Training field assistants and building a field work team

Urban beehive downtown Montreal. Bees make me think of collaboration (as well as pollination ecosystem services and wonderful honey)

In order to get “first-hand” knowledge of P management (intentional or not) there are a lot of actors to contact. I am lucky enough to have a wonderful advisor who is excited and supportive of my project and thus gave me the opportunity to hire a part-time field assistant over the summer to help with data collection. She was also advising a really great undergraduate student for her honors thesis and saw some linkages in the students interests and my project and thus also teamed up with her for the summer.

It will me my first time leading a team for data collection so I am a novice and everything I say in this post might be wrong. Still, I thought it was useful to document the process so that I can’t get better over time, and that others might learn from my successes and my mistakes. Through this process I am trying to learn from my advisor and also integrate what I learnt “from the other side” when I was an undergrad working for grad students and integrate what I loved and learn from what I did not.


I put out a notice in the school newsletter and in several department listsevs that we were looking for a field assistant for the summer. I noted the skills we were looking for and a little bit about the project.  After getting emails from candidates and answering some of their questions, I selected 4 to interview in person. I came up with a list of questions, each one trying to determine if the candidate possessed the skill sets necessary for the position.

Skills I wanted:

  1. motivation (and thus punctuality and hard work all the way to the end)
  2. team work (taking direction but also capacity for leadership and collaboration (so independent but consulting for questions))
  3. data collection skills for surveys and field measurements (logic and attention to detail)
  4. adaptable (dealing with a new country and security and lots of different stakeholders)


I really want my field assistants to feel part of a team because I think that that is a better work environment and I hope keeps everyone motivated to do a good job. Ultimately I want the data collection to be done well and efficiently and I think that is more likely to happen if my team-members:

  • understand the project they are involved in
  • have “buy-in” the project
  • feel like they can ask questions
  • take initiative
  • have the resources (physical and human) to do the job

In order to provide an environment where all these things could happen I made everyone sign a contract with regards to what I expect of them and what they can expect from me. I also have a weekly meeting where we can discuss what we have been doing and what we will do. The meeting is an opportunity for training at the beginning, but more about learning from each-others experiences and coordinating efforts as we go along.  I write summaries of each meeting and send it to everyone to make sure key points are not lost (I am hoping to transfer this responsibility to my assistants though). I created a shared google calendar with color codes so that everyone can keep track of when people have meetings and are filling-out the survey with particular actors. I created a shared google document where we input data on all the actors we contact, who contacted them, a summary of the conversation(s) (or non-conversations) that have occurred with each (this document is also shared with our collaborators that are working with us for the case study city). This document allows us to make sure we don’t contact the same person twice and also “take-up” where someone left off if there is a change of plans. I also created a “field guide” document where I detail what I think are key points in protocol for contacting people, administering the survey, collecting and saving the data, and other important pieces of information that come along as we all gain more experience in the field.

Here are some of the important points I tried to highlight in the initial guide:

  • always have a tape measurer
  • take a lot of photos (we always need them for presentations and documentation but its something I often forget to do)
  • ALWAYS get the respondents consent (and give them a copy of the consent form)
  • Read all the questions and answers and don’t “lead” people to particular answers

In order to minimize bias originating from different survey givers I have:

  1. Made each field assistant read-through the survey and ask me questions and give comments.
  2. Made each field assistant administer the survey to a labmate of mine as a “test gardener” where I take notes and then tell them what worked and what didn’t.
  3. Made both field assistants come with me to observe how I administer the survey with actors “in the field”.
  4. We plan to do a minimum of 2 surveys a month as a team (a different person actual administering the survey each time) to ensure we are all still administering it the same way, and if not readjust so that we are in the future.

Training (for me and my assistants) is really a continuous process and thus I am trying to stay adaptive and reflexive throughout the field season.


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