Initial Publication Date: June 8, 2018

In the Field

Field research experiences can be defining moments in people's careers. For geology undergraduate majors they are also required; 99% of the 300 geology undergraduate majors at U.S. institutions surveyed in 2008 required a field course (Drummond and Markin 2008). Time in the field can inspire students to pursue a career in research. On the other hand, unsafe field environments can have devastating personal and professional consequences. Identifiable conditions contribute to unsafe field environments where harassment, bullying, racism and discrimination can occur. We present recent research on how to ensure safe, accessible and inclusive field experiences, which center on the adoption and enforcement of rules for appropriate behavior.

What do we mean by "in the field"?

Many of us experience the field as part of our educational training, research assignments, and/or professional employment. Whereas "in the field" for many may conjure images of working on an oil-rig or in a remote valley in Antarctica, here we use "the field" broadly to refer to any work-related activities outside the home institution. This could include a day visit to a local farm, regional park or field sites in the city, to overnight domestic and international travel of variable duration (days to years), outside of an organized conference. To some, accommodations "in the field" can mean camping in the wilderness, living on an oceanic cruise vessel, or staying in a field station dormitory or rented field house, for example.

Field environments pose unique challenges:

  • new, unfamiliar, unknown or nonexistent rules of conduct and reporting mechanisms;
  • reduced independence for access to transportation, food, medical resources, etc.;
  • distance from personal support networks at home;
  • unfamiliar cultural norms or language;
  • long days with physically strenuous work and exhaustion;
  • exposure to harsh environmental conditions and potential greater risk of environmental hazards, or unfamiliar risks compared to the home base location.

See John, C.M. and S.B. Khan. 2018. Mental health in the field. Nature Geoscience 11: 618–620 for a description of factors that can affect stress and mental health in the field and strategies to increase positive outcomes.

In many disciplines, there is also a culture of Vegas Rules ("What happens in the field, stays in the field"), with expectations of people behaving differently than would be acceptable at home. Existing power dynamics that are clearly defined on campus or in the office can become blurred with the common practice of shared living accommodations, that may also afford little privacy, in the field, and remove the clear boundaries between work and personal lives. Power dynamics can also become more stark, with one person holding access to the keys to the vehicle or satellite phone. On top of this, enduring harsh, rugged conditions is often considered a rite of passage, to the exclusion of anybody who does not fit the image of what a "real field scientist" looks like. While to many, camping and hiking are fond childhood memories, field experiences can be intimidating and stressful to people with limited exposure to the outdoors, whether for cultural, economic, accessibility or many other reasons. These factors and cultural norms contribute to the persistent low diversity in disciplines like the geosciences. In many parts of the U.S., people of color also experience racial and life-threatening harassment from members of communities where they are doing fieldwork.

See: Barriers to fieldwork in undergraduate geology degrees by Giles et al. 2020.

In this context, harassment, bullying and discrimination create an unsafe environment and hence become a safety concern.

Read about some of these challenges in our paper Hostile climates are barriers to diversifying the geosciences

Harassment, bullying and discrimination in the field

In a recent survey of field training, 64% of respondents stated that they had personally experienced sexual harassment and over 20% reported that they had personally experienced sexual assault. Over 90% of women and 70% of men were trainees or employees at the time of the incident (Clancy et al. 2014).

The head of the site would systematically prey on women ... I was in my bed one time and he was with a married master's student and she was basically just crying and she had to leave the site because he was seducing her and she couldn't say no ... I had to serve as a kind of a bodyguard for some of these women and some of them would sleep on the floor at night because they were afraid he was gonna come into the room at night.

- Anonymous survey respondent in Nelson et al. 2017

A follow up to the SAFE study to learn about how fieldwork experiences can affect career trajectories revealed large variability in clarity of rules and appropriate conduct for field research and training contexts (Nelson et al. 2017). Incidences of sexual harassment more often were associated with environments where rules and behavioral standards were not clearly codified and consequences for misconduct were not enforced. Conditions that allowed for sexual harassment to occur also contributed to other hostile environments, with gendered divisions of labor, outright sexism, abuses of power, and dismissal of individuals' contributions to the work. These behaviors have long-term negative career consequences, such as reduced access to professional opportunities, career stalling, relocation to a different institution or field site, or leaving career paths altogether.

Inclusive Field

Exclusionary behaviors can have especially injurious effects in disciplines with low diversity, like the geosciences. Historical exclusion of people of color from many academic disciplines and science professions has led to low representation. This is known to lead to professional and social isolation, which can render individuals more vulnerable to hostile behaviors. A recent survey revealed that 40% of women of color reported feeling unsafe in the workplace because of their gender or sex, 28% reported feeling unsafe because of their race; and 18% reported skipping professional events, including fieldwork, because they did not feel safe (Clancy et al., 2017).

As a woman, I'm often fearful about doing certain things alone and I take as many precautions as I can. However, as a black woman I have yet another set of circumstances to consider. I have to reconcile that as much as I love being in nature and seeing the world, there are those who whole heartedly believe someone like me has no right to be there — simply because I am black.

- Lauren G., Camping While Black

Awareness of how groups with different visible identities are perceived and treated by others in different environments is key for ensuring safe and inclusive field experiences.

To learn more about how gender, sexual orientation, and racial and ethnic identity shape experiences in the field:

The University of Birmingham Earth Sciences Department (Greene et al.) has created a useful document with recommended best-practices for toilet stops in the field.

Check out a new resource on Menstruation in the field by B. Davies and B. McCerery. 

Accessible Field

By Anita Marshall

Disability status intersects all other identities and it is important to consider ways in which to enable individuals with diverse abilities to safely and effectively take part in field work. As with all students, individuals with diverse abilities can be integral members of a field campaign when equipped with the tools and information needed to be successful.

Lack of information has been identified as a significant barrier for students with disabilities preparing for field work. Basic descriptions of terrain, physical requirements and facilities should be readily available for participants before going into the field. Students who are new to field work may not be aware of what aspects they need to discuss with trip organizers unless this information is available in advance. Further, you should be able to answer questions of accessibility regarding field equipment such as visual, auditory, and motor skills required to operate equipment.

Each individual is unique, and the best way to determine an inclusion strategy is to include the student(s) in discussions about potential barriers and approaches to inclusion. Communication is key. When crafting literature or materials about field courses, consider using language that assures the student it is in their best interest to discuss their needs in advance and that their needs will be taken seriously, and handled from the perspective of maximizing inclusion, rather than excluding participation.

To learn more about accessible field experiences:

Safety First

Nelson et al. (2017) identified factors that contributed to safe and productive field environments. These included:

  • leadership engaged in modeling appropriate behavior;
  • open discussions of rules and codes of conduct;
  • clearly defined rules;
  • established protocols for reporting violations;
  • defined consequences for misconduct.

Codes of conduct (rules) and accountability (enforcement of said rules) are critical to ensure safe and successful field work, which lead to positive experiences, greater productivity and equal opportunity in professional development (Nelson et al. 2017).

When preparing for the field, consider:

  • What are the potential safety hazards and risks, including how people are treated?
  • What is the plan for safety and does it include information on how to address harassment, bullying and discrimination?
  • What is the conduct policy at the field site?
  • Who is responsible for responding to a safety incident?
  • What are the reporting mechanisms?
  • How are conditions created and maintained that reduce all safety risks?
  • What are the attitudes around alcohol and drug use at the field site and how may these interfere with field safety?

The National Association of Geoscience Teachers has more useful resources on field safety.


Check out resources from a 2021 NSF-funded Workshop to Promote Safety in Field Sciences and the final report.


Field Codes of Conduct

In addition to the elements outlined on our code of conduct resource page, effective policies for field environments should include:

  • Protection for targets: protect their safety, allow them to continue their fieldwork with minimal disruption, protect privacy as much as possible.
  • Always have an "out": all field workers must have access to transportation and communication devices whenever possible, with no gatekeepers.
  • Always have multiple resources/avenues to contact help available for all involved and witnesses
  • Encourage bystander intervention and reporting


Go to our code of conduct resource page for more examples.


Resources and References

Guidelines and handbooks for inclusive and safe field experiences:


For more reading about field experiences:


References cited: