The hidden costs of fieldwork are making science less diverse

The hidden costs of fieldwork are making science less diverse

Here are five practical ways to start fixing the problem

Cassie Freund


Wake Forest University

Ah, fieldwork โ€“ that magical time when scientists of all stripes get to escape the office to hang out in nature and collect data for our research. For me, this involves climbing landslides in the Peruvian Andes to measure and collect plants. My primatologist friends chase apes around the jungle to collect urine and fecal samples. Archaeologists spend their days carefully mapping and excavating sites in search of lost shards of human history, and linguists embed themselves in little-known cultures to document the remnants of fading languages.

Regardless of our research interests, field researchers can always bond over stories of fieldwork gone wrong (there are good and hilarious reasons that #fieldworkfail has been a trending Twitter topic). But for some reason we rarely talk openly about the financial burdens that we take on to do it, and how this system is exclusionary to people with meager financial means.

It is no secret that fieldwork can be expensive: travel costs, lodging/field station fees, wages for guides and field assistants, and research equipment purchases quickly add up. These basic costs are covered by grants for those lucky enough to get them. But expenditures that are not covered by traditional grants can also burden researchers, especially undergraduate and graduate students at the beginning of their careers.

Top left: Hiram 'Moneybags' Bingham

Yale/Public domain

Last April I was awarded a $1,200 grant for summer fieldwork in Peru, but to access it, I had to first pay $160 for "international health insurance" for my three-month summer field season. This took a chunk out of what I had available to purchase vital equipment like a lightweight tent, an 80-liter backpack, and a trail stove sturdy enough for months in the cloud forest. Altogether I probably spent over $1,600 on gear and personal supplies before I even stepped foot in Peru, about 80 percent of which was covered by a small grant from my department.

But I was lucky that I was able to fully fund my field season. In the past I haven't fared as well. My master's fieldwork in Borneo cost me about $4,000, and I didn't get a penny from my university or outside funding agencies. That money was cobbled together from extracurricular teaching jobs, the odd dog-sitting gig, and savings. Many people don't have that option.

Researchers who must stay in the field for long periods of time face additional financial challenges at home, like paying rent on empty apartments or full storage units and pet care fees for Fido and Fluffy. Yes, as a graduate student I continue getting paid during fieldwork, but part of those wages go toward covering travel costs that don't fit into grants, along with the unavoidable insurance and student loan bills back at home. These costs are not trivial, especially for the majority of graduate students who subsist solely on income from graduate student stipends or scholarships. The opportunity cost of doing long-term fieldwork is untenable for undergraduate students who rely on income from part-time or summer jobs to pay for college or support their families.

Lewis and Clark needed more than federal funds

Public domain

Budding field researchers outside of university settings don't fare any better. In my fields of ecology and conservation biology, unpaid volunteer and internships are viewed and marketed as "job opportunities," to the point that struggling through such positions is seen as a right of passage on the way to a paid field scientist position.

Unpaid 'opportunities'

Earlier this year, the nature conservation news website Mongabay ran an article discussing how unpaid internships in conservation biology are making it a "rich person's profession." A cursory count of paid versus unpaid job opportunities in ecology and related fields for bachelor's degree-holders for the last two months bears this out: Using data from three sources โ€“ Conservation Careers, Primate Jobs, and the ECOLOG listserv โ€“ I found 205 job listings, about 31 percent of which were volunteer or internships. From what I gather, young scientists who are interested in wildlife-specific conservation have it the hardest: eight of 11 positions listed on Primate Jobs were unpaid, and many required participants to pay even their own field and travel costs. And recruiting for upcoming summer field seasons hasn't started yet. I'd be interested to look again in March or April. Even people who have already earned their PhDs are being courted for this type of job "opportunity." It's a systemic problem.

Primates at unpaid work

USAID/Public domain

I readily acknowledge that there's an element of personal responsibility here. Many of us choose to do fieldwork regardless of the costs and figure out the money later. That risk-taking, which perpetuates the un- and underpaid system, is not available to everyone. This coincides with a general trend in higher education: a student's family income is the best predictor for if he or she will stay in college at all.

This has ramifications for the future generation scientists. Today's undergraduate and graduate students are tomorrow's professors, so low diversity in the student population now translates into equally low diversity in the academies of tomorrow. And regardless of how supportive mentors or professors are, it can be incredibly alienating to feel like there are no role models who represent you or understand your point of view.

Paying it forward

There is no single solution to the problem of hidden costs in fieldwork, but I think there are a few things that everyone involved, from granting organizations to students themselves, can do to help alleviate the financial burden on field researchers:

1. Grant organizations that fund large-scale research projects should prioritize funding research programs that propose to pay field technicians and cover their lodging, food, and travel costs. Many projects recruit volunteers and interns by providing training in relevant scientific techniques and survey methods. This is not adequate compensation for workers, especially those who work long hours in extreme environments. You can't buy a meal or pay back student loans with experience.

2. Universities should make more small grant funds ($1,000 to $5,000) available to undergraduate and graduate (especially master's-level) students for field-based research projects. My school, Wake Forest University, has a good model for this, with numerous funding opportunities for graduate students and a dedicated Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities Center. A small grant of $1,000 is a drop in the bucket for a university, but for some undergraduate and graduate students could make the career-boosting difference between an unremarkable thesis and a prestigious published paper.

3. Principal investigators (PIs), the established scientists who run their own research projects and advise students, should be conscious of what they ask of their students. Some PIs provide little to no guidance to graduate and undergraduate students about how to apply for grants and fellowships, or even what opportunities might be available to them. Ensuring that students are financially equipped to carry out their research responsibilities is just as much the responsibility of the PI as it is the student. And if the research in a PI's lab is fieldwork-heavy, they should have a collection of communal field gear, including basic equipment like tents and backpacks, that students can borrow. Here's a similar idea from Twitter: encouraging department-wide gear swaps!

4. Research leaders who absolutely can't spare funding to pay volunteers or interns should cover as many costs as possible and make every effort to provide some substantial non-monetary benefit to researchers in exchange for their work on a project. The best way to repay scientists, especially early-career students, is to offer them publication rights on whatever data they help collect. Researchers at all levels are probably more willing to take on travel and fieldwork costs if they have the chance to get a published (as this may translate into a higher future salary), and undergraduate and graduate students may be able to leverage the promise of a publication into extra funding from their universities or PIs.

5. We grad students should not be afraid or ashamed to ask for help from our departments or universities. Sometimes just asking for extra money for a particular project works, especially if there is some benefit to the university from our work. Be creative and speak up for yourself. Can you pitch your research as a way to gain publicity for your school? Does your work connect with scholarship that other professors, even non-STEM professors, are doing? If you really love what you do, try not to let finances get in the way of pursuing a career in fieldwork. Ninety-five percent of science is trying and failing, and finding funding is one place where you unfortunately have to fail a lot.

Any questions?

Ask Cassie Freund