Life in the Field Q and A

In our final blog answering questions from Virtual GiG 2020 we look at field work in the Geosciences

  1. Have you travelled to any interesting places for fieldwork or seen any cool things as part of your job?

Helen Robinson. I have spent a lot of time post degree doing fieldwork in Ethiopia, Kenya and Malawi, all absolutely beautiful, diverse and fascinating countries. The cool thing about the geology of East Africa is that we can study the active processes linked to the early onset of continental break-up, and everything just seems bigger!. And from a non-geology perspective, seeing the wildlife in their natural environment is a huge bonus for me. 

Annie Winson:  Yes, I have been very lucky.  I have worked on actively erupting volcanoes in Hawaii, Guatemala, Indonesia and the Philippines and I would say there is nothing like the feeling of seeing lava flows or pyroclastic flows up close (by which I mean from a safe distance!).  In my job now I don’t do as much field work but I do travel a lot to meet with stakeholders and scientists in other countries, I love this aspect of my work because I always learn so much from these people and it makes me feel like the work I am involved with is ultimately going to be applied to real world problems which is very fulfilling.  

Anna Bird: I have had some amazing trips and experiences. I volunteered at a volcano observatory in Mexico when I finished my degree, I have done fieldwork in China, Vietnam, Serbia, and all over Scotland. All of these experiences were cool in different ways. I still get to do some travel for my job now, one of my more recent exciting trips was to a very remote island called North Rona, where we were helicoptered from a ship to the island each day so we could map it and take some samples. It was an amazing experience. 

  1.  What jobs would you say involve the most fieldwork?

Anna Bird: I worked as an engineering geologist for a year before starting my PhD, and I was out in the field a lot. The fieldwork was a bit different from what I had done as an undergraduate student in that I spent more time logging and recording cores, material in pits and planning ground investigations. I also spent some time managing different groups of people. It was massively varied and I enjoyed the experience. Some colleagues that have gone into the mining industry also seems to do a lot of fieldwork as well (often in more exciting locations than central Scotland:)).

  1. Ratio of fieldwork that involves camping vs staying indoors?

Katie Miles. All the fieldwork I did as an undergraduate, and undergraduate fieldwork that I have been involved with since, has only involved staying indoors (anything from hostels, hotels, field centres, or National Park lodges). This could vary between universities, but I’m not aware of any undergraduate camping trips (aside from dissertation fieldwork where it is your own choice). For my own research in Nepal, we stay indoors in teahouses on the 10 day trek up to our glacier field site, but once we are at the glacier we tend to camp right next to our field site so we save time and can get on with our research!

Sally: Similarly, all the fieldwork I did as an undergraduate student involved staying indoors. The fieldwork I did for my PhD in the Bolivian Andes involved staying in Bolivian homestays and rural communities, but not camping. A colleague of mine who also studied glaciers did camp for a lot of her fieldwork experiences at the base of the glacier, which is pretty cool!

  1. Are all university field trips organised and accompanied by the lecturers? Or do we do it on our own?

Niamh Faulkner. Most of the university field trips during an undergraduate degree will be accompanied by lecturers, and sometimes postgraduate students who help the lecturers. Through field trips you develop a strong relationship with your lecturers that you don’t get in other courses. Most undergraduate degrees offer an independent field course, which you usually do in the summer before your final year, where you go out to the field with other students. This can be up to 6 weeks of mapping. I went to the north-west of Spain for 6 weeks, working with two of my classmates, it was so much fun. 

Sally: Whilst the university field trips are organised by the lecturers/staff (and they put a lot of time into organising them to make sure that everything goes smoothly and that you can concentrate on the learning aspect of the trip and the socialising aspect) you get a lot of time to bond with your coursemates, often during travel, downtime and during project work. It is very different to a field trip organised with your secondary school where there is more responsibility on the teacher as the students are younger. University field trips are extremely enjoyable and it is a great way to get to know the staff and your class mates.

  1. I am worried that, if I go to a university where there is lots of fieldwork, I may not get the opportunity to spend as much time studying. Is this the case? 

Helen Robinson. During your undergraduate, fieldwork is a key part of the learning process. Field trips tend to be short, between a day to maybe up to 2 weeks. But the majority of your degree will be spent in lectures and labs, so plenty of time for study. Fieldwork allows you to put what you have learned in the classroom into practice, plus there are lots of field skills that can’t really be taught in the classroom, so it’s still studying, just different. And in most cases, fieldwork and what you produce on that trip, will count in part, and sometimes entirely, to a module and the result you get.

Annie Winson:  Adding onto what Helen has said above here, I also think that sometimes your time in the field is the richest learning environment and you may find that concepts you have been struggling with will click when you see them up close.        

 6. Are there any health/fitness requirements you have to meet to do fieldwork?

 Hannah Mathers, University of Glasgow. Universities are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ so that all students can take part in all learning activities. You should never be route marched up a mountain or forced to take part in fieldwork you feel unable/too uncomfortable to do. Course organisers should describe the conditions of the fieldwork and will provide a discussion and disclosure process where students can voice any concerns, inform staff about any issues that affect their engagement in the field and ask questions about field conditions and accommodation.

Anna Bird, University of Hull: we have a similar policy to that explained by Hannah from UoG. As we are a new programme we got to design all of our trips from scratch so all of our fieldwork is designed with accessibility in mind and doesn’t need any specific fitness requirements. Where health issues may affect a students ability to participate in a field trip there are virtual/alternative equivalents the student can undertake instead. 

  1. How do you manage writing in the rain when in the field?

Jess Franklin . There are special waterproof notebooks you can get, very cool!

Rehemat Bhatia: you can buy clipboards that have a waterproof hood called WeatherWriters – I can’t recommend one enough for mapping/rainy fieldwork! Was a lifesaver during my undergrad mapping project. 

Annie Winson:  use pencil to write when you’re out in the field and ink over it later – less smudging!

  1. Do you get bored of the people that you are with/ feel lonely when you have to spend long periods doing field work?

Katie Miles. I’m very grateful that I’ve been on fieldwork with some fantastic people and never had any issues; we’ve always got on very well. We are away for long periods (up to two months) in small teams, so perhaps we subconsciously do our best to get along and be there for each other. Days are busy with research and in the evenings we chat and play lots of card games to pass the time. One lovely idea from my project leader was for each person to bring a ‘home comfort’ (usually food-oriented!) – each week we looked forward to someone sharing theirs. I’ve missed home but never felt lonely on fieldwork, and we’ve always had a satellite phone in remote locations to make quick calls home.

  1. Where is the best place in the UK and Ireland for fieldwork?

Clare: NW Highlands ( I am biased :)) The truth is the UK and Ireland are amazing for Geology – World class and World renowned. 

  1. What geological area in the world do you wish you could have done fieldwork in?

Rehemat Bhatia: as an ocean scientist (by training) it’s still a lifelong dream to be able to sail on a research cruise as a geochemist!  I am totally ok with spending 3 months in a lab. I’d love to sail on a cruise to the Pacific Ocean, as it’s an area of the world where few cruises have sailed and we really don’t know much about its climate history!

  1. What’s the best thing about fieldwork?

Clare: being away with friends, being alone in the wilderness, working things out from the landscape and rocks. 

Sally: Being somewhere completely different, perhaps somewhere you would never have picked, and learning about that place and the environment – and being exposed to new things.

Well done, you made it right to the end! We hope that these answers have helped you and that you have taken inspiration from them. Thank you again to everyone who took part in Virtual GiG whether you were an attendee, or a speaker, your participation is what makes events like this so great! We can’t wait to see you again, virtually or in person, at our future events. 

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