Managing time and not losing your mind during a short field season

By Sylvain Nyandwi

The Author in front of a tree
April 19, 2019

Time management is an important key for success in academia, and failing to manage your time damages your effectiveness and can exacerbate stress. When it comes to short field seasons, time management gets more challenging, as having a limited amount of time can make it difficult to fit everything in the finite schedule and unforeseen circumstances can derail your season. Prior to graduate school, I spent several years leading a field research team studying chimpanzee behavior, and believed I had acquired most of the skills needed to collect my own dissertation data. However, my 2018 summer field season uncovered another aspect of field work challenges, especially when facing time limitation. I believe that sharing my experience — along with some proposed time management strategies — might help those planning to conduct their first pilot field season, as well as helping those with prior field experience plan wisely and be more successful during their time at the field.

In early April 2018, I received the exciting news that I secured enough funding to cover my summer 2018 pilot season to investigate how forest fragmentation affects the genetic diversity, health, and behavior of wild chimpanzees living in Rwanda. In late April, the Rwanda Development Board also approved my research permit. My season goals were ambitious given that my field season included visit to three sites in Rwanda, which I was already familiar with, namely Gishwati National Park, Nyungwe National Park and Cyamudongo Forest (I even had spent over six years studying a population of chimpanzees in Gishwati National Park). Along with working on my graduate school final exams, my dissertation advisor and I managed to purchase all the necessary research equipment and design my data collection sheets, and I felt ready when I boarded the plane to Rwanda early in June.

Arriving in Rwanda, I hit the ground running, but of course, there were days when I was confronted with unexpected challenges and a compressed schedule. Indeed, I knew that time was going to be an issue since I had to allocate my two months across each of my three research sites, which were approximately 300 kilometers apart from one another (without mentioning that I also needed time to meet with my potential research collaborators). The stress was less intense in the beginning because I had two whole months in front of me and had not yet started nest-to-nest chimpanzee follows.  Studying wild chimpanzees is particularly challenging since they have large home ranges and can split into small, quiet groups when food is less abundant.  When time is short, it can be especially frustrating to hike for three or four days (or even up to a week) from 4:00 am to 6:30 pm without seeing a single animal. One of my most memorable and stressful times was my first week in Nyungwe National Park when I hiked for the entire week without seeing chimpanzees. Luckily, the following two weeks turned out to be productive, as I managed to follow a group of chimpanzees and recorded a good amount of behavioral data. Another challenge that I encountered at some of my sites was the need to hike for over three hours early each morning to get to the chimpanzees’ nesting site, and then walk back again to the field station at the end of the day. I had hoped that this was not going to be an issue as the vehicle was available for me to facilitate my transportation, but it turned out that some areas were far from any passable roads. Indeed, I had to be patient and get the work done, given that this was a short field season, and I needed to get as much data as I could.

Regardless of all the above challenges, I managed to accomplish my research objectives and enjoyed my field season. I had the full support from my school Advisor, Dr. Carson Murray, who always provided me assistance and guidance any time it was needed. During my time there, I was able to study each of the three populations of chimpanzees at my three research sites, identify my sampling populations, and collected a good amount of behavioral data. Additionally, I was able to meet with other researchers at the sites, some of whom became key collaborators.

Based on my experience during this short field season, here is a list of things that I recommend one keep in mind when planning and conducting a short field season:

  • Make sure that all the necessaries (research permits, research equipment) are available well in advance.
  • Plan for everything that you intend to do prior to heading to the field, even little things that you would think should not be a problem.
  • Identify and notify the researchers with whom you are going to work. Even in a short field season, you have to work around their schedules!
  • Allocate your time wisely by setting priorities, and if time is a constraint, be flexible and focus on your top priorities. Be willing to drop some of your goals to accomplish the most important.
  • For a given situation, have a plan B (and even plan C) in mind, in case things do not go as planned.
  • Seek help and advice when you encounter any obstacles that you cannot figure out yourself.
  • Try to get enough sleep as much as you can, and allocate some of the time for fun with friends and / or family to minimize the risks of stress.
  • Always try to maintain the balance of Five Areas of Health: Physical, Emotional, Vocational-educational, Spiritual, and Social-fun.

I am looking forward to applying these strategies during my next field season!