Assisting in the Field: A True Research Adventure

Author:  Yeva Ragauskayte

Snorkeling and scuba diving in coral reefs, trekking through the jungle, climbing icy slopes—do you see yourself partaking in any of these adventures in pursuit of knowledge? This is exactly what field assistants do when they help conduct research in the field. Many research studies do not just take place in a laboratory, but also in outside natural environments.

Field "assistants" can come from all backgrounds and from a wide variety of education levels—from undergraduate to postdoctoral. The environments they work in are also varied and include anything from office work recording and analyzing data to physically harsh locales around the world. Field assistants carry out tasks ranging from mundane chores to exciting and challenging activities in data collection.

In biological sciences, assistants may have to collect biological samples of the environment they are studying, trap and handle animals, and record behavioral observations. In sciences such as geology and archeology, assistants take geological samples, attend digs and take care of specialized equipment.


The Skills

Field assistants should preferably have leadership ability, mechanical skills, first-aid knowledge, teamwork skills, flexibility and the ability to live and work in close quarters in remote areas. Since much of field research requires long hours under all weather conditions and extreme environments, assistants should be in excellent physical condition to perform optimally. More specifically, most research requires additional skills like mountaineering, boat handling, data collection and entry, and sometimes even fluency in foreign languages. Knowing the language of the country in which you are working is especially useful since field assistants tend to be liaisons with local scientists, indigenous people and conservationists. Research assistants not only get to participate in exciting hands-on research, but they also have to be very responsible and see to necessary the necessary tasks of obtaining permits, buying supplies, fixing equipment and keeping track of budgets. All of these tasks are necessary for the success of the research activities—hence field assistants have many responsibilities and must be able to multi-task.

The dedication that is needed for this work may strain family relations as field assistants often travel and spend much time away from home. Also, due to some of the extreme environments in which they may have to work, some field assistants choose to retire or switch to a less stressful career after a few years. Again, the amount of stress associated with the job depends on the working environment, type of research, as well as individual personality.


The Earnings

Assisting in the field can be voluntary or paid. In some cases, research gear, housing, and stipends are provided, but visa costs, insurance, immunizations, personal field gear and expenses are the responsibility of the assistant. The priceless benefit, however, is the experience and sense of adventure that one can acquire in the field. Field assisting can be done anywhere where active research is taking place, including universities, government laboratories, volunteer organizations and museums. The Peace Corps and the Smithsonian Institute are just two examples of the many different places one can find field opportunities.

Students from all backgrounds can participate as field assistants. Some students like Andrew McDonnell, a UCLA student assisting in research cruises to the Santa Monica Bay Oceanographic Mooring, end up working in departments outside of their majors. Andew helps deploy instruments that measure various properties of the water. This type of work is not only rewarding from the excitement of working in nature, but also gives Andrew experience he could not have gotten in university labs and classes.


Getting the Job

Students do not necessarily need extensive experience in the research area to be a great field assistant. There are different levels of participation available in all research and the key is to ask around to find such positions. In Andrew’s case, he asked his professors “if they knew of any active field programs conducted by their colleagues at the university.” His professors pointed him in the right direction until he found a project to work on.

Once you find a professor and project of interest, submit your resume and statement of interest that can also be distributed to other researchers in the same line of study. Do not be discouraged if you do not get an offer right away; sometimes there simply are not any positions available. The key is persistence—eventually something should open up.