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Careers Café

Getting the most out of grad student’s field seasons


The sun is shining, flowers are blooming, and the male chipping sparrow in my backyard is trying really hard to get the attention of the female he’s hanging around with these days. That all means that it’s time to get busy… for the grad students in my lab, that is.

I seem to be remarkably ineffective at getting all my students to do the same thing in the same area… I’m a sucker for a good idea, I guess. That means that my students are spread out across the Prairie provinces, and I have absolutely no hope of supervising them all in person for any significant length of time. Through trial and error, not to mention a few, ah, “blips”, I’ve put in place a system that seems to help keep them on track during their field season. If you can’t be there in person, following a few guidelines can be the next best thing.

1) Make them defend their proposal
Actually having the students present their proposal, and then defend it against an amicable and polite but constructive committee, is absolutely the most important step. Policies about this process vary by university, but having the oral meeting as well as a written proposal forces students to acknowledge and deal with the components of the project with which they are least comfortable. I tell students to use the presentation to highlight the components that they are most unsure about, which many students try to gloss over as they may not want to look “stupid” or unprepared. This ensures that problems are resolved, but also helps students develop confidence in their own problem-solving abilities, and helps them realize that everyone has questions like theirs, and they have somewhere to go to help resolve them.

2) Visit them in the field
Even if you can only meet with students for a few days, this can help prevent the odd easily avoidable disaster. It is extraordinary how poor the correlation between reality and a student’s description of what they are doing can be. It’s also helpful to see study sites, help students notice potential study design problems they might not have recognized, and it gives you a feel for whether one particular field assistant hogs the bathroom at 4:30 am each day.

3) Show ’em, don’t tell ’em
I’ll give a number of past students the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that it can be much harder to understand a description of a protocol, rather than seeing it in action. Everyone needs a bit of practice while being supervised.

4) Overlap generations
Not all projects can afford a field manager. I try to stagger the years in which I start Masters students, so that if I don’t have a field manager, more experienced students can help train new graduate students while they are training their field assistants. This ensures that I don’t have to show new students basic stuff like how to read a map (you’d be surprised), use a GPS unit, find sites, and identify most species; I can just drop by towards the end of the training period and make sure everything is on track. Most of my grad students have been awesome teachers, and new students enter the formal part of the field season educated, enthusiastic, and raring to go.

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