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HDR thesis projects may require you to complete field research and spend time collecting data away from campus – this could include working outdoors, or in another country. Fieldwork can be adventurous, affirming, and fulfilling; it should also be well planned and fully supported by your supervisors for its duration. HDR candidates are entitled to be safe while carrying out fieldwork and to have access to the University’s support services. A student on fieldwork should have access to continuous supervision.

Preparation and approval

While on fieldwork you remain enrolled but will be required to take what is known as ‘counting time away’ leave. You must include fieldwork activities in your research plan and obtain faculty approval before heading to a field site. Start the conversation with your supervisors about fieldwork early in your candidature. Things to discuss include:

  • funding
  • supervision arrangements while you are away
  • your safety
  • ethical responsibilities on data collection when off-campus
  • insurance
  • relevant University policies

Get information from your faculty administration and HDRAC as well as your supervisors. If you have an affiliate university or research centre, they may also be able to provide you with advice on how to contact local support services, pre-departure. Finally, you must submit and have approved a ‘counting time away’ request for leave, through Sydney Student. To obtain approval you and your supervisors must demonstrate that you have assessed your field research for potential risks.

Familiarise yourself with the University’s policy on travel insurance for the purposes of University business, which includes field research, conferences, and work health and safety (WHS) standards. If you receive a grant or other funding you will need to know the reporting requirements for these. Don’t leave for the field without a proper briefing by your supervisors on procedures for contact, especially in an emergency. Note that international students may request leave under limited circumstances, so make sure you discuss with your supervisors and HDRAC.

Time in the field

Some candidates become so familiar with their field site they find it difficult to leave it and their on-site colleagues. Others may count the days until their fieldwork is completed. If, for whatever reason, you find you need to extend your fieldwork, be aware that for a fulltime PhD you are required to complete at least 2 research periods of the whole candidature on a University of Sydney campus. While in the field remember that it is your responsibility to regularly check for communication from your supervisors, faculty or the University.

If things go wrong

Experiencing an injury, illness, emergency, or misadventure while in the field can be made more difficult by being away from home and your regular support networks. If something does go wrong:

  • Reach out to someone you trust. This may be a supervisor, or a friend or family member. SUPRA can also support you through any difficulties that arise from fieldwork.
  • Keep a record of unexpected events, critical incidents, episodes of harassment, or assault – sign and date your records, and email them to yourself or a trusted person. These may be used as evidence in future, if needed.
  • If you are overseas and experience assault, follow your supervisors’ advice or faculty’s procedures. Access local support services, if possible.
  • Wherever you are, if you have access to phone or internet, you can contact Usyd’s Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

Fieldwork-related injury, emergencies and misadventure have unexpected mental health impacts on you, either at the time or after the event. If you find yourself feeling unsure or worried about something that happened while in the field, you have a right to access appropriate, professional assistance (such as from CAPS).

Sexual harassment and sexual assault while working in the field

If you experience sexual harassment or assault while in the field in Australia, you can access a state-based service for support.

If you can’t – or don’t feel ready to – report an incident of sexual harassment or sexual assault while still in the field, you have the right to report an incident or file a complaint to the University once you have access to phone or internet, or have returned home. You can also contact SUPRA for advice and assistance.

The nearest Australian embassy, consulate, or high commission can assist Australian citizens who experience sexual assault overseas.

If you are an international student, you may also consult your home government about what assistance they can provide if you experience sexual harassment or sexual assault in a field site outside of Australia.

Other resources


Updated September 2020

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