Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

So You Wanna Become a Palaeontologist, Kid?

By John Long

Some career advice for young people to get a start in palaeontology.

As a boy aged 7 years, I collected fossils from various sites around Melbourne and dreamed of one day becoming a real palaeontologist. I knuckled down to study, scrapping through the compulsory maths, physics and chemistry units in matriculation (Year 12) in order to win a place in a university Science degree.

In early 1976 I was interviewed at Melbourne University by the late Prof Owen Singleton, a palaeontologist, about my future. I told him I wanted to become a palaeontologist, and was immediately told to give up the idea. I’d never get a job. I recall very well how I was sternly advised to study geology and find work as a geologist.

After completing all the available palaeontology undergraduate courses at Melbourne University at the end of my second year, I transferred to Monash University where I was encouraged to study vertebrate palaeontology by the new lecturer, Dr Pat Vickers-Rich, who had just arrived from the USA.

I graduated from there with a PhD completed in just under 3 years and was immediately awarded a postdoctoral position at the Australian National University, followed by another at The University of Western Australia and then a third at the University of Tasmania. After that I transitioned into an on-going position as the Curator in Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Western Australian Museum. I finally managed to succeed in a profession in which, like acting in Hollywood movies, it is rather difficult to find ongoing employment to say the least.

But how hard is it nowadays for the new generation to follow a similar career path? It’s true things have changed a lot, but opportunities do exist for those capable of being highly competitive in the academic world. It’s true there are not many jobs or career permanence in Australian palaeontology. It is entirely up to the student to perform at a competitive level, and this rests firmly upon supervisors to ensure their students are given highly significant PhD projects that will make their research productive and get noticed internationally. They need be given an opportunity to make a name for themselves. This involves being able to publish both single-authored as well as collaborative papers with their supervisors and colleagues.

The future of Australian palaeontology is in good hands as long as forward-thinking universities see the opportunities. Over the past 20 years or so there has been a mass exodus of palaeontologists from geoscience to biology schools who welcome them with open arms. Why has this occurred?

Traditionally palaeontology was firmly rooted in geology departments. It was used to identify fossils to determine the ages of sedimentary rock layers and the depositional environments in which they were deposited. Solving such geological problems were of value to the exploration industries, and still are. These studies often involve microfossils or invertebrate remains.

However, the high profile studies of evolution involving the study of rates of change, or major transitions such as from fishes to tetrapods or from dinosaurs to birds, fall squarely in the realm of evolutionary biology. It is here that high-achieving palaeontologists in the past few years have been attracted to positions within Australia, coming from New Zealand, Sweden, Canada, the USA, the UK, Spain and other places. They came on DECRAs, Future fellowships or on international fellowship schemes. Monash, Macquarie, UQ, UNE, UNSW and Flinders University are now the main institutions currently supporting palaeontology as a high-profile discipline.

My advice to the budding young fossil collector who wants to be a palaeontologist? Seek out the labs whose students are getting the most postdocs after graduation. Find a suitable PhD supervisor who is willing to offer you something very special to study for your dissertation. And be prepared to be on the postdoc circuit for at least 6–10 years before getting a secure job.

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