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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 undertaking fieldwork should have access to continuous supervision. 

Preparing for fieldwork 

You must include fieldwork activities in your research plan lodged on RECS, and your supervisory team and postgraduate coordinator must be fully supportive. It is important to discuss your intended fieldwork with your supervisory team early and often in your candidature; if your supervisory team do not agree with your intended fieldwork, or have a different understanding of the purpose, length of fieldwork, or activities you’ll be engaged in, this can cause difficulties, both for your intended fieldwork and for your project more broadly. Things to discuss include:  

  • purpose of your fieldwork  
  • puration of your fieldwork  
  • precise location of your fieldwork  
  • any partnerships or support you will likely need 
  • risk assessment of intended activities 
  • travel 
  • funding  
  • supervision arrangements while you are away  
  • your fieldwork safety plan and nominated on-campus University contact 
  • ethical responsibilities on data collection when off-campus  
  • insurance  
  • relevant University policies. 
  • In most cases your on-campus University contact will be your lead supervisor. Don’t leave for the field without a proper briefing by your supervisors on procedures for support, especially in an emergency. 

Applying to complete fieldwork and ‘counting time away’ 

In order to complete fieldwork, you will be required to apply for leave known as ‘counting time away’  This period will count towards your candidature, but allows the University to register you are not on campus. You can apply for counting time away via RECS. All fieldwork must be supported by your supervisor and postgraduate coordinator, so it is vital to make sure you are all on the same page about the nature, duration and location of your fieldwork before you apply for counting time away. 

Please note that international students may request leave under limited circumstances, so make sure you discuss with your supervisors. 

Organising your travel  

Familiarise yourself with the fieldwork safety plan and 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. You should also consider ownership of data or other findings over the course of your fieldwork. These can be found in your funding or scholarship agreement; if you are unsure, we encourage you to contact SUPRA for support reviewing these documents before your travel.   

Being part of a University of Sydney team for your fieldwork 

If you are undertaking fieldwork with a University team you will be required to participate in a team briefing. It is essential to disclose and discuss medical information that may impact your health and safety during fieldwork, with your lead supervisor or fieldwork supervisor. Keep in mind that you will still need to have your supervisory team’s support for your fieldwork, and apply for ‘counting time away’, even if your fieldwork will be conducted in whole, or in part, directly with your supervisors.  

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. Regardless of how you feel about your fieldwork, it can trigger complex emotions that you may need support with. Keep in mind that as a University of Sydney student you remain able to access University counselling services, even if you are out of the state or overseas completing fieldwork. Counselling services can be accessed via Zoom or phone, and there are a range of other health and wellbeing services that can be accessed remotely.  

If, for whatever reason, you find you need to extend your fieldwork, be aware that for a full-time PhD you are required to complete at least 2 research periods of the whole candidature on a University of Sydney campus. Even if you are completing fieldwork, your degree may not be awarded if you do not complete at least 2 research periods on a Usyd campus. Contact your supervisor if you are considering extending your fieldwork. If you are unsure about the advice you are receiving, contact SUPRA.  

While in the field remember that it is your responsibility to regularly check in with your nominated on-campus University contact. If your supervisory team are unable to maintain contact with you, or they become concerned about your ability to make satisfactory progress during your fieldwork, you may still be asked to Show Good Cause.  

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 fieldwork supervisor, or leader, or your nominated on-campus University contact. SUPRA can also support you through any difficulties that arise from fieldwork, even if you are overseas. 

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 fieldwork safety plan and report incidents to your fieldwork supervisor or on-campus University contact. Access local support services, if possible. 

If you have access to phone or internet, you can contact the University of Sydney’s Student Counselling Service

Fieldwork-related injury, emergencies and misadventure can have unexpected mental health impacts, 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. You may want to reach out to University support services such as the Student Counselling Service or Safer Communities

Sexual harassment and sexual assault while working in the field 

If you experience sexual harassment or assault while in the field in Australia or overseas, you can contact the University of Sydney’s Safer Communities Office. 

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 up to twelve months after the incident.  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 

University of Sydney advice on travel and fieldwork 


All University of Sydney policies can be found at the University Policy Register 

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Written by SUPRA Postgraduate Advocacy Service March 2023 

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