You can’t do a darn thing in the field without a good field assistant. They can
make your field season wonderful, or they can be a permanent source of stress. A
field assistant is a weird confabulation of collaborator, employee and roommate
— and if you’re very, very lucky, a friend as well. I’ve had several wonderful
assistants throughout my grad school career, and this is a partial list of what
I’ve learned from them — written with lots of gratitude for all their patience
and hard work:
- Treat them like a junior collaborator, not a hired hand.. Lots of field
assistants would be qualified for much more comfortable job than following you
around with a field notebook — and yet they’re here, probably because they have
the same kind of love for biology that you do, with less experience. This is
your chance to learn how to mentor a younger scientist — before you’re a
supervisor. Many assistants, in fact, end up in grad school themselves before
long — you have a chance to help prepare them.
Encourage feedback. This is the other side of #1. Your assistant will
save you lots of mistakes and missing data — but you’re going to have to take
some criticism. I think it’s the mark of an insecure scientist to shoot down an
assistant’s suggestion, or to try to maintain some kind of ‘discipline’.
Remember you’re out here to do science, not protect your ego. If you’re doing
it right, a passerby wouldn’t know which of you was ”in charge”.
Let them indulge. If your work is anything like my own, your fieldsite is
rather far removed from a comfy office. Your assistant is probably sacrificing
lots for your project — such as Internet, machine laundry, skin free from
mosquitoes, hot showers, etc. So, if there are any creature comforts that
they’re after — and if you can afford the time/cost — then do it. To
paraphrase a similar post I once read ”if your assistant wants to spend 40
minutes looking for fresh basil in rural Alberta, let them’. Wise words.
(another example: here in Brazil we make lots of brownies)
Let them become an expert at one particular task. I’ve learned to be
comfortable letting a capable assistant carry out most of the work on one part
of my project. At first this kind of freaked me out, to be honest. But it
seems to me that when an assistant takes ownership of a component of a project,
they work carefully and usually make many useful improvements on what you had
Let them use their strengths. This comes back to ego. Your field
assistant will have different strengths from yourself; for example, all of mine
have been excellent at organization and planning — much better than me (faint
praise!). Place a priority on the science, not on ”looking smart”, and let
them lead parts of the work that are within their expertise.
All the science I’ve done has been better because of my excellent assistants.
What are your tips for field-assistant relationships?