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Many Paths Lead to a Career in Vertebrate Paleontology

Giving advice often comes out sounding hollow or self-serving, but if I may be so bold, I’d like to give some hope to young people considering a career in vertebrate paleontology or, in fact, any of the basic sciences in general. My message is simple: you have choices.

Telling your parents you want to pursue a career in vertebrate paleontology is considered cute and curious when you’re 5 years old, but if you’re still telling your parents, your guidance counselor, and your teachers this in high school, there can be some profound pushback. I was very fortunate to have parents who were supportive of my ambitions, because I certainly faced pushback and the dismissal of my career path from others who believed it was a waste of time. As many vertebrate paleontologists will tell you, don’t listen to those who would discourage you; listen to your heart.

Then there was financing – coming from a working-class family of 6 children, the most cost-effective choice I had before me was to attend my first 2 years of college at the College of DuPage, a community college, where I earned an Associates of Science in Earth Sciences. This choice, to split your undergraduate education between a community college and a 4-year college or university, is becoming more the norm in our current economy. We often think of community colleges as a place where those unprepared for “real university work” go to become stronger academics. Let me assure you, many of us who do go to community college are strong academics often without the means to attend all 4 years at a university. I was once told by a paleontologist who shall remain nameless that my start at a community college “put [me] behind the 8-ball.” Let me therefore encourage any community college student reading this blog post that you have done nothing wrong; on the contrary, you may find, as I did, that you will experience some of the best college-level teaching in your career.
There is the matter of getting into graduate school. When I was nearing graduation at the University of Illinois at Chicago (where I completed by Bachelors of Science in Geology), I applied to a number of graduate programs, of which I was accepted into exactly zero. Part of my difficulty in this regard was that I had never been to a professional meeting, even though I had been a member of SVP since finishing high school.

A word of advice here is to become a member of SVP and other scientific societies and, if at all possible, attend a meeting. Better yet, if you can seek out and find a mentor as an undergraduate who helps you conduct research, you can then present this at the annual SVP meeting or similar venues. Success in getting into graduate school depends in large part on finding a graduate school mentor, and an SVP meeting is a fantastic place to accomplish this.

Another piece of advice for those still in high school or maybe transfering to a university: look for places where undergraduate research is encouraged and promoted. In some cases, if you do research with a professor, the school may help with your travel and meeting expenses.

For me, after completing my B.S. I instead did a stint at the U.S. Geological Survey where I helped collect data on water levels in the Everglades. It was on my second attempt at graduate school a year later I was able to land a teaching assistantship at Northern Illinois University.

As graduate school approaches its end and you finish your dissertation, you begin preparing for the job market. Search the internet and you will find article after article on the pitfalls and difficulties of landing basic science jobs. Take, for example, the article posted by John Skyler at Talebearing about pursuing a science career. Everything this article discusses, from the crushing debt that can be incurred, to the delays in life transitions, to the difficulties in procuring grants, is all, sadly, very real. And yet, this article, like so many, gives a somewhat narrow vision of what success is in the sciences: becoming a PI (Principal Investigator, the scientific team leader) at an R1 (a large, research-focused university). There is an often unspoken assumption that success in science = a research heavy / team-leading position in a coveted and highly competitive corner of the market (medicine, bioengineering, etc.) or institution.

One way to think of this is by analogy to the music industry.  How many people long to be rock stars, living years in poverty hoping for a shot in a very competitive and harsh business, and often never succeeding in achieving that goal? Of the few that do make it into stardom, many face almost inhuman pressures to keep producing hits, keep touring, and keep current. Although some people thrive in such an environment, there is a lot of burn out. But, of course, there are other avenues to pursuing a career in music. For example, there are many more job opportunities for sound engineers, writers, teachers, studio musicians, and so forth, all with music creation at their heart. If you work a job in music that you love, you are a success — not just the rock stars.

The same is true for basic science careers, such as vertebrate paleontology. If you are interested in vertebrate paleontology, there are several paths you can follow and many opportunities at a variety of institutions and museums. I speak from experience — there are choices.

Undoubtedly we need intense basic research and our federal dollars need to increase to support the motivated souls who push the frontiers of knowledge in places such as R1s. But science also needs a lot of people who enjoy juggling both research and teaching effectively, bringing research knowledge to undergraduates and laypeople, conveying the body of knowledge we generate to the public at large. Being a good science teacher at a college or university is not a booby prize — there is a lot of skill and dedication required to reach the next generation of scientists and, dare I say, politicians. You can derive a great deal of satisfaction and joy by turning new minds on to science.

There is the persistent myth that says that those of us who teach larger course loads cannot produce quality research. On the contrary, we can and we do, often involving undergraduates in their first research experiences. So if you love teaching as well as doing quality research, don’t be dissuaded from pursuing a career in vertebrate paleontology — know that it can be done and that there are job opportunities out there.

Be flexible. Be willing to consider alternate paths to your career. If you can teach certain subjects, your probability of landing a tenure-track job improves. For example, in vertebrate paleontology, knowing your anatomy and being willing and able to teach it can open many more doors than if you only search for dedicated paleontology positions. Remember that science is not one size fits all — just because you might not get a particular type of position does not mean there is nothing else to do and that your career is a failure. Science benefits from a diversity of perspectives and approaches that cannot all occur in one setting. In a career like vertebrate paleontology, working together with a variety of individuals with different strengths from different institutions is always an excellent strategy.

Please don’t take this post to mean I think it will all go swimmingly. I recognize that I am fortunate to have a tenure-track job, and that many equally or better-qualified individuals currently do not. I am in no way trying to paint an overly rosy picture — pursuing a science career can be difficult. It is also true that a Ph.D. by itself is not enough — preparedness, networking, luck, timing, and tenacity all play large roles in how and where we land our jobs. On top of all of this, there are also still, unfortunately, barriers related to gender and race that make a difficult career even more difficult for many talented individuals.

What I hope I can impart to those pursuing vertebrate paleontology (and related basic science careers) is that whereas there are many difficulties you will face, there is not just one path to being successful. Don’t measure your success by someone else’s standards. You have enough obstacles as it is without also burdening yourself with one ideal of success. It is possible to be happy and productive as a vertebrate paleontologist in many different ways, and I wish you much luck and future success.

Post by Matthew F. Bonnan, Stockton University

Posted: 5/9/2016 12:05:00 AM by matthewbonnanadmin | with 0 comments
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