Archive for July, 2018

How do I become a palaeontologist?

This question comes round and round again online and I regularly get e-mails asking exactly this from people who are interested in becoming palaeontologists. There is plenty of good advice out there in various formus and answers to questions, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a really long and detailed answer and as much as anything, having something like this will hopefully serve as a one-stop shop for people who have this question.

For anyone who has come to this blog because of this post and doesn’t know me, I am a palaeontologist working on dinosaur behaviour and have been for over a decade (I got my PhD back in 2005). Though I’m British and based in the UK, I’ve had palaeo jobs in Ireland, Germany and China and I’ve got numerous colleagues in the US, Canada, all over Europe and in places like Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Australia and South Africa that I have talked to about working there, so I have a decent picture of what issues are relevant wherever you are from and where you want to be. There will of course be things I don’t cover below or that vary significantly (e.g. the duration of various degree programs and what they specialise in etc.) but this should cover the basics.

Hopefully this will help answer the major questions, and clear up some big misunderstandings and offer some advice to get into palaeontology. There are also some harsh truths here but I’m trying to be open and honest about the realities of trying to make a career of this competitive branch of science. So, with that in mind…

What do you think a palaeontologist does?

A lot of people asking about getting into the field seem to be seduced by the apparent image of the field as a glamorous science. There’s fieldwork in exciting places, media coverage (you can be on TV, in movies!), new discoveries, naming new species and generally being a bit cooler than the average biochemist or experimental physicist. But if this is what you think, it’s actually pretty misleading. You are only seeing the very top people and most of us don’t get much time in the field or travelling in a given year, and spend most of their time in an office and while that might include writing papers, there’s plenty of grant writing, admin and less exciting stuff. I rarely get into the field and probably >90% of my time is spent teaching and doing admin work for my university. A fair chunk of my research and outreach output is done in my own time taking up evenings and weekend and even vacations. I don’t get to sit around and play with fossils all day and there are very, very few people with senior enough research positions who get perhaps even 50% of their time to do real research and fieldwork – there will always be paperwork and admin that needs doing and even writing research papers or planning a field season can be really quite tedious at times. Real joy comes from discoveries in the field or in research but these are moments you work for, there’s not a constant stream of them.

So it’s worth making sure you have a realistic impression of real life as a palaeontologist and ask yourself if you have realistic expectations of what the job might entail and where you may end up. That said…

Do you know what jobs are available?

Palaeontology tends to be thought of as people digging up fossils and then maybe researching on them and / or teaching about them. Palaeontologists are scientists and they work in museums or maybe universities. That’s not wrong, but it masks a pretty wide range of careers and employers. It goes back to my point above, there are lots of jobs for palaeontologists or people working in the field of palaeontology and in addition to researchers and lecturers, there are science educators, museum curators and managers, exhibition designers, specimen preparators, photographers, science writers, palaeoartists and consultants of various kinds. People can work for media outlets, national parks and other government bodies, companies that mount or mould specimens, that monitor building sites and roads for uncovered fossils, and others. One of these might be more what you are interested in – you don’t have to end up as the senior researcher in your national museum to have ‘made it’ and similarly, that can mean you have a very different set of requirements to get a different kind of job. You pretty much have to have a PhD to teach at a university, but you can potentially get a job working preparing fossils with little more than a good high school education. Experience and engagement with the field can always lead to you changing paths and I know of people who started out in science without a degree that are now full professors or have some senior palaeontological position.

There are also lots of opportunities in various places to be a volunteer and you certainly don’t need a PhD or even a degree to get involved in scientific research and i know of high scoolers who have managed to publish papers – some drive and knoweldge can go a long way. There are opportunities to engage in the science without actually holding a professorship at a big university. If some of the information coming up is a bit daunting, there are options and alternatives.

Do you know what the job market is like?

Despite the above listed variety of jobs out there, there are still not a huge number of jobs in palaeo, and fewer still for academic positions. Worse, there a lot of people who want them. If you are desperate to get into an especially sexy area like dinosaurs or carnivorans then it’s even worse. For every academic job there are likely to be 10 well qualified candidates (and quite possibly 20 or more) and these are all people who have held at least one postdoctoral position (maybe 1 available for every 5 people) and have a PhD (maybe 1 available for every 20 or 30 people who want to do it). It’s very common for people for slowly drift out of the field simply because they cannot find a job even after years and years of training and experience and a good record of research. I know of colleagues who did their PhD around the same time I did and have yet to find a permanent position. Others are stuck in jobs they would rather not be in, hoping for something better and, sadly, when finances are tight, palaeontology is often a field which suffers cuts more than other sciences. As with the point above, I’m not saying this to put people off (though I’m sure it does) but it is worth knowing the reality of the situation. Getting on a degree program, even coming top of the class will in no way ensure you get on a doctorate program, let alone in the field you want to study, let alone a job at the end of it.

Do you know what the career trajectory is?

As noted above this can vary enormously depending on what you may want to try and do, but I’ll focus here on academic positions since that’s what most people do want to do, and it’s generally the longest and most involved pathway. First off you will need an undergraduate degree, increasingly this tends to be in the biological sciences though there are lots of people with a background in geology. You’ll need to know at least some of each but it’s perfectly possible to forge a palaeontology career (depending on what you do) with a very heavily biased knowledge in favour of one or the other. Most people don’t specialise seriously until later so don’t worry about doing one and assuming it’s a problem, and don’t get hung up on doing a palaeontology degree – there simply aren’t many of them about and it’s not a deal at all if you have not done one. With a good degree you can get onto a Masters program which will obviously increase your knowledge further and improve your skills, and then onto a doctorate which will be anything from 3-6 years depening where you do it. It could take a year or two to get onto this programs if there is something specific you want or of course you may need to work to get the funds necessary for tuition fees etc. Most people will also then go on a take one or two positions as a postdoctoral researcher or similar before finding a job. Some of these are short term (a year or so) and some can be much longer (5 year special research fellowships are rare and great if you can get them, a one or two year contract is more common). You may end up taking some short-term jobs (parental leave cover, or for a sabbatical etc.) and can bounce around on contracts for a while before landing a permanent position/ All told, it’s likely to be at least 10 years and could easily be 15 or 20 between starting at university and a first year undergraduate and having a permanent position at a university as an academic. This can also involve moving round the country or between countries (and continents) to find a job. Again. if you are dead set on working on taxon group X at university Y, be aware that it’s likely to be a very, very long shot or needs to be a very long-term career goal.

How do you start?

So assuming that this is still something you think you want to go for, how do you actually start on the road to becoming a palaeontologist? Well, the short version is go to university and do well. That’s what I did, at least in part because I wasn’t any more interested in palaeo than some other fields in biology and I kinda drifted this way (this is really common, even people who start absolutely dedicated to working on one particular area get sidetracked by new interests or simply the available opportunities). Of course with so much more information out there now online there are much better ways to get started and to learn something about possible careers, universities, current research, museums to go to, etc. etc. You may be surprised to find that a what of what you know is not that relevant or important for getting into the field. Knowing a whole bunch of facts isn’t a bad thing, but understanding principles, being good at absorbing knowledge and interpreting things and coming up with ideas and testing them are more important. You can always look up a fact if you forgot it or don’t know it, but if you can’t effectively come up woith ideas to test, collect good data and organise your thoughts then it’s obviously hard to do good science. Learning things like names of species and times and places they are from is obviously a good start, but don’t think it’s a massive head start on potential peers. Obviously you’ll want to focus on palaeontology, but biology and geo sources are important too, a wider knowledge base will be better than a narrow one. So, in sort of an order that will lead to you learning and understanding more and getting better:

  • Read online. There are tons of good sources out there – follow people on Twitter, join Facebook groups, listen to podcasts, read blogs etc. etc. Absorb information on biology, geology, current research trends, the history of the subject and the fundamentals of science. Engage and discuss things with people.
  • Read books. Build up your knowledge base with some good popular science books and then if you can access them, get hold of some university level books that are introductory for subjects you want to engage in. There are good books out there on palaeontology generally and various branches like invertebrate palaeo, mammals, human origins etc. Public libraries can often get even very technical works in for free and there are others online. Some books can be very cheap second hand.
  • Get more practical experience and engage with the field and fossils if you can. Visit museums and go fossil hunting. If you can, volunteer at a museum and get some experience and training no matter what form it might be.
  • Read papers. Large chunks of the scientific literature are online and available. You won’t get everything you want, but you will be able to see a lot of things. Learn from them, not just the science being done, but look at patterns and trends and look at how papers are written and delivered, how hypotheses are produced and tested. See what makes a good argument and a good peice of work.
  • Get to a scientific conference if you can. As with reading papers, it may be hard to dig into technical material given by experts aimed at other experts but you will learn something from it and get to see scientific discourse in action and meet people. Speak to students about how they got started in the field and speak to academics about their programs and what finding or positions may be available.
  • Try to get involved in scientific research if you can. Offer your services to academics with whatever your current skills and knowledge you have and see if you can help. It might be very peripheral sorting out specimens, or merely collating data or drawing things for a figure and it might not end up in authorship on a paper, but it would get you actively engaged and see the process of research up close. I have had people assist me from Germany and Australia so you don’t need to be physically in the smae building to collaborate and get valuable experience and training.

Any, though in particular all, of these will give you a huge advantage when it comes to getting started for real on a degree or with a new palaeontology job or internship. The best students know what they know and what they don’t, and have the initiative and drive to seek out opportunities to learn and get experience and are not put off by setbacks. You may not be able to get to a conference or find an academic looking for help, but you really should be able to start at least reading papers and developing your knowledge and understanding. That will massively appeal to people looking to recruit to positions or studentships and can make a big difference.

TLDR

Palaeontology is a hard field to break into, most don’t make it even if they are hard-working and talented and deserve it. But if it’s what you really want to do, then be aware of the risks and go into it open eyed but also hopefully armed with a bit of knowledge and advice as to what you can do to stand a better chance. Be prepared to have to move, be prepared to have to sacrifice a great deal, be prepared to end up somewhere very different to what you might have expected or planned, but also be prepared for the possibility of a fantastic job. All of it is of course up to you, but I wish you the best of luck and I hope this is some useful advice.

 

To finish off, here’s a bunch of links to other related resources I’ve generated over time on getting along in research and getting hold of papers etc. etc. that should be useful: https://archosaurmusings.wordpress.com/2009/10/04/the-complete-how-to-guide-for-young-researchers-so-far/

and: https://archosaurmusings.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/online-resources-for-palaeontologists/

 


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