So you want to become a paleontologist  

Sometimes, I am asked how one becomes a paleontologist - or, more to the point, what professions a paleontologist may choose after his/her academic training. In other words, the question is how one can make a living while doing scientific research as a paleontologist. These questions come up more often than one would think. After all, many young people have an interest in dinosaurs at one time or another, especially in this era of computer-generated graphics and special effects, which can literally bring dinosaurs back to life on movie screens, in computer games and in Animatronics museum displays. Many sensible persons also ask themselves questions about life, time, evolution and other pretty important stuff - questions to which paleontology has many of the scientific answers.

What jobs are available to a paleontologist?

Odd as it may seem, there are indeed persons who spend their adult lives doing scientific research in paleontology. In the nineteenth century, many of those who did so were independently wealthy persons with a higher education, who - basically - did not need to earn money by taking a paid job. Therefore, they were free to pursue whatever occupation attracted their interest. A rather small number of paleontologists were in the employment of universities and museums, and carried out scientific research and publishing among other duties, like teaching and administrative tasks. Yet other paleontologists had occupations or titles (often, as parish priests or public officers) that left them a considerable amount of time to pursue paleontology as a serious second occupation, albeit at their own expenses. Some paleontologists even made money by selling their monographs to the public.

From the twentieth century to the present, wealthy people have developed more interesting ways to occupy their time and, with few exceptions, paleontologists have been exclusively employed by universities and museums. Thus, their jobs and economic welfare have been largely at the mercy of wars, social upheavals and cuts in public funding prompted by economic crises. In the past 30-40 years, job opportunities in paleontology have been steadily worsening. Universities and museums have their budgets reduced whenever politicians need to cut costs and, even during good times, economic resources have regularly been re-routed from paleontology to fields more likely to provide economic returns or widespread public support. Not a few paleontology departments or programmes have been entirely closed and their research staff "sent home", and this trend is far from over.

Employment prospects for geoscientists in general are better than for a paleontologist, mainly because there is a demand for geoscientists outside the academic world. For generic information of what a geoscientist can do as a professional, see sciencebuddies.org.

Do you think you want to become a paleontologist?

If your answer to the above question is yes, my first recommendation would be to think again. By selecting paleontology as your main field of study in a university curriculum, you are likely headed toward unemployment or, in the best of events, twenty or thirty years of precarious employment, often with a pitiful salary. If you are lucky, you may eventually reach safe employment as a university professor, albeit with a relatively low salary compared to the efforts you spent throughout your career, insufficient funding to do much meaningful research in the time allotted to it, and a total lack of incentives based on your actual performance as a scientist. Most paleontologists, however, are not that lucky, and remain eternally precarious or satisfy themselves with more menial jobs.

Along the way, you are likely to suffer from much or all of the following:

  • As a teacher, frustration in increasingly crowded classes of students who seem to steadily decline, year by year, in their basic education and desire to learn.
  • Constant pressure from your peers and bosses to devote increasing amounts of your time to administrative tasks and other duties regarded by them as more useful than your research.
  • Widespread misunderstanding by the public, who will often wonder why you should be paid any money at all in return for your work. After all, you are not producing anything that can be eaten, are you?

In quite a few research institutions, you may land into a department where everyday life is governed by personality conflicts, nepotism, bosses who claim credit for your work, petty revenge among colleagues (often diagonally directed against their more vulnerable subordinates), life-long feuds and, sometimes, open paranoia apparently born out of the combination of bright minds, too much free time and insufficient funding to do much with either brains or time. Am I exaggerating? Of course. Of course not. Indeed, many paleontologists (and other scientists as well) are helped to remain sane by their love for the chosen field of research. You might wish to question, however, whether your love for paleontology is really worth accepting all the rest that may come with the job. Out of six universities and research institutions where I spent substantial amounts of time during my career, three did display the above symptoms on a large scale, and two more had at least some signs of them.

Are the above problems exclusive of non-profit research institutions? Not at all. However, the difference between an institution for higher education and a profit-driven company is that the latter, if run in the way described above, will quickly lose its most valuable employees, i.e., those who can easily find a better job. The rest of the employees will be freed from their daily misery once the company goes bankrupt, which typically happens pretty quickly. As a result, there are few companies where these problems have a chance to develop to the extent frequently seen in non-profit research. On the other hand, it is traditional for non-profit researchers to spend their entire careers at a single institution, or maybe to move once or twice throughout their lives. For paleontologists in particular, job mobility is largely the substance of which daydreams are made, rather than a real opportunity. As a result, their employers can with impunity treat them as liabilities, rather than assets.

"Problematic" work environments are also frequent in the public service sector, another area where low salaries, insufficient funding, the lack of real career opportunities and a secure employment at the top levels, regardless of actual performance, tend to produce a concentration of incompetent staff with low self-esteem and enhanced personality flaws. In several countries, public sector bosses, and sometimes museum directors and even university professors, receive their jobs largely as political favours - not exactly the type of persons who can be expected to encourage a young employee who is obviously brighter than themselves.

Admittedly, there are exceptions. A family business may be forced to keep a stupid boss who happens to be a family member, but business is not likely to thrive. A big corporation may leach large amounts of capital into the pockets of an incompetent and greedy leadership year after year, but a big crunch is certain to come sooner or later. A non-profit institution, instead, is largely sheltered from both public scrutiny and the laws of economics. Indeed, there are many other fields, besides paleontology, where the above problems are a well-recognized truth. I am talking about paleontology because this is my area of expertise, and the subject of this page.

Do you still want to become a paleontologist?

If you did not change your mind yet, you may go on reading. After all, I did not follow my own advice, and indeed went on to a career in paleontology (which ended happily a few years ago - I am now a technical writer at a software company). Nonetheless, I did enjoy the first two-thirds of my career in paleontology, which brought me to many countries and gave me much satisfaction (at least, the research part of it did). During the last years, I actually felt that retirement was the best thing I could look forward to. As it turned out, I was wrong, but I needed to lose my job as a paleontologist before I was able to realize that I could get a better, unrelated one.

Although you may love paleontology - and there is nothing (seriously) wrong with it - you must not let this love blind you to the fact that there is a life outside paleontology. In particular, there are many other jobs and careers that you may enjoy, even though they have little or nothing to do with paleontology. You may discover, for instance, that marine biology has much in common with paleontology, and that a research career in some fields of marine biology can be at least as rewarding, in terms of satisfaction, as one in paleontology (and possibly more rewarding in terms of salary and funding). The same may be true of biomedical research.

My own career is another example. I always have had a side interest in computers. I used to design and build my very first computers in my bedroom as a university student, and later became interested in programming and software development. As a result, I did quite a lot of computer modelling in my paleontological research. I subsequently took up a half-time job as a systems manager at my university institution when things started to get really bad, and after finally being set free from my job as a senior lecturer I spent a couple of years as a visiting professor at Japanese universities (in itself, quite an interesting time), partly on the off chance that a job in paleontology might appear on the horizon. It didn't, so I finally took a full-time job in the computer industry - all of this without having any formal education in computer science. I actually discovered that I don't really miss paleontology as much as I expected. I may feel an occasional longing for research, and have nebulous plans of doing some research in the undetermined future, but so far I have not been sufficiently motivated to act on these intentions. I feel just fine working as a technical writer and, in my free time, writing about scientific photography and photographic techniques on my web site and in a book I am preparing, just for the fun of it. In fact, I am still doing largely what I used to do and to enjoy in paleontology, i.e., writing technical papers and making complicated subjects understandable to readers.

As a matter of fact, the combination of extensive computer skills and broad experience in technical/scientific writing that I accumulated over the years are the reason why I got my present job. I must stress, however, that neither type of skills can be acquired by carrying out the type of "standard" paleontological research and publishing that constitutes the bulk of current paleontological literature. These skills are largely the result of my unusual choice of a specialization within paleontology.

In conclusion, my advice can be summarized into three main points:

  • You may follow a paleontology study curriculum, but select other subjects as well. Specifically, select subjects that you like and that will give you better chances of getting a "real" job once you finish your studies. The exact choice depends on your inclinations and personality. Many subjects can help you to find another job, and at the same time allow you to carry out types of paleontological research that no "ordinary" paleontologist can tackle. These subjects can be technical, theoretical, managerial or society-oriented. In any case, it should be something you like. The best thing in life is doing a job you like, and the worst being forced to do a job you hate.
  • You may even begin a career in paleontology, if you like the idea and do get a chance of doing so. Many paleontology students are never given this chance, which is why you need an alternative. After your studies, don't waste too much time waiting for a job in paleontology to materialize. Don't settle for an unpaid or underpaid job as a technician or teaching assistant in a paleontology department. Quite often (despite the assurances of your boss) accepting these occupations will not lead to a career in paleontology - it will only tell others that you are the kind of person who accepts to be a lifelong underdog (and you can safely assume that they will take advantage of it in every possible way). Instead, start out on a "real" job as soon as possible.
  • If you start out on a different career, do keep some contacts with the research world, just to suggest that you may still be interested, albeit on your own terms. If there will be a chance to a paleontology job later on, by all means do try, but don't cut all bridges with alternative careers if you get this job. Do cultivate them, instead. If at all possible, keep your original non-academic job as a part-time occupation, or at least solid contacts with your former work environment and colleagues. It will give you something to fall back to in the (not unlikely) case your paleontology job will disappear later on, or turn into a dead-end careerwise. Even more important, you will be able to choose freely whether you want to continue being a paleontologist, as opposed to being forced to.

Incidentally, I am by no means unique as a scientist who left academic research to move to a profit-driven company. I am not even unique as a scientist who turned into a technical communicator - quite the opposite. I did not know it at the time I made this choice, but in fact, scientists who turn technical writers, technical communicators, science journalists or commercial editors are quite numerous, and this type of career switch is a mainstream one.

Do you need more reasons?

The decision about starting a career as a paleontologist is largely irreversible, given the almost inexistent prospects of obtaining a non-academic employment with an academic training exclusively as a paleontologist. When making this type of lifelong (or almost) commitment to a career or vocation, it is wise to consider many aspects and consequences of this choice. One of these aspects is the attitude of politicians toward scientific research, and in particular the attitude of those politicians who hold the strings to the purse of research funds. What I am about to describe is far more widespread than the specific situation I discuss, and certainly not restricted to Sweden.

In the early 2000s, at about the same time Uppsala University took the decision to terminate my employment because of funding constraints, one of the public foundations in charge of financing scientific and technological research in Sweden, the KK-Stiftelsen (The Knowledge Foundation), spent approximately 2.5 million US $ to hold a one-day party for employees and star guests (about 150 people, i.e., about 16,700 US $ per person). The information about this party was published by the Swedish Metro daily newspaper of August 27, 2012, distributed mainly in the Stockholm area. The KK-Stiftelsen found it impossible to deny the accusations, and limited its response to minor precisations that do not change any of the important facts, and to a statement to the effects that, basically, they don't do these things any more. (Note: I am not implying that the two events, my dismissal and the lavish "party of all parties", had any direct relationship with each other.)

This is by far not an isolated instance, and not limited to research funding. Numerous similar revelations of misuse of public funds, some of them supposed to be reserved for the financing of research projects, have been published by the Swedish press in recent months. Another illuminating example is a James Bond-themed party for employees of Säpo (the Swedish Security Service, in charge of espionage and counter-espionage) that cost taxpayers a more modest 757,000 US $ in June 2011. The cost was charged to Säpo's internal representation expenses account, and apparently involved also some illegal accounting practices (oops... inadvertent accounting errors). This type of behavior would seem questionable for a public institution that for several years has been, officially, cash-strapped and subjected to a forced ban on all new personnel hiring, but this is not all. At about the same time knowledge of the party became public in 2012, Säpo announced that they will need to fire approximately 10% of their employees to get their budget even. A curious pattern seems to emerge.

Further requests by journalists for information on the funds spent by Säpo for entertainment purposes have been met by Justice Minister Beatrice Ask with a total ban on releasing such information. One may wonder whether much more embarrasing information would otherwise have become public (is Säpo using taxpayers' money to entertain foreign dictators and henchmen, or to smoothen the way to foreign arms sales, which are an important source of income for Sweden?). Meanwhile, the Swedish daily newspaper Aftonbladet released a list of several additional government departments and public institutions that spent a total of over 10 million US$ for parties held at 38 luxury restaurants.A major public hospital is at the top of the list, and two public universities are in third and fifth positions by spent amount.

Even more interesting are the practical consequences of these abuses of taxpayers' money for the few persons in charge of these decisions. Indeed, a handful of top bureaucrats have been removed from their positions after (interestingly, never before) their misdeeds became public knowledge thanks to journalists' investigations. In at least one case, the removed bureaucrat was silently compensated with an agreement to continue receiving her salary for another two years after losing her job, until public disclosure of this detail by the press made them backtrack on this particular benefit (at least officially). However, it is a well known fact that non-elected bureaucrats in Sweden, thanks to their strong political ties, after being forced to leave one top job will be compensated within months with another top job at another of the endless number of foundations and institutions financed with public money and administrated well out of sight of the public. Elected politicians forced to resign from their positions in a variety of recent scandals have always been compensated in the same way, as soon as the public attention turns elsewhere. In no case I am aware of, has any mention of prosecution for abuse of power, misuse of public funds or financial fraud ever been made.

An unrelated recent fact is that the Nobelstiftelsen (Nobel Foundation), which is in charge of administrating the funds from which Nobel prizes are paid, has made in the past decade several amateurish investment decisions that led to the funds in their care losing a substantial part of their value. As a result, the monetary amount of the Nobel prizes will be reduced by 20% starting from this year (see also here and here). In other words, the top administrators who made the mistakes will not be punished, but in their place the future Nobel laureates will.

Further examples of recent disclosures of lavish parties paid with taxpayers' money by Swedish public institutions include the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth (Tillväxtverket), 2.4 million US $; the Ministry of Enterprise, Energy and Communications (Näringsdepartmentet), a mere 90,000 US $; the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research (Stiftelsen för Strategisk Forskning), 1.4 million US $; the National Defence Radio Establishment (Försvarets Radioanstalt), 165,000 US $ for a half-day party (not including security arrangements provided for the party by a private firm, which the agency apparently has a policy of refusing to discuss); and last but not least the Swedish Public Employment Service (Arbetsförmedlingen), 5.2 million US $ paid in a single year to a single entertainment event arranger (and a total figure of 8-digits US $ spread over time and arrangers) (main source: Aftonbladet). Wikipedia information on some of the above events (as well as numerous other scandals involving Swedish politicians, public institutions and political party organizations) was subsequently removed from Wikipedia by users logged in from IP addresses that belong to the respective institutions (see also here).

In view of these facts, my recommendation is: if you want to secure your financial and professional future, comfortably line your pockets without the hassle of having to do a real job, and never really have to answer for your (right or wrong) decisions, do not become a scientific researcher. Instead, become a politician/bureaucrat in charge of financing scientific research. You will thank me for this suggestion.

The new fad: managerialism in science

In the past, scientists who somehow did manage to hang on to their jobs for a sufficiently long time could, eventually, feel relatively safe about their employment and welfare. In the last few decades, however, a new enemy has begun to populate the nightmares of professional scientists, including, with good reasons, paleontologists. This relatively new trend is managerialism in scientific research, which has mainly two purposes:

  • To make it possible for non-scientists to decide which science is worth financing, and which is not. This means, in practice, to decide which scientists should keep their jobs and which should be "sent home", and
  • How to pursue industrial-style effectiveness (i.e., how to produce more with less investment) in scientific research.

Politicians find the idea of managing scientific research very attractive, probably because they do not really understand either science or management (but they do like to take managerial decisions). The traditional explanations - that scientific results, for instance, cannot be immediately classified as useful or useless - cannot stop their enthusiasm for managerialism. Naturally, a manager cannot, and should not, make any difference between a factory shop producing millions of gadgets per day and a research institute producing a few dozens of papers per year, and this conveniently levels the field and removes all pretexts that science is somehow different than industrial productivity.

The managerial frame of mind demands that the managed process has clear (and clearly measurable) aims and goals, that these goals must be reached in a rigidly allotted time frame, and that the results must be clearly predictable. This, however, is just the opposite of how scientific research works. Any scientific research that has a clearly predictable outcome is simply not worth carrying out.

The skills accumulated by scientists over the span of years or decades and the near-impossibility of reviving a scientific field of study after it has been financially neglected for a number of years are also conveniently ignored by this conceptual framework. In turn, this means that politicians can regard it as entirely feasible to restart a strangled research field at a moment's notice, just by pumping money into it, if a sudden need for it will eventually be discovered. Therefore, they regard it as essentially harmless to cut research funding at the present across a broad front of disciplines that do not seem to promise immediate cash returns. This is the general type of mind-set described by Devine (2002), which caused, among other things, the Enron crash. It is not limited to financial institutions but prominent, for instance, in the evaluations of scientific research (MacRitchie, 2010).

Even with a great leap of faith, I cannot imagine any current research in paleontology as being financially or industrially promising. In fact, the whole idea of universities, museums and public research institutions has always been to provide financing for fields of study that no industry manager in his own mind would consider funding. Applying to science, and to paleontology in particular, the criteria of profitability currently applied to industry can only lead to one decision: send home all paleontologists, board up all windows of their institutions, lock their doors and throw away the key.

In case you did not notice, the world is currently in a deep, long and worsening economic crisis, with no sign of respite and no clear way out. Recessions and economic slow-downs now follow each other head-to-tail instead of alternating with good periods of any significant length. This is extremely likely to motivate politicians to cut costs on anything they feel they can cut without risking to cause a revolution (or to make them lose the next elections, which for a politician is pretty much the same thing). Do you still wish to start a career in paleontology and, more likely than not, be rationalized away, reallocated to a more useful occupation, or pruned away as unworthy of financing? If so, either I have failed to communicate my ideas, or you were not paying attention. Re-read this page from its start.

References

The following reference is worth a careful reading:

Robbins, C., ed. (2005): Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower (Scientific Survival Skills). 2nd ed., Elsevier.

You may also look at:

Devine, M. (2002): The moral pygmies who run the big end of town. Sun-Herald, Sydney, 21 July 2002, p. 15.

Editors of McGraw-Hill (2007). Resumes for science careers. 2nd ed., McGraw-Hill.

Feibelman, P.J. (2011). A PhD is not enough! A guide to survival in science. Basic Books.

Lenning, E., Brightman, S. & Caringella, S., eds. (2010): A guide to surviving a career in Academia: Navigating the rites of passage. Routledge.

MacRitchie, F. (2011). Scientific research as a career. CRC Press. [especially chapter 5: The impact of managerialism]

Medawar, P.B. (1981). Advice to a young scientist. Harper Colophon Books.

Miller Vick, J. and Furlong, J.S. (2008): The academic job search handbook. 4th ed., University of Pennsylvania Press.

Rothwell, N. (2002): Who wants to be a scientist? Choosing science as a career. Cambridge University Press.


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