Field Schools

Why do one

Career Development
News Features

Campus Resources for Gaining Student Fieldwork Experiences

Kate Patch
AAA Academic Relations
Stacey Hockett Sherlock
U of Maryland


Cramming fieldwork experience under one’s belt is almost a must for future anthropologists. More and more anthropology programs are creating field schools and summer programs for students. Graduate students tend to anticipate conducting field research or the equivalent during the second half of their academic program. For undergraduate students, however, finding an outlet for gaining practical experience can be somewhat limited, both geographically and financially. Besides traveling with a study abroad program and spending a semester holed up in a dark pub in the middle of Europe, what are some alternatives for students to satisfy their anthropology craving?

It is beneficial to explore one or more areas of anthropology to broaden your knowledge of the whole discipline, as well as to gain insights into your own interests. From introducing freshman international students around campus to hiking through rain forests, students do have choices and opportunities. Study abroad offices, international organizations on campus, and teaching ESL (English as a second language) are all some possible outlets in which to practice anthropological concepts. Check with the Office of the State Archaeologist; perhaps they are in need of volunteers to assist with local projects. To satisfy your biological interests, contact your local zoo and ask to volunteer or check with the genetics/biology department on campus for any information on overseas or domestic programs.

A good place to begin choosing a fieldwork program is by doing your homework. Start with asking your anthropology professors for any ideas they might have. Then look beyond the department by spending some time browsing through folders in your study abroad office. Explain to the staff that you want an experience with a fieldwork component, not a vacation. Based on your particular interests, you could also talk with the faculty of the Asian Studies department, a professor who teaches French, or the African art professor for more ideas. Also, seek out professors who are doing research locally.

Apply to more than one program. Some good programs are highly selective, or the study abroad program you chose could be canceled. Look for grant opportunities to help fund your travel. Study abroad offices typically have information on funding trips overseas or around the country. Many universities have partial travel grants and scholarships. For advice on securing funds, talk to your student government, your department secretary, your advisor, and other groups to which you belong, such as the Honors program.

Once you have narrowed down your fieldwork options, learn who is leading the program. It should be someone with knowledgeable experience in the geographical location and good references. Ask for names and contact information of people who have gone on the same program. Talk with trip organizers and stress that you want the chance to apply your anthropological background to the project.
If the program does not have an established field work component, create your own by outlining a research plan. Design a small project which is relevant to the program you have chosen. For a cultural/sociological example, you could document your observations on family units. Present the idea to your anthropology professors and solicit their advice on developing an appropriate methodology. Talk with other students in your department about their experiences designing and conducting fieldwork. Finally, run your ideas for a project by the head of your program. Once you have established your individual project, you’re ready to begin.

Preparation before your trip will enhance your experience. Study the relevant body of research on the topic you chose. Read ethnographies and local newspapers to understand the political and cultural history of the people. A part of the anthropological experience is the comparative study; when you are traveling in another county or conducting fieldwork, an understanding of what others have experienced will help you comprehend how your encounter is the same and different.

If you are in a program which takes you away from your home community, here are a few suggestions to keep in mind: If you have local guides, spend time talking to them and getting to know more about the culture. Your guide (a key informant) is essentially a gateway between you and your area of interest. Regardless of where you conduct your fieldwork, you should keep a journal and write in it every day. Take notes on what you find interesting, unique, and enjoyable. You might be surprised at the end of your fieldwork by what you thought was strange when you first began.

Reflecting on and writing out your experiences is a major aspect of anthropology and helps to outline and bring together your entire fieldwork process. After your trip, search for opportunities to present your research. Organizations such as the AAA, Society for American Archaeology, American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and Society for Applied Anthropology welcome student participation. NASA (National Association of Student Anthropologists) is an excellent source for resources and information and encourages all students to get involved. Don’t forget to also look for opportunities within your university, such as a campus-wide student research colloquium, giving a guest talk to a non-anthropology class studying a related area, or talking to your anthropology club. If you received funding from a community organization, show your appreciation by giving a lecture about what you gained while conducting your project. By presenting your experiences and research, you will develop communication skills and understand how to better conduct fieldwork in the future.

Kate Patch is the Program Assistant for Academic Relations Department at the AAA. She received her bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Iowa State U. She created her own fieldwork project by conducting a cross-cultural comparison between market women from the Techiman-Bono society in Central Ghana and the Yoruba in Southwest Nigeria.

Stacey Hockett Sherlock is a researcher for the Dept of Anthropology at the U of Maryland, College Park. She received her Master of Applied Anthropology from the U of Maryland, College Park. Her student fieldwork experiences included learning about craft techniques and aesthetics from artisans in Côte d’Ivoire, examining the impact of chronic diseases on patient self conception, and investigating the loss of primary language. Currently, she is conducting research with Chesapeake Bay watermen families to document the effect of gender-based preferences, values and beliefs on household-level economic strategies in the blue crab fishery.