Thanks to the Fulbright Scholar Program
, I recently had the opportunity to spend several months in La Plata, Argentina. Most of my time was spent on research, and I also helped teach a few classes. But the best part of my fellowship may have been being able to spend lots of time chatting with colleagues and students. It really helped me understand what it takes to become (and be) a vertebrate paleontologist in Argentina, or at least at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata
(UNLP), where I was based.
The first thing that struck me was undergraduate education. In the US, an undergrad interested in vertebrate paleontology (VP) typically earns a 4-year bachelor’s degree in biology, geology, or a related field. This usually requires taking a certain number of “liberal arts” courses such as history, writing, music, or even gym, regardless of the major. Moreover, many students don’t decide on a career in VP until several years into their program. This isn’t a big deal, because no school in the US currently offers a major in paleontology, and only a couple even have a paleontology “track” or something similar within a biology or geology major.
In Argentina, the equivalent degree (“licenciatura”) lasts five years and only requires courses directly applicable to the major. For example, a licenciatura in Biology will include courses (“materias”) in basic chemistry and physics - as in the US - but nothing like history, art, or philosophy. Thus, students commit to their career path quite early. On the other hand, a student can have an emphasis (“orientación”) in paleontology within the biology major
, which enables them to take a mixture of courses in biology, geology, and paleontology. This is not so easy to do in the US. Biology majors have relatively little time for geology courses and vice versa. Moreover, I know of no school in the US where an undergrad can take five distinct courses in paleontology (paleobotany, micropaleontology, vertebrate paleontology, invertebrate paleontology, and paleoecology) like they can at the UNLP.
Paleontology doctoral programs in Argentina and the US are fairly similar. Both typically require about 5 years and end with a large thesis (dissertation) that must be defended in front of a committee. The main difference is how such degrees are funded. In the US, the university or other degree-granting institution typically pays a student’s tuition and stipend. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) does award Graduate Research Fellowships
, but these are highly competitive (17,000 applications for 2,000 awards in 2016) and only support a relatively small proportion of students. Moreover, they are only for three years, leaving one or more years to be funded by the university (or grants to university faculty). Students can also be supported by the NSF (or sometimes other organizations) through grants to individual researchers or training grants.
In Argentina, the equivalent of the US NSF, the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas
or CONICET, sponsors all doctoral students. If you don’t earn a fellowship (“beca doctoral”), you don’t pursue a PhD. Instead of applying to multiple graduate programs, as in the US, students in Argentina propose a project at a particular institution and wait to find out if it will be funded by CONICET. Students work with their potential research research advisor in formulating their project, but it isn’t up to the advisor whether the student will be accepted into the program. Interestingly, a doctoral student in Argentina actually has to earn two becas, one for their first three years and another for their last two. But you don’t have to be a citizen of Argentina to receive an award. Several students from other countries were earning CONICET-sponsored PhDs in vertebrate paleontology while I was there.
Finally, pursuing a career as a vertebrate paleontologist also differs significantly between the US and Argentina. Matt Bonnan wrote a blog in May
about the many paths to a career in VP in the US, so I won’t belabor that point. The key difference is that none of these paths involves a paleontologist being entirely supported by the NSF. It is possible to get grants from the NSF to support some or nearly all of your salary, but all such grants are of limited duration, and you still have to be employed by some other entity, such as a college, non-profit organization, or the US government. Thus, the total number of vertebrate paleontologists is essentially determined by the entities that employ paleontologists.
In Argentina, however, the total number of vertebrate paleontologists is largely determined by CONICET. In addition to funding doctoral students, CONICET supports the careers of many researchers ("investigadores"). In fact, the organization has a promotion system analogous to that for professors in the US, with ranks similar to Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor. This means that there are two major options for a vertebrate paleontologist in Argentina: be employed by a university (to teach a particular class, for example) or be funded directly from CONICET. In the latter case, the paleontologist can be based at a university, in which case they may or may not teach (depending on their preference), or they can be based elsewhere, such as a CONICET-sponsored center of investigation.
Is one of these systems better than the other? If so, it isn’t clear to me which one. Having CONICET-supported paleontologists is great if the government supports the field; it allows VP to flourish independently of whether universities consider it an important academic field. But when economic times are tight - as they are now in Argentina - the development of new paleontologists can slow to a trickle or stop entirely. Other challenges exist when economic times are good, such as encouraging paleontologists to distribute themselves throughout the country rather than congregate at a few museums where space is increasingly limited. This is almost never an issue in the US because museums and universities hire paleontologists only when they have a need. But a consequence of this is a relatively small number of dedicated vertebrate paleontology positions; someone doing VP is more typically hired to fill an anatomy, biology, or geology position. Thus, except at large natural history museums, vertebrate paleontologists are few and far between.
In recent years, the SVP has endeavored to recruit more international members and become a more international organization. Perhaps future generations will figure out how to combine the best aspects of these systems to provide strong, consistent support for vertebrate paleontology not only in Argentina and the US, but in all countries. After all, fossils can be found everywhere, but they are only useful if there are people to study them.
- Dr. Darin Croft is an Associate Professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio