How to become a field researcher

Research assistant for the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology (EGI) Keith McMahon works long but rewarding hours studying bird behaviour. 

Keith McMahon with a kestrel

Describe your current job

My current role is to assist the Social Network group in the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology (EGI). This group is comprised of many PhD students and post-doctoral researchers, studying social networks in the Paridae family of birds, which includes mainly blue tits, great tits, coal tits and marsh tits. 

What qualifications and experience do you have? 

I have a degree in Zoology, a PhD in behavioural ecology and am a licensed bird ringer. I have quite a bit of field experience, from my time in Indonesia, but also from my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. During my PhD I was keen to get involved in the undergraduate field courses. During this time I was able to go along on field trips as a teaching assistant, so as well as teaching undergraduates about conducting field sampling, surveying and mist netting, I was also able to refine my own skills as a field researcher. 

What does a typical day for you at work involve? 

There isn’t really a typical day in this job because depending on the time of year our roles change. In autumn and winter I spend much of my time catching and ringing birds. As well as the metal BTO tag, we also attach a special RFID tag, which are read by specially designed bird feeders. So when a tagged bird lands on one of these feeders, we know where they were and which other birds they were feeding with. During the breeding season, we follow the progress from egg to fledgling and when the chicks reach a certain age, they will be ringed and tagged also.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a field researcher? 

I think volunteering is very important, I've volunteered on a number of different types of projects and there really is no substitute for hands on experience. This is especially true when it comes to working with animals which need handling as it takes a considerable amount of time to gain enough confidence and knowledge to do this correctly. You are also likely to work alongside people with a vast amount of experience who are more than happy to answer your questions and share what they’ve learnt. Volunteering can also serve to give you an idea of what it is really like to be a field researcher as it may involve working in all kinds of conditions, such as glaring sun, biting wind and lashing rain. You need to get out there and see if you can handle it. 

Find out more 

Some UK universities offer the opportunity for volunteers to assist researchers and postgraduate students on projects in the UK and abroad. See individual university websites for details. 

The EGI website has information on all its research projects and advertises volunteering opportunities and jobs. 

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