Many hands make a PhD: working with volunteers

by Renee Johansen (

Last month I wrapped up the field work for my PhD, which is about the biogeography of fungi which live in the roots of sand dune grasses. I have enjoyed some fantastic travel, collecting roots from multiple sites in New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, but what I think about most when I reflect on my experiences is the fun I had working with a huge range of volunteers.

A great day to dig up a dune in New Zealand

A great (but hot!) day to dig up a dune in New Zealand – thanks team!

Not only was this enjoyable, but also essential given budgetary constraints. In addition to spending hours working in often difficult conditions (from full sun in hot temperatures to high winds and rain), some volunteers were incredibly generous, providing food, transport and even accommodation. Often the first time they saw me in person was when I got off a plane, train or bus to get in their car. Help was also given for sample preparation in the laboratory. Some volunteers inspected locations for me in advance and provided photographs. I found many people are interested in engaging in science, even if they don’t do research for a living. Altogether, 42 volunteers (and yes this includes a few friends and relatives!) gave their time to my project in the field and/or the laboratory. And of course my project is just one of many that uses volunteers.

Reaching out to volunteers and engaging their services takes courage and strategy! However I would encourage students to give it a try, particularly if it will expand the horizons of your project. It certainly helps if you have friends or relatives near your field location. Another obvious volunteer source is other students, through contacts of supervisors or perhaps university field clubs.

Discussing sterile techniques with lab volunteers in Liverpool

Discussing sterile techniques with lab volunteers in Liverpool

Undergraduates are often particularly keen, as volunteering can provide experience which helps them obtain post graduate study or work opportunities as well as ideas for their own research direction. Even emailing a lecturer in a relevant discipline can be fruitful – they may contact someone directly, notify their class or even come in the field themselves. Councils or land management organisations sometimes have lists of volunteers or can spare a staff member for a day. I also had the good fortune to work with retired professional biologists who were tracked down through universities and councils. Finally, local naturalist clubs (and their various incarnations such as botany, entomology, ornithology, mycology, etc.) can be very helpful, email addresses are usually available on their websites.

Putting a simple webpage about the project together (even just on your university profile) is a good idea as it can be included with an initial email to provide extra details, and validates your activity. While that vital first email can be short, it should include the basics like roughly when and where the work will take place. Ensure you are clear about skills required (or not required!) Some people lack confidence and think they don’t have enough experience when for my work at least, the ability to move around a sand dune was all that was needed.

Bagging up roots in Wales

Renee and a volunteer bagging up roots in Wales

Once volunteers are engaged, be sure to keep in touch (swap cell phone numbers early on) and plan a reasonable work day that doesn’t exhaust people! Not everyone is used to long days of physical activity. Try to include ‘rain days’ in your schedule so work can be postponed if the weather gets too awful.

Relaxing post-dig in California

Volunteers relaxing post-dig in California

At the start of the day, provide a simple yet thorough explanation of the work being done and why. Don’t be afraid to supervise and offer polite corrections! Take meal breaks and provide snacks if you can. A cold drink on the way home is often greatly appreciated. If staying over at someone’s place or lots of time is given, providing small gifts or meals is a great idea. In some instances it may be appropriate to offer to provide a reference. Following such steps will encourage good working relations between students and volunteers – increasing the chances of successful project completion and a steady stream of volunteers for future students!

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