Mentoring in the Field Best Practices

Mentoring in the Field: Lessons from Remote Locations

A panel of distinguished researchers shared insights in spring 2015 about the special challenges, obligations, ethics, and concerns that pertain when mentoring undergraduate and graduate students while conducting field research. Special thanks to:

  • Dr. Patrick Herendeen, Chicago Botanic Garden and PhD Program in Plant Biology and Conservation;
  • Dr. Noelle Sullivan, Department of Anthropology and Program in Global Health Studies; and
  • Professor Brad Sageman, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

“Mentorship is really showing people how to do the work; the little things you show someone you wouldn’t necessarily lecture on in class.” Yet the boundaries of mentorship are vague and when mentoring students in places far from campus—whether the wilderness, a distant country, or another culture within the USA—conveying nuances and managing boundaries for teaching and training can be challenging. The intensity of field work allows for something unusual and transformative to occur for students. Even so, learners and mentors become particularly inter-reliant for safety as well as security.


  • The first concern is safety. Ensure that students are fully apprised of risks to safety (such as civil unrest or challenging terrain) and decide whether or not they will commit to the travel. Additionally, do any participants face particular risk, for example because of gender, ethnicity, or religious identity?
  • Field research enables experiential learning, but mentors should impart what is and is not culturally sensitive. Social science work, in particular, will require building collaborations and trust. Model how to communicate with local people. Encourage guidelines for real-world ethics.
  • When working internationally or, for example, on federal properties ensure that you have all the right permits. Taking short cuts could have negative consequences.


  • Field experiences are ways to become more culturally competent yet in the field some students become more ethnocentric. Do not take for granted that emotional, interpersonal, or social intelligence will come naturally. Include cultural competency training and discussion of such scenarios in advance of travel. This may prevent a student putting themselves or the visited community in danger.
  • A 2014 study of field scientists emphasizes the importance of safety, inclusivity, and collegiality to improve field experiences. Include awareness of mechanisms for direct as well as oblique reporting of harassment and assault as well as productive response mechanisms when such behaviors are reported.1  It is important to maintain good relationships but also know how to say “no.”
  • Field experience may prove that some students are not suited for this kind of work; mentoring them into a different field might be appropriate.
  • Students’ naiveté can lead to productive discoveries. Create a sustained dialogue with mentees to help them process experiences; ensure they know who to contact if issues arise; and set expectations that they will need to be flexible and resilient.
  • As challenging as field work can be, presenting findings to one’s own community can also be difficult. Give advisees time to process their experience then analyze results.


  • Emphasize that all field work leaders are representative of the program(s) sponsoring their travel and need to gauge their conduct accordingly. All mentors will help set the expectations that mentees should follow. All mentors will also model how to accord respect and responsibility so that others can follow productively in their footsteps, during the field trip and in subsequent academic career development.

1Kathryn B.H. Clancy, Robin G. Nelson, Julienne N. Rutherford, and Katie Hinde (2014), “Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault,” PLOS ONE 9.7: 1-9.