Tips for a Successful Field Assistant — Researcher relationship

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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”.

  3. 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)

  4. 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
    first imagined.

  5. 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?

2 thoughts on “Tips for a Successful Field Assistant — Researcher relationship

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  2. Its refreshing to find someone else who sees their field assistants the same way I do. I also fuel my team with brownies! Especially my first year, but continuing each season there after, my technicians have always been older then me and had more experience in one avenue or another. Working WITH them to solve issues that came up and encouraging them to give me feedback on the project and how I supervised them has been challenging, but also very rewarding, and I and my science are much much better.

    My undergraduate adviser (Dr Joseph Bump, MI Tech) told me something along these lines when I did field work for him and its stuck with me ever since.

    ‘you have to remember that you care more about your project then anyone else. your techs get tired first, lose interest first, stop caring first. So on top of caring about your project, you have to care about them, because the work they do once they stop caring, isn’t going to be work worth doing.’

    I try to remember this on a daily basis when making the decision of if we should stay out longer, push for more veg work, push for more surveys. Some days, heck yes, lets keep going, other days, the techs are cold and miserable, and its time for a break.

    I also never make my techs do something I am not willing to do myself, especially when it comes to safety. My policy is, if someone is getting hurt on this project, is going to be me. Granted I also try to prevent myself from getting hurt, but when push comes to shove, I never have them do something I’m not willing to do first.

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