How I traded field biology for a desk job

As I was looking at my summer schedule, it occurred to me that my time out in the field (here defined as outside, collecting data, probably wearing zip-off pants and carrying a field book, insect net and a set of vials) has been getting less and less, every year. As a PhD student I spent most of my summer collecting data. I loved it – the rugged joys of bumpy back-roads in Alberta, the sticky and smelly combination of sweat and bug spray, the cold beer at the end of a long field day.  As I moved on to a post-doc in Ohio, I still spent a lot of time collecting spiders in soybean fields, helping other graduate students in the field, although the summers also included some lab work, and substantial time writing manuscripts.

When starting at McGill over 10 years ago, I kick-started my research program by spending weeks in the field, and seemed to manage a lot of time with each of my graduate students during the field season.  However, time in the field was measured as weeks, and not months.  Now, as I look at my schedule, I’m “maybe” going to get one full week in the field this summer, and a fews days here and there helping with other projects going on in the lab. My time doing field work, actively collecting data, is minimal.

Deep thoughts: field work in the Arctic. Are these days long gone...?

Deep thoughts: field work in the Arctic. Are these days long gone…?

Wait a second. One reason I got into this business was because I like to figure out neat stuff about nature, while being in nature. As a child, I always enjoyed beingin the field‘ (this is also known as ‘playing outside‘) and wanted to continue this as an adult. What happened?

Academics in my discipline of study (let’s call it ‘field ecology‘) and at my career stage (i.e., some years into the job) spend relatively little time in the field and the bulk of their time is a desk job, click-click-clicking away on a keyboard. Staring at a monitor. I know there are exceptions (and BIG congratulations on those of you who do manage to get outside to collect data, regularly!), but when I look around to my colleagues, most of them spend more looking out a window instead of being out that window. The time gets chewed up by other (important) priorities: grant writing, editing manuscripts, writing manuscripts, answering emails, reading papers, attending meetings, chairing meetings, going to conferences, preparing talks for those conferences, writing lectures, delivering lectures and so on. These are all the current demands on our time, and they are the things that the job requires! (for other relevant discussions about this, have a peek at this post by Sarah Boon, and I’ve previously written about how I spend my time).

Bottom line: most of my work duties are indoor activities. I am fortunate in that some of my teaching occurs outside, but that is not the norm.  The other thing that happens is ‘life’ – time with family is important to me, and time away from family is difficult. One reason I’ve spent less weeks away is because it’s tough on all of us and I like being around when the kids are growing up. There’s also that thing called a vacation – Academics typically their vacation time during the summer. (related to this is a post over at Dynamic Ecology titled “how often do you travel”, by Meg Duffy)

That is how I have traded field biology for a desk job.

I’m not alone: here are some responses from folks on Twitter when I asked about their experiences, and whether they have traded field biology for a desk job:

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This is not a lament; this is not a sob story. In fact, perhaps many of us are OK with this transition from field biologist to ‘research manager’:

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There is an important message here for people moving up through the Academic system: current PhD and MSc students need to recognize that the idea of landing an Academic job that gets you ‘out in the field’ a lot is probably a pipe dream.

I’ll end with some optimism: Even though things have changed, I think I can still call myself a  ‘field ecologist’ and here’s why:

1) “Field Trips” can be short. It’s possible to capture an hour outside over lunch and collect data on Agelenopsis spiders in a hedge near the picnic table, or stop off at a bird banding station in the AM before work, or swing by a forest to check a pitfall trap on the way home. I have come to realize that field work need not be ‘weeks away’.  In many cases, it’s worth starting up a project that takes you outside regularly, at a local field site. This makes the field work an easier part of the day and you don’t need to schedule weeks away (nor will you need to schedule it months in advance). Keeping it simple, and keeping in manageable is important for me, given the other constraints on time.

2) Trade-offs: I spend time in the field instead of attending a lot of conferences. I have always enjoyed going to scientific conferences, but given the difficulties in getting away for extended periods of time, I realized that I could do field work, or attend conferences, but doing both is not always possible. One of my academic mentors discussed this with me soon after I had started my job at McGill (ironically, at a conference!); he said that when the weather is good, time was better spent collecting flies rather than sitting in a hotel basement. Good point. (By the way, summer-conference are kind of annoying because of this conflict!).  Networking at conferences is very valuable, but that face-to-face networking may not be as essential later in a career. Thanks to social media, it’s also possible to attend conferences virtually.

3) Live vicariously through students: My thoughts about field work are somewhat nostalgic and dreamy, and I forget about the problems. I forget about the flat tires, encounters with bears, the biting flies, and the exhaustion. I’m reminded of these things when my graduate students come back from the field, and sometimes I am happy I wasn’t with them. I can, instead, spend a day or two with them in the field, troubleshoot, help but not have to suffer through it all. I’m a ‘gentleman field biologist’ now. Is that lame? Is that pathetic? Nope. I’ve put in my time and can now have my field trips field with all the fun parts and less of the annoying parts.

4) Mixing vacations with field biology: I’ve not been all that successful at this, but I do know colleagues who manage to mix extended vacation time with field work. I do this on a smaller scale, and it typically includes carrying vials along with every trip, whether it is to the family cottage, or just a walk in the local forest. I’m always after records of pseudoscorpions, and have managed some nice finds while on vacation.  My family does, however, gives me strange looks when I go chasing after spiders or butterflies during lunch break while on a road trip. I can handle the ridicule –> it’s for science!

Although I have largely traded field work for a desk job, there are still glimmers of exciting field work, and still opportunities to get outside and be reminded of the reasons why I originally got into this line of work. I am not depressed or sad about my desk job – I have the best job in the world, despite the the fact that I stare out the window and sometimes dream of field work. I also maintain that these things come in cycles – a few years ago I was away for a few weeks in the field, even if this year is less intensive. It’ll come around again, and perhaps I will write a post in the future that discusses how it’s possible to be a gritty, smelly, rough and tough field biologist again. For now, though, I must stop typing. It’s hard work and my fingers are a little sore.


21 thoughts on “How I traded field biology for a desk job

  1. Hi Chris – great post – I do solution 3 whenever possible – in my previous position at Imperial College, which I left last September, I kept Thursday mornings free for data collection (I have a twenty year data set on sycamores and associated insects) the analysis and writing-up of which, will probably keep me busy (and out of the field) until retirement 😉

    • Simon- thanks for the comment. Keeping a bit of each week protected for field work is a fabulous idea. Perhaps I should really start a small project, locally, that will require me to do this! I will think seriously about this. (so much of my work is not local anymore, making this tricky)

  2. I’ve worked hard to avoid that sacrifice as a PI. My productivity probably suffers a bit because of it. But my students learn more by working with me in the field and I refuse to give up that part of my scientific career. It helps that all of my research is local.

  3. Fantastic post Chris! Even as a grad student I have discovered the evolution of my relationship with field work. I was involved in data collection in one form or another for 12 summer in a row until two years ago (volunteer field assistant, USRAs, B.Sc. honour project, contract work, M.Sc. & Ph.D). As an assistant I was in awe of the grads I was working for and was soaking up every moment outside. As a grad I grew more confident as a leader and decision maker, which came with its ups and downs. I discovered that the field day did not end with kicking off mud-splattered shoes, scratching insect bites, and collapsing into a happy post-field day sprawl. A 10 or 12 hour day outside was followed by 3-4 hours of planning, prepping, calling landowners, problem solving, and worrying about my sample size. Or often a 4-5 hour drive home to visit my now-husband for less than 48 hours every 10 days or so (~ 100+ hours of extra driving each summer). I still loved the field, but there was a bit less freedom with more stress and personal cost.

    I have the highest respect for profs and PIs that get out in the field in one way or another every year. From a grad student’s point of view, those couple days or couple hours that you join us are really precious. The feedback and hints borne from years of experience may prove invaluable. Having you experience a (potentially tough) field day validates our hard work and the data we collect (not that we would chose the hardest site or transect when you visit or anything…..). Having your undivided attention to brainstorm on our project, while in the field, often leads to fantastic questions if not always answers.

    I do get sad at times that as I climb the academic ladder I am leaving behind my years dominated by field work. But the other side of data collection is information dissemination, and as my skills in this grow I do feel very validated in my choices. Thanks for the great tips to how I can keep calling myself a field assistant in the future. I think a lot can be said about local field work as really elegant experiments and data collection can occur close to home (Bernd Heinrich is a fantastic example). All I might need is a bird feeder or a banding station 🙂

    • Thanks Barbara! Great comments. Yes, field work is generally very rosy when “life responsibilities” are less.

      I’m glad to hear that even short field trips with grad students are appreciated. I sometimes wonder whether those quick trips are worth it. I will keep doing that.

      The evolution towards less field work certainly isn’t negative – time writing is time well spent, and time getting grants lets the good stuff happen outdoors! What is key is catching those moments for field work when they do arrive, and REALLY enjoying them.

      Now, I am about to grab a sweep net and head outside! YAY.

  4. Great post Chris – I like your acknowledgement of the fact that not everyone bemoans the loss of field time. During my PhD I spent 8-10 weeks at a time on a remote Arctic glacier – we only got a satphone in my last year up there. I loved it, but can’t imagine doing it now and being away from my family that long.

    One thing that really changed my relationship with fieldwork was an accident I had while preparing to go out in the field. After that, I wasn’t able to walk for months – which necessarily kept me in the office. I had to change how I did things, and that likely carried over even when was able to get out again.

    I agree that local sites are critical – before I went on leave I’d been planning a local site that was car accessible but would still answer a lot of neat questions. We’ll see if that pans out…

  5. This post is especially relevant to my situation, as this is the first time in my 20 years at the Royal Ontario Museum that I have no fieldwork plans whatsoever. As much as I would love to return to the arctic this summer, I have three students finishing-up this fall and an NSERC renewal to fret about. So, for the first time in my profession career, it’s time to circle the wagons and stay close to the desk. I take solace from the knowledge that sabbatical awaits in 2014!

    • Thanks, Doug – I appreciate this. As I posted this, all my field work plans had fallen through – and then, miraculously, a few things happened that will allow me to get to go north for a week or so in August- it’s a mixed blessing, the planning / fretting / organizing re: field work in the North can be draining. But the bugs up there….. oh so glorious. Maybe I’ll snag a few Black Flies for you 🙂

  6. Nice post Chris. I haven’t thought about it much, but I guess I use option 1 and 2. I have a ‘budget’ of weeks away that I try to portion out over the year balancing between field and conference travel. In the past two summers I’ve chosen to reduce my budget so as to limit the amount I’m gone because I have a young child at home. That may change as my kid (or kids) get older.

    What I’ve had to learn in the transition from grad student/Post-Doc to PI is that I’m not always needed in the field. I’m fortunate to have an experienced technician who can handle the bulk of the field work while i’m stuck at my desk. I’d like to be out there working with bugs, but at the end of the day someone needs to produce the papers that keeps the lights on. Right now that’s my job.

    • Thanks, Chris, for the comment. Now that my kids are getting a bit older, they seem to care less about whether I’m around (not sure what to think of this, really … a bit sad…). So, this does make field work a bit easier! And you are quite correct, having competent people around to take on the business of the ‘serious’ field work is so important for success!

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  12. Couldn’t agree more. I find I have a love-hate relationship with field work. Early spring I’m anxious to get out of the office, come fall I’m over being in the field and want to sit and crunch data for a while. But that feeling doesn’t last long, and by November I’m ready for field work again.

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