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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: firstname.lastname@example.org | e-mail:email@example.com
phone: (516) 626-6944 ext. 6808 |
fax: (516) 626-6936 |