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On the Many Ways to Be a Vertebrate Paleontologist

Being a paleontologist brings a certain amount of instant celebrity, particularly among young children. But the vertebrate paleontologist of most people’s imagination is not accurate, nor the only model. In fact, as I’ve moved from childhood to graduate school to a career, I’ve discovered that there are many of us in positions that challenge the notion of the Jurassic Park paleontologist. As the U.S. university system is currently producing many more PhD’s than there are research positions available, it’s important know that there are many ways to be a vertebrate paleontologist, all of them equally valuable.
 
The traditional notion of a paleontologist is really one formed by television and movies (think Dr. Alan Grant of Jurassic Park). Those of us of a certain age have all been asked “You mean like Ross from Friends?” more times than we care to remember, yet despite the number of times we accommodatingly say “yes,” it really isn’t like that at all. First of all, we don’t get to go to conferences in Barbados. But seriously, a “traditional” paleontologist is someone with a position at a research museum, such as the Field Museum of Natural History or the British Museum (Natural History). This person spends time out in the field, looking for specimens of new dinosaurs (rarely any other type of organism), almost always in exciting and exotic places. That much is like the work of Alan Grant (inspired by real-life paleontologist Jack Horner), but the part that most people don’t see is the remainder of the year, when this person writes research papers about their specimens, mentors graduate students, gives talks, and interacts with museum administrators. More than likely, this person spends a good chunk of that time writing grants to fund the trips to the field, equipment needed, and staff. Additionally, this person may be a curator, in which case he or she is responsible for directing the care of paleontological collections as well. Despite a seemingly romantically exciting job, a huge chunk of it actually involves paperwork and administration.
 
A variant of the “traditional” paleontologist is the PhD with an appointment at a four-year college or university. Like their more famous counterparts, these folks do research out in the field, write papers and grants, and even interact with the public (some universities have museums too!).  They have, however, the additional duties of teaching courses once or more a year. The relative amount of teaching is determined by the type of school. In fact, many paleontologists teach human gross anatomy at medical schools. Surprising, you say? Actually, humans are merely animals with backbones too, and understanding our vertebrate ancestors adds immensely to our understanding of ourselves.
 
Others of us find that we enjoy teaching most of all, despite the fact that few of us are adequately prepared for it. We position ourselves at small private colleges or even community colleges where our research takes a back seat to pedagogy.   This in no way means that we do not love research and field work, or even publishing, but that we are happiest in the classroom, when our background adds to our teach capabilities.
 
Although there are a few paleontologists who work in industry (think oil and gas exploration), probably the most common “industry” is government service. In particular, the states out west, such as Wyoming and Montana, have numerous paleontological resources on public land, some of which is state land, some of which belongs to the federal government, under the auspices of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Many states have a position called a state paleontologist, who is responsible for the oversight, management, protection, and conservation of localities and specimens from that state. The BLM also employs paleontologists in many states in the western U.S. Organized into regions and districts, BLM paleontologists visit sites in their districts, coordinate management and administration of those sites, and issue permits for prospecting new sites and excavating known ones on federal land. Sometimes these paleontologists aid law enforcement in identifying illegally-collected fossil material, a whole different type of excitement.
 
You see, there are many ways to be a paleontologist, and probably more than I’ve touched on here. I’ve chosen to highlight those with degrees in the field, but perhaps unique to paleontology, there is a category of “avocational” paleontologists who make important contributions to our field, yet hold no formal training in it.
 
In the end, no matter how we express it, we are all fascinated with the history of the earth, with the organisms living on it now and in the past, and want to spread that fascination and love to those around us.



                                                                             -Allison L. Beckb teaches at a community college in Moline, IL. 
 
Posted: 9/14/2015 10:48:15 AM by host | with 0 comments
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