Field Experience – Where Do I Start?

Entering into primatology as young student with minimal experience and education can be confusing. You need field experience to get into graduate school. The lists of volunteer work and internships can be overwhelming. I am providing some information that I felt would have been helpful to me when looking for experience.

Where exactly do you start?

Through my personal experience in physical anthropology, specifically primatology, the best way to gain experience is through volunteer work and internships. So what exactly is “volunteer work” versus “internships”?

Volunteer work is usually any type of unpaid work that aims to benefit the environment, an individual, or group of people in the form of a public, private, or voluntary organizations ( Internships can be paid or unpaid work set for a fixed period of time. This seems confusing since volunteer work could be for a set period of time. Each person or organization has the ability to lay out the parameters and expectations of the work you will be doing.

I interned at a primate sanctuary in Panama for two months this past winter. I worked with both volunteers and interns. Interns spent their time caring for and rehabbing the primates, as well as collecting data on wild and rehabbed monkeys. Volunteers helped more with the day to day functioning of the site by assisting in the basic care of the monkeys and general upkeep. While the difference at this specific site was data collection to distinguish between volunteers and interns, that is not necessarily the case for all volunteer work and internships.

In many cases, for primatologists, it is helpful to search for volunteers to provide assistance for personal school-related research. These volunteers can assist in data collection if they have the proper experience. However, their job is not to complete the entire project. Therefore, it is best to look at volunteer work as a small piece of the larger picture. Volunteers helped the day to day functioning in the site in Panama as part of the bigger picture of the successful operation of the sanctuary. Volunteers working for researchers are helping assist in data collection that will contribute to the larger picture of a research project or paper.

How do you decide how long to volunteer or intern?

More experience will certainly not hurt you. However, it is very difficult to find paid internships or volunteer work that assists with some of the costs. Often times the length of time you volunteer or intern is dependent on how much you can afford (funding opportunities will be discussed in another posting). That can narrow down your options dramatically. Most listings for volunteer work and internships outline exactly how much time they are looking for.

How do you know which site will provide the best experience?

This is a difficult question to answer since it can vary based on the individual. It is best to consider what your specific interests (behavioral, endocrinology, parasitology, etc) are when choosing between various options. It would be helpful to gain experience in your area of interest. Personally, I had difficulty deciding if I wanted to study wild primates or work at a sanctuary rehabilitating them. To define my interests I chose to work at a sanctuary to decide if that’s what I truly wanted to do. Though it was a great experience, I realized that I preferred studying them in the wild.

Do your research! Ask a professor at your college, other primatology students, or even try to search on the web. If it is a place of questionable merit, word will get around. I’m not trying to scare you here, but you want to make sure you are getting a quality experience for the money and time you are spending.

It is difficult and scary when you first come out of school (or even while you are still attending) and are trying to figure out how to gain experience in the field. Hopefully this has helped clear up some questions about field work experience. You can always ask for guidance from a professor at your college as well. Please feel free to post any questions to this blog!


Jessica Ritsche

DANTA Field School 2012 Photo Courtesy: Kimberly Dingess

DANTA Field School 2012
Photo Courtesy: Kimberly Dingess

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