Field research


The Author. I am an ecological morphologist. I study chimpanzee posture, locomotion and food-getting practices in order to better understand why apes have their peculiar anatomy. I use this knowledge to reconstruct the lifeway of our earliest ancestors, after we branched off from the apes. You can learn a little more about me and my research by visiting my website at

Travel. Studying wild primates is enormously rewarding, but it involves more drudgery and more plain hard work than most people imagine. Just getting to a primate field site can be an adventure. Most primates eat the fruits and leaves of trees in tropical forests. These same huge trees are prized by a logging industry that grows more active in the tropics every year. Since primates cannot live without the trees that produce their food, we primatologist’s find our study subjects in remote and inaccessible areas that are not yet profitable to log. Primates are often found at the end of the trail, after asphalt has trickled to gravel, and gravel has trickled to rutted dirt tracks. Transportation to these remote areas is often a protracted, uncomfortable affair. I often travel squeezed into the seat of a public bus designed for people a head shorter than me. At times, I’m actually relieved when circumstances force me to travel in the back of an open pickup truck. Most researchers have learned to approach third world travel with a spirit of adventure, but the personal risk, not to mention the risk to equipment, data and personal belongings, can be disconcerting.

Primate Research: Behind the Scenes. When you see film of primates in their natural home, you may catch a glimpse of a romantic, sun-dappled figure, partly hidden in the foliage: the primatologist. There s/he is, scribbling notes, surrounded by primates in a cool forest, seemingly far from the crush of humanity and unconcerned by the everyday worries that nag we mere mortals. It isn’t like that. Contrary to this pleasing image, most of the time researchers spend “in the field” is eaten up by everything BUT primate watching. Buying food or other supplies, traveling to town to deal with bureaucracy, supervising field assistants, repairing equipment, fussing with data sheets, writing and submitting progress reports, coping with tropical diseases, and finding ways to coexist with the crowd of researchers and local assistants who are typically squeezed into a tiny, primitive primate research station are the stuff of everyday life. A visiting scientist lucky enough to have a vehicle inevitably becomes the local ambulance, likely to be called upon at any hour of the day — or night. You, relatively wealthy, college-educated, will often find your medical supplies and medical training (don’t protest you have none, either!) are the best available. I have served as an emergency doctor many a time when there was no other choice, twice in life-or-death circumstances (results: one recovery, one death). If you are at all sympathetic, you’ll enter the forest many a day preoccupied with a serious health problem that one or another of your associates or his or her family is having. And that’s just the health and welfare of your colleagues. What about you? I’ve been in hospitals the sanitary condition of which would repel me if they were bus stations. You’ll not only have to do without modern medical facilities, but also without electricity, running water, TV, and shopping as you know it. You can pretty much count on getting some kind of tropical disease, and you’ll be very lucky if you don’t get malaria.

It’s easier than most would imagine to allow your focus to shift from primate study to improving your own or someone else’s living conditions. I know of field workers who are so distressed by local poverty, disease or poor medical care that they find it impossible to do their work. I minimize these distractions by continually reminding myself to focus on my research, but I’ve known others to become full-time social workers.

Forget That! Where are the Monkeys? All that may seem tolerable to you, so your next question is, how can I get into the field fastest? You can’t. Perhaps there was a time when primatologists needed field assistants so desperately that they were willing to hire untested but enthusiastic young volunteers. If there was, that time has passed. A field project depends on cooperation and a certain chemistry among field workers. There are many sad stories, some of which I can relate from my own experiences, of a single individual distressed by the poor food, or the close quarters, or homesickness, or any one of a dozen things, who makes life miserable for the entire field crew. Experienced field workers are job-tested and therefore less likely to disrupt research, as a disgruntled novice might. If an experienced hand is not available, there are so many willing and competent candidates that even volunteers who are able to pay their own way are not likely to find work, if they are not known to the researcher personally. I wanted to study primates when I graduated from college, but it was six years before I saw my first wild primate.

You can gain experience and perhaps make that all important first-contact by attending a field school, volunteering at a zoo, or taking a primatology class. Getting into the field through these methods, however, requires a certain amount of luck and a lot of flexibility. When your boat comes in, pull out your wallet. Your first time in the field you’ll almost certainly have to pay your own way.

Graduate School. All this means that entering a primatology PhD program is the most reliable route to the field. It’s a tough row to hoe. Primatology is not a mainstream academic discipline, and that means there are few tenure-track jobs. As a consequence, graduate programs very responsibly limit the number of primatology PhD’s they produce. Some students opt for a PhD program under the impression that graduate school admission requirements are lower than those for medical school or law school. From what I’ve seen of applicants to IU, it’s the other way around. Competition is intense for the few grad school slots available.

Sacrifice. It’s also a long row to hoe. These days a PhD requires at the very least 6 years of graduate school, and I know of very few people who have managed it in fewer than 8 (I didn’t). Graduate school is a long, expensive, frequently ego-diminishing experience that is worth it only if you wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. Before deciding to pursue a doctorate you should be very honest with yourself about your intellectual abilities, your work-ethic, your tolerance of poverty, and most of all your passion for primatology. If there is another career where you’d be just as fulfilled intellectually, choose it. I, for one, had no choice. I’m squeamish about prodding sick and injured people, so a career in medicine was unattractive. My interest in human evolution seemed to rule out law and business. Being a veterinarian seemed to have too much to do with cows and cats. The potential primatologist should consider very carefully, then, that becoming a doctor or a lawyer requires less time in school (6 years after college for a doctor, part of that with a salary, only 3 for a law or business degree, versus around 6 – 12 years for a PhD, 8 years average). Doctoring and lawyering not only take less time to aieve, they pay better, too. Then there are the lifestyle sacrifices. If you plan on having kids, you’ll be having them very soon after graduate school, since your biological clock (or your wife’s) will be ticking. And if you have kids, you’ll be working your field research around them for years. Before you seriously consider a career as a primatologist, weigh the toll these sacrifices will make on your life.

Are You Saying It’s Impossible? No, no, no–but you have to be enormously dedicated. Almost all of the primatologists I know simply refused to be told no, and kept trying until they finally got into the field. Most people will give up, but if you’re willing to make the sacrifices and perservere, you WILL eventually succeed.

Where to from Here? If you’re not opting for graduate school, consider it a five-year plan. Take a college class in primatology, better yet attend a field school, volunteer at the zoo, join email discussion groups, get involved in a primate conservation organization like IPPL, and start reading scientific journals to see what the issues are. If you’re considering graduate school, the essential first step is to make the best possible grades you can as an undergraduate, so that a good graduate school will be in reach. I found the hard work and sacrifice well worth it. Perhaps you will too. Good luck!

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