Hello, dear readers!
The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of wedding-related activities for both a family member and one of my best friends, so my attention has been elsewhere. Given this, I haven’t had a lot to prepare anything, but fortunately, I’ve received another e-mail (which I love! Please send things in should you feel so inclined!) and this is a good topic, as I’ve been asked about it a few times before.
I’m a student at [Super Duper] University and my school doesn’t offer anything to do with biological anthropology or primates! :( I’m really upset, but it’s always been my passion and your blog is really good for me to live vicariously. But I still want to be able to do this before I graduate so I can make myself a better applicant for grad school.
I’ve noticed a lot of research postings require you have experience doing research. But I don’t have any and it seems like it’s a really tough thing to get into! What do you recommend?
Thank you so much and keep up the great work!!
Thank you for your kind words, first of all! I always appreciate being told that I’m able to help others so here’s hoping I can continue the streak.
Secondly, you’re right–at this point, you pretty much DO need to have some sort of research experience to be considered a competitive candidate. While I think this can be difficult, it’s not impossible, so don’t fret!
Most researchers will avoid students that have no prior experience in field work for many reasons–most students don’t know exactly what they’re signing up for; it’s difficult for anyone to predict what field work is like without doing it. Conditions are often very humid (as the majority of primates live within the tropics), full of mosquitoes that may carry diseases, often very strenuous, very physically taxing, and generally without internet or phone signal to keep in contact with family and friends. With that in mind, it’s understandable that some researchers may avoid taking inexperienced individuals with them, particularly if they’re funded with a limited amount of grant money.
But there are ways to get this experience–it requires a little bit of leg-work and a bit of good old fashioned research. To everyone that asks me, I would recommend field school as the best first step. Many of these places will give you practical research experience in addition to teaching you the skills required to become a good researcher. The downside of these places tends to be that they can be expensive. When I went to my field school in Costa Rica, it was a little short of USD$4,800–including the tuition for the field school, airplane tickets, field clothing and equipment.
There are a multitude of field schools available, however the ones I have personally worked with or know of others who can vouch for them as well. Some of these schools include:
The Maderas Rainforest Conservancy (field schools: La Suerte in Costa Rica and Ometepe in Nicaragua)
Lemur Conservation Foundation in Myakka City, FL
El Zota Biological Field Station in Costa Rica
DANTA, Association for Conservation of the Tropics in Costa Rica
While this is an extremely short list, there are others elsewhere. Primate Info Net may also list some in other countries if you’re not interested in working in the Americas too. In going to a field school, you also experience a lot of what field researchers experience first-hand so you can determine whether or not that type of research is up your alley.
However, let this not be the end all be all of potential ways of obtaining research experience. The most important aspect of practicing primatology is resilience and determination, after all. Another more cost-effective measure is to do observational research at a local zoo. I would also suggest you talk to a faculty advisor and see if you can maybe do an independent study. Of course, if you’re more interested in experiment-based studies, this is something you would have to talk to the zoo about and receive permission first.
For the lucky few that attend a school associated with a primate research facility, this is another option. However, some of these facilities may request you pay for the study (which is extremely expensive) or may not allow you to perform your own study. Instead, working with a faculty member may be a better option as you attempt to learn the basic research skills necessary.
Overall, obtaining research experience is not an impossible task. However, it does require perseverance, a thick shell, and readiness to try new things. Good luck with your endeavor!