Fieldwork: developing skills for all careers

Unlike many of the contributors to this blog, fieldwork is not part of my job description. Not too long ago fieldwork was, however, a large part of my life. Nevertheless, fieldwork is never really far away, since I regularly update this blog with posts from staff and students, each reflecting on a wide range of fieldwork activities and experiences. In this blogpost, and taking inspiration from previous posts, I argue that fieldwork enables the development of skills for all careers.

I undertook fieldwork for my BSc in Environmental Geology – this included spending a month in Melmerby, Cumbria, creating a geological map of the area from surrounding rock exposures and abandoned quarries; my MSc in Geoarchaeology – in addition to fieldtrips I spent 2 weeks on Easter Island collecting soil samples to investigate garden agriculture; and for my PhD examining in situ preservation at Glastonbury Lake Village and a section of the Sweet Track, both in Somerset – this involved sediment analysis, and over 17 months I monitored the hydrology, water chemistry, conductivity, pH, redox potential and soil moisture levels at both sites. Whilst I have worked in the field both nationally and internationally, I have studied for all of these degrees here at Reading, moving between the Departments of Archaeology, Chemistry, and Geography and Environmental Science.

A manavai (semi-circular walled garden on Easter Island) containing taro plants

A manavai (semi-circular walled garden on Easter Island) containing taro plants











Exif_JPEG_PICTUREAlthough I spend a large amount of my time based behind a desk, my love of geology remains, and can be seen in the rocks and fossils I use as paperweights. Getting back to the point of my blogpost – I believe that the skills and experiences I have gained/built on through fieldwork are all transferable, and I continue to use them every day.


Fieldwork develops skills for all career paths. For me, my fieldwork experiences have been very challenging, but also highly rewarding. Taking some examples from my time spent on Easter Island fieldwork:

Forced me out of my comfort zone
This is something Izabela Stacewicz discussed in her blog post. Travelling to one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world (on my own) was certainly a huge leap out of my comfort zone. There is no denying that stretching the boundaries of your comfort zone is challenging, but for me this was, and continues to be, an important part of moving forward and testing what is possible.

View looking out along the coastline of Easter Island and out into the surrounding Pacific Ocean

View looking out along the coastline of Easter Island and out into the surrounding Pacific Ocean











Challenged me
These range from comparatively small challenges, such as getting my soil samples through customs at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, in order to catch a collecting flight (I was lucky it only took 4 hours!) to the larger challenge of actually getting to Easter Island in the first place. In John Carson’s post he highlighted the importance of patience during fieldwork. I would also add that persistence is also important! For me this involved spending many weeks emailing researchers looking for someone who would help me design a project, gain permission to work on the Island, and ultimately offer guidance in the field while they undertook their research. My persistence was successful!

Examining the soil structure in a rock garden before taking a micromorphology sample

Examining the soil structure in a rock garden before taking a micromorphology sample











Steep learning curve
Fieldwork is not just about collecting samples. Analysing the samples to make sense of what you have collected/recorded in the field is also a crucial aspect of research. For me this involved learning/enhancing skills in particle size analysis, micromorphology, starch analysis, pollen analysis, phytolith analysis, X-ray diffraction (XRD) and X-ray fluorescence (XRF). Preparation for fieldwork, the work itself, subsequent laboratory analysis, and writing up the results, all require skills in multitasking, organisation, communication, and working both independently, and as part of a team. All of these skills are also applicable, and transferable, to jobs that do not include fieldwork.


New experiences
Fieldwork is often not all work. While I was on Easter Island I also took the opportunity to explore, and as a consequence I rode horseback across the Island, visited many of the amazing archaeological sites, including Rano Raraku (the moai statue quarry), a number of the ahu (platforms on which the moai were erected), and the ceremonial village of Orongo (famous for the birdman ceremony), and drank Pisco sours watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean. These are memories and experiences I will never forget.

View looking out from Rano Raraku

View looking out from Rano Raraku













Ahu Tongariki (this is the largest ahu on the island, and was restored in the 1990’s)

Ahu Tongariki (this is the largest ahu on the island, and was restored in the 1990’s)











A closer view of a moai

A closer view of a moai


Ultimately fieldwork is what you make of it. If I can offer one piece of advice: Go for it! You never know where the skills you gain will take you.










LouiseJones_wA bit about today’s blogger: Dr Louise Jones
In addition to everything I have discussed in my blog post above, I am working with both the Athena Swan Self-Assessment team on the School’s Silver Award application, and the Gender and Fieldwork Working Group on the School’s yearlong project examining Gender and Fieldwork. If you would like to contribute towards the blog (we welcome blog posts from all staff and students, as well as suggestions about articles/news stories/other blogs etc), enter the fieldwork photograph competition (deadline 30th March 2015), or discover more about the conference examining ‘Perspectives on Gender and Fieldwork’ taking place on the 29th April 2015 then please get in touch. My email address is –

Imposter Syndrome Training

Yesterday Chris Cross (trainer in personal and professional development, arc-en-ciel Consultancy) led an Imposter Syndrome workshop for SAGES PhD students and early career staff.

Some background to the Imposter Syndrome:

‘Despite evidence of their abilities, many bright, capable people do not experience an inner sense of competence or success, believing instead that they have somehow managed to fool others into thinking they are smarter and more competent than they “know” themselves to be. People who feel like Impostors attribute their achievements to luck, charm, computer error, and
other external factors. Unable to internalize or feel deserving of their success, they live with a deep sense of inauthenticity and the fear that they will be found out.’ Dr Valerie Young from her workshop on How to Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to Thinks You Are









In the workshop Chris highlighted some ways of redefining failure:

  • It’s human to make mistakes
  • There is value in failure
  • I’ve learnt a lot from things that haven’t worked out
  • Avoiding risk of failure leads to disappointment
  • Setbacks are just ‘curves in the road’
  • Everyone fails sometimes

Some statements for appreciating success. How many do you use?

  • I can take the credit when I have succeeded
  • I can appreciate small successes as well as the big
  • I can be proud of what I have achieved
  • I will appreciate my past experiences
  • I am developing and learning all of the time
  • I reflect on what I have achieved and give myself credit
  • I have no need to hand away my success to others
  • Comparing myself unfavourably to others is futile

Some strategies for success:

  • Keep your hand up – be persistent
  • Think widely – keep your options open
  • Stay focussed – don’t try to do too many things
  • Stop playing small
  • Celebrate success

Some statements to think about in order to take action and move forward:

What I need to STOP DOING…………………………

What I need to keep the SAME/DO MORE OF ……………………………….

What I need to START DOING……………………………………..


There are lots of resources which you may find useful:

There are many more ………..


Part 2 – Research Training for Geographers

Last week Catherine Chan, ‎Jessica Barnes, Stefania Petrosino, Bethany Parkes, Sarah Ginn and Elizabeth Merrick ‎undertook research into the environmental history of Langshot Bog, Chobham Common National Nature Reserve.  This work was in collaboration with Natural England and Surrey Wildlife Trust, and supervised by Mike Simmonds (PhD candidate), Kevin Williams (Technician) and Nick Branch (Head of GES).






This research is their group project for the Part 2 module ‘Research Training for Geographers’. The team spent two days surveying and studying the sedimentary sequence within the bog to reconstruct changes in former vegetation cover and hydrology, and to detect evidence for soil erosion and burning.













Are you going out on fieldwork?  Would you like to feature your work on the blog? 


Thursday 5 March | 7.30pm | Great Hall, London Road campus

Edith-Morley-lecture-2014569792_34751To mark International Women’s Day the University of Reading are delighted to present this annual event in memory of Edith Morley, believed to be the first woman to be awarded the title professor in a British university. Appointed as Professor of English Language at Reading in 1908, Professor Morley was dedicated to her subject, her students and her cause. She believed that women should have an equal place in academia and society and was an inspiring and motivating force for the young people around her. Over 100 years on, we invite you to celebrate this extraordinary part of our heritage with this special event to inspire young women to achieve great things.

The University will welcome a small panel of our highly successful female alumni to present their own views on what it means to be a great role model for young women in our contemporary society.

• Laura Tobin, ITV weather presenter (BSc Physics and Meteorology 2003)
• Rhianna Dhillon, Radio 1 Film Critic (BA English and Film & Theatre 2011, Alumnus of the Year 2013)

Admission is free, places are limited. To book a place, visit




For more information about International Women’s Day follow this link –


#AdviceForYoungAcademics: THE-initiated Twitter trend takes off

This article by Chris Parr was published in the Time Higher on the 19th February 2015 –

‘Twitter is often painted as a frivolous tool for procrastination; a distraction from academic life rather than an integral part of it.

It can, however, be a valuable avenue for academics to expose their work to a wider audience, and there are also examples of lecturers embracing the social networking site to make their lessons more engaging. A third use, particularly pertinent for those just starting out on their academic careers, is advice.’









Just some of the advice:

Guarding against becoming overworked was a popular theme. “Seek out mentoring; take lots of advice,” tweeted Lee Jones (@DrLeeJones), senior lecturer in international politics at Queen Mary University of London. “Learn when to follow it. Be collegial. Learn when to say no.”

Debby Cotton (@ProfDcotton), professor of higher education at Plymouth University, said the best advice for young academics she had ever heard was: “Be nice to people on the way up; you’ll meet them again on the way down!” Laura Olabisi (@Lkshumaine), assistant professor in the department of community sustainability at Michigan State University, also had some sage words. “Everyone feels like an impostor some of the time – it’s not just you,” she tweeted.


Qualitative fieldwork in Tanzania, Uganda, Senegal, Ghana and the UK

In my experience, fieldwork is one of the most rewarding parts of the research process. My qualitative fieldwork with young people and families in Tanzania, Uganda, Senegal and Ghana as well as in the UK has enabled me to develop a deeper understanding of the dynamics and diversity of family life and the importance of reciprocity in caring relations and community support networks. I feel privileged to have been able to listen to people’s life stories, even if only for the duration of an in-depth interview. The personal connections that I made with people ‘in the field’ who helped to facilitate the research, such as those who helped to identify potential families to participate, those who provided interpretation and transcription of audio-recorded interviews and those who have welcomed me and provided somewhere to stay and share meals with during fieldwork, have often developed into lasting friendships. It is now much easier than when I did my PhD research with street children in Tanzania to remain in contact with friends, local facilitators and participants ‘in the field’ due to wider access to mobile phones and the internet.


Doing fieldwork demands flexibility in the times and places that research is conducted, especially when working in the global South, to fit in with participants’ caring responsibilities, schooling/ studies and livelihood activities. I can recall interviews conducted in the dark in a village in Senegal, writing notes with mosquitoes and moths fluttering against the torch, as the orphaned young man I interviewed lacked electricity and could not afford oil for a paraffin lamp; and chaotic focus groups and interviews conducted on the street in Tanzania, with some children disappearing when income-earning opportunities arose to carry someone’s shopping and others were high on glue. I have also travelled by charrette [horse/ donkey and cart] to meet participants in Senegal. While for me this was a novel way to arrive at an interview, it was sobering to learn that this was residents’ only means of transport to the nearest health facility over 7 kilometres away; such delays sometimes resulted in the deaths of pregnant women who had complications, as had sadly happened to the wife of one widower I interviewed.

Charette ride to an interview in Diourbel region, Senegal.

Charette ride to an interview in Diourbel region, Senegal.










Fieldwork may also pose ethical dilemmas for researchers, particularly when conducting research with families experiencing chronic poverty. The small expenses payment offered to participants at the end of interviews often seems inadequate in view of the basic needs and problems that interviewees have talked about. This was particularly evident in our recent research in Senegal (, when Joséphine Wouango ( found that some young people asked directly for financial assistance to pay for school fees.

Leaving the ‘field’ and reverse culture shock can also be difficult for some researchers and maintaining links and friendships made in the field can help to address such experiences, as well as a way of ‘giving back’. I still sometimes receive texts in Kiswahili from one young participant I interviewed on two occasions in Dar es Salaam, referring to me as ‘sister’: ‘Shikamoo dada Ruth’! Returning to the field for dissemination and to share preliminary findings with participants is often an ethical requirement and can help participants to see how their experiences relate to those of others in similar situations which can be empowering.

Participatory feedback workshop with young people in Kampala, Uganda.

Participatory feedback workshop with young people in Kampala, Uganda.









In researching ‘sensitive topics’ that involve the participant talking about intimate, difficult life experiences, such as in my research with people living with HIV, with young carers and with those who have experienced the death of a relative, fieldwork is often a very intense experience which demands considerable ’emotion work’ by researchers. I have found the cumulative effects of listening to numerous participants’ life stories emotionally draining and have sometimes felt isolated in the field, due to the need to ensure the confidentiality of information shared by participants. The emotional risks and potential harm to researchers, as well as appropriate institutional support, have only recently been acknowledged and appear to affect women researchers more than men, particularly those engaged in research on ‘sensitive topics’ (see Sampson et al., 2008 – and Hubbard et al., 2001

Meeting family members in Fatick region, Senegal

Meeting family members in Fatick region, Senegal











This highlights the importance of acknowledging our own emotions, being reflexive about the research process (as advocated in feminist research methodologies), and providing appropriate opportunities for debriefing and discussion of emotions. In our research in Senegal (, we have adopted a reflexive approach to understand the multiple positionings of the research team, comprised of British, Senegalese and Burkinabé researchers and seek to interrogate our own cultural assumptions (see our recent conference paper – We also seek to ensure that the emotions involved in doing research are regarded as a shared responsibility of the team.
So, while celebrating the benefits and rewards associated with fieldwork, it is also important to recognise the physical and emotional demands that qualitative fieldwork can make on researchers and provide appropriate supervision and support for researchers, particularly for those doing sensitive research, within universities and other research environments.


REvans_2714-wA bit about today’s blogger: Ruth Evans (Associate Professor in GES)

Ruth’s research focuses on gendered and generational inequalities in access to resources, caring relations, and social vulnerabilities experienced by children, youth and families, particularly those affected by bereavement, chronic illness, HIV and disability. She recently completed a collaborative research project with colleagues at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana on Access to land, food security and the intergenerational transmission of poverty in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana (2012-14) which you can watch a video about here – Recent research has focused on Inheritance, access to resources and family relations in Senegal (2011-12) and Palm Oil, Land Rights and Ecosystems Services in Liberia (2012-13)

Ruth also completed a study on stigma, gender and generational inequalities in asset inheritance and the intergenerational transmission of poverty in Tanzania and Uganda (with Caroline Day), funded by the Chronic Poverty Research Centre (2010-11). Read more about the project here – Ruth conducted a qualitative, participatory study of young people’s caring responsibilities for their siblings within child- and youth- headed households in Tanzania and Uganda, funded by the RGS-IBG and the University of Reading (2008 – 2010).

Gender and Fieldwork Working Group

Yesterday SAGES staff and students took part in a filming session for the Gender and Fieldwork Working Group. They were answering questions including:

  • What does fieldwork mean in your discipline?
  • Do you think gender equality is relevant in the 21st century?
  • Who is your role model?
  • Use two words to describe fieldwork – only two!
Amanda Clarke being interviewed by Macarena Cardenas

Amanda Clarke being interviewed by Macarena Cardenas














The final film will be shown during the half day conference on the 29th April 2015 examining ‘Perspectives on Gender and Fieldwork’ – more details will be available soon!

Nick Pankhurst being interviewed by Georgia Koromila and filmed by Sarah Lambert-Gates with assistance from Sarah Griffiths and Hannah Eaton

Nick Pankhurst being interviewed by Georgia Koromila and filmed by Sarah Lambert-Gates, with assistance from Sarah Griffiths and Hannah Eaton











Filming outside in the sunshine

Filming outside in the sunshine

Frank Mayle (GES) discussing fieldwork in the Amazon

Frank Mayle (GES) discussing fieldwork in the Amazon

L’Oreal UK and Ireland Fellowships for Women in Science

Applications for the 2015 L’Oréal-UNESCO UK & Ireland For Women in Science Fellowships now open.

What are the L’Oréal UK and Ireland Fellowships For Women in Science?






The L’Oréal-UNESCO UK and Ireland Fellowships For Women in Science are awards offered by a partnership between L’Oréal UK & Ireland, the UK National Commission for UNESCO and the Irish National Commission for UNESCO, with the support of the Royal Society, to promote, enhance and encourage the contribution of women pursuing their research careers in the UK or Ireland in the fields of the life and physical sciences.

The National Fellowships are offered under the umbrella of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Programme, which has promoted women in scientific research on a global scale since 1998.


FWIS-footercarousel-example2Five Fellowships will be awarded in 2015 to outstanding women scientists in the early stages of their career to enable and/or facilitate promising scientific research. The Fellowships are tenable at any UK or Irish university or research institute to support a 12-month period of postdoctoral research in any area of life, physical and computer sciences, engineering and mathematics.

2015 Key Dates
Applications open: Monday 2nd February
Applications close: Friday 13th March
Shortlist published: Tuesday 2nd June
Awards Ceremony: Tuesday 23rd June

In a special edition of ‘International Innovation’ focusing on ‘A Passion for Progress’ our four 2014 fellows showcase their pioneering research of as an example of what women scientists around the globe are working on.

When it comes to forging a successful scientific career, women in the 21st Century have much better prospects than their female counterparts from previous generations. Yet in spite of significant gender equality advances – set in motion during the 1960s and 1970s – women continue to be underrepresented at all levels of R&D in every region of the world.

For instance, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates that just 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are female, while in the UK and Ireland women comprise only 13 per cent of STEM employees. Multiple studies have identified a number of recurring barriers to women in STEM, including a male dominated working culture, a ‘chilly’ classroom environment, the insecure nature of science research and a lack of access to mentors.

Unnatural Histories – the Amazon

Recent research has revealed over 400 massive anthropogenic earthworks (geoglyphs), built by ancient cultures, underlying supposedly pristine ancient rainforest. These findings challenge the long-held assumption that Amazonia is a largely pristine wilderness and that indigenous peoples have only ever had a negligible impact upon Amazonian rainforest. Frank Mayle and John Carson are palaeoecologists who are collecting sediment cores from lakes located close to these geoglyphs to try and learn more about the type and scale of land use associated with these cultures. Did they make small forest clearings to build these structures or instead practice large-scale clear cutting, or maybe build them in an open landscape when past climate was too dry to support rainforest? To what extent did they alter the biodiversity of these forests by selecting economically important species over other less useful species? Analysis of fossil pollen and charcoal from these lake sediments can reveal Amazonia’s ancient history and potentially provide answers to these questions.

Frank Mayle

Frank Mayle

John Carson

John Carson











If you are interested in discovering more about pre-Columbian Amazonia then you may like to watch ‘Unnatural Histories: Episode 3, the Amazon.  This is available on BBC iPlayer –

The Archaeologist’s Wife

Rhi Smith (Museum Studies Programme Director) highlighted this recent article by Sophie Brownson published in the Gwent News on the 31st January 2015.

”The University of South Wales has secured £54,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to perform an opera which aims to teach the community more about local archaeology. The First Campus project, based at USW, is working with National Museum Wales to produce the community opera, entitled The Archaeologist’s Wife. The story focuses on Tessa Wheeler, the archaeologist responsible for the excavation of the Roman amphitheatre in Caerleon in 1926. Tessa was married to Mortimer Wheeler, one of the country’s most famous archaeologists. Mortimer spent very little time in Caerleon as he had just been appointed Keeper of the Museum of London, and so he put Tessa in charge of the field archaeology, where she proved to be a brilliant and innovative archaeologist.’

Opera project Tessa Wheeler

Opera project Tessa Wheeler