Turning over the keys – when it becomes YOUR field work

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Auriel Fournier, a PhD candidate at the University of Arkansas, to tell us what happens when you get handed the reins to a fieldwork project. Check out Auriel’s bio at the end of the post!

I worked as a field assistant for close to a dozen different projects before I started my PhD. I got to see the highs (and lows) of projects, bosses, equipment, and weather. I loved fieldwork: I loved the challenge, I loved being outside, I loved getting paid to spend time doing what I loved. I loved the people I worked with (most of the time) and who I worked for (most of the time). It introduced me to new places and ideas, and took me to amazing places.

During undergrad one winter I was talking to Amber, the PhD student I worked for and she offered me a job for the following summer (sweet!) but there was a catch: I had to run the project.

I FREAKED OUT (she may not know this). How on earth was I supposed to run a project? I was still a silly little undergrad, a baby scientist. But Amber, in her infinite wisdom, gave me the reins, a small pot of money, a goal, and some phone numbers, and five months later I was loading equipment into a minivan with my two technicians and heading out to catch Golden-winged Warblers.

Amber helped me a lot through this process and I soaked it all up. I learned how much work it takes to just make a schedule, and how much work it takes to keep a schedule together. Schedules are hilarious things on field projects, since field work never goes as planned, but land managers still need to know when you are going to be around, so you send out revisions, and more revisions, and make more phone calls, and the waterproofing on your tent gives way and you have no idea if you have any dry clothes and the birds aren’t responding, and your techs look at YOU for guidance. It’s insanity! But I loved it; I loved every moment of it (even the ones my now husband will tell you I hated). I learned how to balance what needed to be done with what I and my crew could do. Some days were rough, so we didn’t push too hard. Other days we worked 16 hours and smiled the entire time. I learned how to respect my technicians and to work with them. I was younger than both of them, which created an interesting power dynamic, but they were great about it, and that entire summer shaped how I am as a boss.

Walking through a wooded area, amber, wearing plaid, followed by Auriel

Amber (plaid shirt) put insane faith in me and I learned SO much.

A few years after this project I started graduate school and was put in charge of an even larger project, and wasn’t given much guidance (sink or swim I guess). Once again I hired some technicians, loaded up some gear and headed out. Once again my techs were all older than me, and my project was insane and never went according to schedule. I hired my technicians because they had skill sets I lacked, experience I needed. So instead of being a dictator, or a weak-naggy-leader (two boss-styles I had experienced and disliked) we worked together. When the ATVs broke (and oh did they break), I learned from one tech. When the spotlights broke (and oh did they break), I learned from another. When plant ID made my head spin, my third tech jumped into action and taught me.

My project was fraught with problems, which often frustrated us all, and I tried to bring them into the decision making. We decided when to push and when to wait. They were all aiming at being grad students someday (and all are now – and I am so proud of them) so I wanted them to learn how this works: how do you schedule a project, how do you change things up? How do you decide which site to cut when half the ATVs are in the shop? I’ve had a lot of bosses, and while I’m still way too young to have opinions, I’m of the mind that this kind of collaborative supervision is one of the best ways to lead a field crew, and with that in mind I’ve got a few thoughts for all my fellow field folk.

Auriel et al sitting in front of a swan lake national wildlife refuge sign

Me, Leslie, Justin and Matt. These three saved me – I should be dead in a wetland somewhere.

To the current field techs out there, if there is ever a moment where you don’t understand why your boss is having you do X instead of Y, or if you have an idea to improve process Z, share it with them. They might have a great reason for why they do things the way they do, but a good boss will welcome your input, even if they aren’t able to incorporate it.

To the current field bosses and supervisors, your technicians are your greatest asset: they are your eyes and ears, they notice things you might miss. Their heads aren’t swimming with schedules and permits and worry, so they see the behaviors and patterns we might miss, and they have ideas from other projects that might be just the fix you need. Listen to them, discuss your decisions with them, and help them learn. Technicians are scientists, just like you. Treat them with respect and realize that part of your job is helping them grow and learn, not just using them to collect data.

Fieldwork is the best thing ever, except when it’s not. How you act as a boss and deal with subpar things has major implications for yourself and your technicians and your science. Embrace the challenge, drink in every moment of fieldy goodness and do awesome science while also helping to build up the next generation of scientists.

headshotAuriel is a PhD Candidate in the Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Arkansas. She has a B.S. in Wildlife Ecology and Management from Michigan Technological University and has worked with birds in 10 states over the past decade on various projects. Her current work focuses on rail migration and wetland management and how we can manage inland wetlands for the widest diversity of species. She is an avid birder, environmental educator, R user and outdoor enthusiast. She is passionate about getting people excited about their natural resources and increasing the diversity of people who are in science, and who enjoy the outdoors.

website – aurielmvfournier.com

twitter – @RallidaeRule

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