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paleo jobs Re: Howdy peoples!
"How do I get to be a paleontologist?" is a question we see here from
time to time. The advice others have given previously - to get a good,
solid degree in geology and/or biology and to specialize in paleo in
grad school - is sound. But there's something else prospectives still
in high school should know:
There are more openings for governor in the U.S every year than for
vertebrate paleontologist. And the U.S. has a darned excellent job
market for vertebrate paleontologists compared with the rest of the
world. Prospects improve a little when you include positions for all
paleontologists, but not by much.
The job market for academics generally, including paleontologists of
every stripe, is very poor. Salaries are not usually very high. You
will probably accumulate a considerable student debt load, and you won't
start paying it off until you're in your thirties. You find yourself
wondering who will retire next, hoping that their position will be
filled by another paleontologist (and not a hydrogeologist or molecular
biologist, depending on the department). Members of your family will
wonder when you'll finally grow out of your phase. You'll look upon
your friends outside Academia, the same age as you but starting
families, buying houses, and generating enough income to actually save,
with envy. You'll be competing for the few jobs out there with your
closest friends (and, in some cases, your spouse). There are some nice
post-doctoral fellowships out there (I have one now), but these are
temporary, and the knowledge that my current position is not guaranteed
to be permanent is stressful. And many universities are starting to
kill tenure, so permanent positions may be a thing of the past.
I seriously recommend reading through the running debate on the
Chronicle of Higher Education's web site on whether universities should
limit Ph.D. admissions
(http://chronicle.com/colloquy/99/graduate/re.htm). Most of it focuses
on the humanities, but you could scratch out "humanities" and write in
"sciences" or "paleontology" for most of these quite easily. And when
you're done, click around the CHE's site some more - there's lots more
on the job market, interview experiences, and more.
Lest I sound nihilistic about this, bear in mind that I write this as
one who will not leave the profession unless forced to do so. I love
vertebrate paleontology - I knew what I was getting into when I started
as an undergrad, and consciously decided to stay in. The question to
ask yourself is "is there anything else in the world I could imagine
myself doing." And remember to ask yourself this after you've been an
undergraduate for a couple of years and have been exposed to other
Some other things to do:
1. Keep your mind open. "I want to study predatory dinosaurs" sounds
great, but there are lots of other totally cool organisms out there.
Not only that, there are other really great avenues of science to pursue
- had I gotten my BS in bio rather than geology, I'd have seriously
contemplated molecular phylogenetics.
2. Develop a fall-back option. Many vertebrate paleo students take
gross human anatomy, and not one of them (in my experience) has had a
problem getting a job - though the job is frequently in a med school and
involves teaching gross.
This is not an option for me. There is no med school in Austin. I've
dissected just about everything but a human, and I regret it often. On
the other hand, the geological sciences department down there has a
strong program in multimedia development, and most vp students take
something through it. My wife did while working on her masters' in
vertebrate paleo, currently makes about twice what I do, and can
probably get a job anywhere.
One could also cite Paul Willis as a success story in this regard.
Paul works as a science broadcaster in Australia (and is doing a bloody
great job of it), but continues to maintain himself as a top-notch
researcher. Fall-backs need not mean abandonment of science.
3. Be willing to relocate anywhere. This means learning more than one
Like I said, this is a great profession - but know what you're getting
into before diving in.
Christopher A. Brochu
Department of Geology
Field Museum of Natural History
Roosevelt Road at Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60605
voice: 312-922-9410 x469