Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Getting a Palaeontology Job in Australia

By John Long

Australia’s funding system disadvantages students attempting to turn their palaeontology studies into a career.

In September 2015 this column looked at how school students interested in fossils can get into a degree and formally study palaeontology. But how does one get a real job and secure a career in the fossil business?

It’s certainly not easy, but neither is it impossible. Each year we see a good number of students apply to study palaeontology at universities around Australia. This year Flinders University is offering its first major in vertebrate palaeontology, the branch that offers sexy research topics on fish, mammals, dinosaurs and other backboned critters. This begs the question: how does a student get that first foot onto the career elevator?

The first step is getting a postdoctoral position. The Distinguished Early Career Researcher Awards (DECRA) given out by the Australian Research Council (ARC) are very hard to win. In the most recent round only 17% of applicants were successful. Usually only researchers applying in their fourth or fifth years after their postgraduate degree win them, simply because they need a few years as an active researcher to rack up the necessary publications to be competitive. That’s the catch.

The only other way is for the student to excel at their research and get offered a postdoc by their supervisor. They need to publish some highly significant papers. To do this the student must be given a really good research project that ensures that high quality outcomes are possible.

If their supervisor is successful with their own ARC grants they can build in a postdoctoral salary for the student to begin their career, perhaps providing the 3-year start necessary to publish and be competitive to win a DECRA. However, most of the ARC Discovery Grants are cut by around 40%, so the ability to find funds to support a 3-year postdoc is now getting increasingly harder.

Another factor makes it very difficult for our own home-grown palaeontology postgraduates to compete in this market. Our students are currently given 3 years funding, with a possible 6-month extension, to complete their PhD. Compare this to some students from overseas who have completed a Masters degree and then do a 5–6 year PhD. They naturally have more publications notched up after spending 8 or more years as a postgraduate. They therefore have a much more competitive track record than most Australian students with just 3–4 years research experience.

The DECRA system is open to students from around the world to compete, as long as a university here is willing to support them. The DECRA should be a level playing field, but in reality it simply isn’t, and our students are the ones who lose out.

A young palaeontology postdoc has few career options. There are jobs in a museum (e.g. curator, collection manager) or as a university lecturer. Both of these careers are not full-time research positions as they involve a block of time spent either teaching or doing exhibition and public relations work. Palaeontologists can also include administration in their career path and end up doing high-level management as a senior museum executive or university administrator.

The trade-off at this level is that one’s time for research diminishes as one goes higher up the administrative ladder. Currently the CEO of the one of largest natural history museums in the USA, The Smithsonian, is Dr Kirk Johnson, a palaeontologist. He’s in a dream job, but he had to work very hard to get there.

To succeed in palaeontology one must work very hard, and be just a bit lucky that a position arises at the right time and place. Good luck with it all.

John Long is Strategic Professor in Palaeontology at Flinders University, and current President of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.