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Re: Advice needed---Careers in VP

Responding to DDelano65's request for information on establishing a career 
in paleontology, let me address just vertebrate paleontology.

First and foremost, being a professional vertebrate paleontologist MUST be 
a key to your personal happiness.  In other words, before one goes down the 
path of extensive higher education, publication and grant grinds, and low 
pay, you have to be totally committed and, in a sense, satisfying a 
passion.  Otherwise, you'll most likely wind up frustrated.

With regard to choice of undergraduate track, geology was for many years 
the standard, but increasingly VPers are starting out as biologists 
who take as many soft-rock geology courses as possible.  This trend 
probably reflects the increasing biological component to the science.

A major misconception by students and the public is that there are jobs in 
vertebrate paleontology.  Of course, there are some at natural history 
museums and a few states have "state paleontologists," but these positions 
are few enough that as a potential pool, they can be ignored.  The vast 
majority of people publishing on vertebrate paleontology are at 
universities.  In most cases, people are hired to handle a particular 
teaching load.  Deans don't wake up one morning and say, "We really need 
a theropod specialist."  Rather they say, "We need someone to teach (say) 
comparative anatomy."  The university administration wants individuals that 
can handle the required teaching AND do good research and get grants.  The 
search committee may want a theropod specialist, but the job is to teach a 
particular load.  A subtle point to be sure, but one not to be overlooked.  
That's why I said that there are few jobs in VP.

Another surprise for many people is that many VPers teach human gross anatomy
to medical or nursing students.  This is true for some people at Johns 
Hopkins, the Univ. of Chicago, Duke, Stony Brook, NYCOM, the Univ. of 
Kansas, and many others.  The simple explanation is that VP is largely 
anatomical, and although dinos aren't people, we all have bones and muscles 
and nerves, etc.  Some people teach veterinary anatomy.  The point is, I 
never envisioned myself as being in a medical community and working on 
dinosaurs, but I'm far from alone.  The up-side here is that the requisite 
knowledge to teach human anatomy makes for a pretty sophisticated dinosaur 
anatomist, as well.

To summarize my career advice: (1) make sure you HAVE to be in VP to be 
happy and fulfilled, (2) learn a "trade" while gaining your education 
in VP---in other words, learn how to teach a course somebody wants to have 
taught.  Perhaps the best course (in terms of employment opportunities) is 
human gross anatomy.  Of course, maybe you can get a job as a dinosaur 
paleontologist at the Smithsonian, but, if that's your plan, then you're 
really rolling the dice...   I still consider it amazing that I can 
actually pull down a paycheck by playing with dinosaurs all day.  The price 
tag for being able to satisfy my intellectual passion is to teach anatomy--
-and it turns out I love that, too!

Lawrence M. Witmer, PhD             |   (after 1 Sept 95)
Assistant Professor of Anatomy      |   Dept of Biological Sciences and
Department of Anatomy               |   College of Osteopathic Medicine
NY College of Osteopathic Medicine  |   Ohio University
Old Westbury, NY  11568  USA        |   Athen, Ohio  45701  USA
e-mail: lwitmer@acl.nyit.edu        |   e-mail:witmer@mail.oucom.ohiou.edu
phone:  (516) 626-6944 ext. 6808    |
fax:    (516) 626-6936              |