings. Finally, our comprehensive knowledge of what we study allows us to integrate our ideas into the bigger picture when it comes time to share our findings.

Fieldwork also forms and strengthens relationships with people. No matter what your area of study happens to be, there are likely both positive and negative impacts of your research on people. As much as it is your ethical obligation to understand these impacts, this creates an opportunity that I consider one of the most valuable and rewarding aspects of being a graduate student:

  • Your field site is the place to interact with agencies and groups that may fund or logistically support your work in the future if they aren’t doing so already.
  • The people who live and work in or near your field site have intimate knowledge about the inner workings of your study system, and simply a conversation over coffee can provide you with a wealth of insight. Communication in the other direction is also rewarding, as people learn about the inner workings of their systems through you.
  • Fieldwork strengthens friendships with fellow graduate students and field assistants.

Finding your balance

Here are a few tips to balance fieldwork with your other responsibilities as a graduate student:

  • Many commitments keep you on campus. If possible, plan your fieldwork well ahead of time around seminars, coursework, teaching assistantships, holidays, etc.
  • Before leaving, make a list of people in and around your field site with whom you want to connect.
  • Even if it isn’t essential for you to complete your thesis, advocate to spend at least some time at your field site to become familiar with it.
  • If getting out into the field is inaccessible for you, volunteer with a lab mate or fellow graduate student in your department to learn about the process.

Fieldwork is time away from the university and may feel like a distraction from responsibility, but it’s an essential part of your journey as a graduate student. I wouldn’t advocate for neglecting coursework altogether, but maybe we can take a page from Darwin’s book and all become naturalists in our own study systems.

Check out these earlier posts that talk about how immersing yourself in your field site can add inspiration to your work as a graduate student: