Double-edged sword of field season: one ecologist's perspective on happiness and anxiety in the field
The smiling faces of researchers working amidst magnificent mountain views do not represent the full spectrum of emotions felt during a field season. For a field researcher, feelings of awe for impressive landscapes and organisms are often burdened by exhausting work. Early mornings, strenuous hiking, unpredictable weather conditions, and long hours give the field season an unfortunate reputation.
The stunning views and moments spent away from the fluorescent lights of the office have always outweighed the unpleasant aspects of field research for me. Therefore, during my first year of graduate school, I decided to take on two field seasons. I study the flowers that bloom very early and for only a brief period of time each season. Fortunately, flowering starts and ends in North Carolina (field site one) well before the snow even melts in parts of Colorado (field site two). Unfortunately, I have back-to-back field seasons. Albeit demanding at times, when something goes wrong in one field season, I have a backup project. Given the sense of security from my backup field season and my fondness of the outdoors, I thought that six months of fieldwork would be painless.
After just two years of field season doubleheaders, I have noticed myself spending more time feeling stressed than enthusiastic about field season. Not only has the work been taxing, I find it challenging constantly being aware of my safety. When I go to work in the office, I am never concerned about accidentally stepping on a snake, getting bit by a deer tick, or fleeing from an impending lightning storm. Although these risks are small and my anxiety is often unwarranted, I have become increasingly worried about even far-fetched risks. This anxiety has made focusing in the field incredibly problematic and led to collecting fewer and fewer data points.
My current bout of nervousness began during one of my field seasons− I was confronted with a situation that interfered with my safety. I have always felt very secure at my field sites, but at that moment I was powerless in a distressing situation. Since that point, I have been engrossed in articles and blogs about safety in the field, perhaps consuming too much of my time. When I returned to school after my double field season ended this summer, I reconsidered my future in field research. I am able to work on my data analyses remotely, so I decided to spend the past semester in my hometown. Removing myself from classes, meetings, and social events allowed me to reflect on a difficult field season. Now that I am approaching the end of my hiatus from campus, I am excited to return to normal graduate student life. I am very fortunate that I have been able to spend my semester working remotely and thinking about my future, and I am finally ready to get back to being a field ecologist.
Although it took me stepping away from school before realizing, the stress of field season is negligible relative to the satisfaction and happiness that I experience from it. I am now aware that some of the anxiety I experience in the field is partly due to stress from other, unrelated parts of my life. I was letting this stress manifest itself as nervousness in the field. The privilege to research questions that no one has ever answered prevented me from leaving science and graduate school. Two years in, I now understand that in order to spend all day learning outdoors, I must always remember that my and others' safety is of utmost importance, but I cannot let fear consume my life during half of the year.
I did not write this post to scare student researchers or make excuses for leaving behind all of my responsibilities in graduate school for the semester. I do, however, want students who are working in the field to be aware of your surroundings, while making sure not to let anxiety hinder your research or life. As ecologists, we meticulously plan our packing lists and field experiments, but we also need to have explicit conversations about safety and be prepared for emergency situations. Let someone know where you are going at all times and when you expect to be back. Do you reading and know the safety hazards of the areas in which you are working. Consider having a field assistant with you at all times. Be sure to voice any concerns to your supervisors before you go into the field. Finally, remember to enjoy the incredible opportunity of working in the most scenic places in the world.