The Yin and Yang of N in Streams

Advice for awful, awful field days

Or how to get through when you’re tired, hungry, and sweat is pooling in crevices you didn’t even know you had.

I’ve been a lab technician with the Marcarelli team for three summers now, and I think it’s safe to say that I’ve seen my fair share of action. Fieldwork is almost always physically (and mentally) exhausting, but sometimes you have days that just lay you flat on your you-know-what. Here’s how I make it through.

Erin sweating it out on the Arikaree R. in Colorado

Erin sweating it out on the Arikaree River in Colorado

  1. Don’t die for the cause

Picture the scenario: you’re awake at 5:30 in the morning for the third day in a row, you stumble into your dingy kitchen, and manage to slowly shove a chalky protein bar into your mouth. You bend down, lace up your hiking boots, and your whole body screams as you try to stand back up again. All you want to do is crawl back under the covers. You can’t even comprehend trying to give 100% today.

So don’t. Tell yourself to commit only to what you can. Maybe that’s only 50% of the effort you put in yesterday. Maybe it’s just 10%. Take baby steps to get yourself out the door. Remember that no one expects you to (or wants you to! Think of the paperwork) die for the cause. Give what you can in the current moment, but don’t push yourself over the edge for the sake of a couple data points. Keep some perspective.

My motivation: good views, laughs, and food (not pictured)

My motivation: good views, laughs, and food (not pictured)

  1. Identify what keeps you moving

And no, this doesn’t mean that you should keep telling yourself that these results will form the backbone of your dissertation, which will help you land a tenure track job, so you’ll finally be able to stop mooching off your parents health insurance. This means to find the little things that will help brighten your mood in the moment, like taking a minute to pause, close your eyes, and listen to the sounds of the birds and the bullfrogs around you. Or reminding yourself that once you hike over this big hill, there will be a breeze and a gorgeous view waiting.

What if you’re working in a stream that’s banked by concrete blocks and seems like it’s composed mostly of trash and human sewage? Well fine. I guess you won’t be finding joy in the biodiversity of nature today. Instead, is there an ice cream place nearby? Find out what will get you through to the end of the day and exploit it.

Erin trying (in vain) to remove a piezometer pounding pole from the streambed. Solution = return later with more muscle (Kevin)

Erin trying (in vain) to remove a piezometer pounding pole from the streambed. Solution = return later with more muscle (Kevin)

  1. Focus on the solution, not the problem

So the new field assistant (or worse: you) broke a crucial piece of equipment, no one has cell service, and you’re a two hour drive away from the lab. You want to scream, or cry, or both. Instead, try your best to focus your energy solely on solving the problem at hand. Do you have anything at all you can use to repair it? Do you have a substitute you can use? Can you finish today’s work without it, and come back later? Assigning blame, bemoaning your situation, giving a lecture on carelessness and repair fees – these things can all wait until later, when the heat of the moment has passed. Focus your energy on making do with what you have at hand.


I’d like to close with a few words from Amy, delivered to Erin and I via an email (which I fully intend to print out and pin up in my office) at the close of a very hard field day earlier this week:

“Sometimes you have days like this. As you move on in your research careers, you will gather stories of days like this, that, after the pain and stress has faded, you share like trading cards with your friends and colleagues.”

And with that, I wish you all the best of luck.