The central irony of life in academia

November 10, 2015

tornado debris

Hey, look, there goes my future!

One thing that always bemuses me is the near-absolute serendipity of the academic job market. To get into research careers takes at least a decade of very deliberate, directed work, and then at the end you basically toss your diploma into a whirlwind and see where it lands. After all of that careful planning, almost all of us end up where we do based on the random (to us) set of jobs available in the narrow window in which we’re searching.

Did you dream of being curator at Museum X, or professor at University Y? Well, tough, those jobs went to Dr. Graduated-Two-Years-Sooner and Lucky Nature Paper, PhD, and they’re not retiring for three or four decades. Or maybe your dream job comes open right after you, your spouse, and your kids get settled in at your new acceptable-but-not-quite-dream job. Uproot or stay the course? Or what would be your dream job finally comes open but they’re looking for new junior faculty and you just got tenure at Tolerable State U.

This drastic mismatch between carefulness of preparation and randomness of outcome was present even pre-2008. The craptastic academic job market since then has only whetted the central irony’s keen edge. Getting grants and getting jobs is now basically a lottery. I’m not saying that good jobs don’t go to good people – they almost always do – but there are a lot of good people in jobs they never imagined having. And, sadly, plenty of good people who are now working outside of the field they prepared for because of the vicissitudes of the job market. A handful of years sooner or later and they might be sitting pretty.

This is on my mind because I recently had lunch with a physician friend from work and he was talking about applying for jobs as a doctor. “The first thing everyone tells you,” he said, “is decide what part of the country you want to live in first, then apply for the jobs that are there.” Doctors can do that because there are more than 800,000 of them active in the US. Paleontologists are mighty rarified by comparison – it’s hard to say how many of us there are, but probably not more than 2000 active in vert paleo. So the usual advice for budding biologists and paleontologists is exactly opposite that for physicians: “Forget about living where you want. Go wherever the job is and make the best of it.”

Oddly enough, I don’t remember this ever coming up in grad school. It’s something Vicki and I figured out at the end, as we started the process of applying for positions. There are alternate universes where we are at Marshall (they offered us both jobs, but not as attractive as UC Merced at the time), or at Northern Arizona (which is bittersweet because we have totally fallen in love with Flagstaff just in the past three years), or other places. If I were choosing a job site based on everything other than the institution, I’d spring for somewhere in Arizona or the intermountain west in a heartbeat.

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But with all that said, we are happy here. It’s funny, when we got the job offers down here I thought, “LA? Crap, there goes the outdoor part of my life.” But Claremont has lots of parks, it’s tucked up against the San Gabriels and I can get into the mountains in 30 minutes, or out to the desert in 90. I’m spending more time outdoors than I have since I was a kid growing up in rural Oklahoma.

So I’m not complaining about my personal situation. Vicki and I both landed on our feet – and the fact that we both managed to stick the landing at the same institution is little short of miraculous. But we still had to step into the job market hurricane to get here.

If you’re a grad student and you’re reading this, I didn’t write it to freak you out. Just to let you know that it’s coming, and there are things you can do to improve your chances. Be aggressively curious. Write. Publish. Give good talks (and give lots of talks so you can become good at it). Broaden your skill set – if you’re going into paleo, knowing how to teach human anatomy probably doubles or triples the number of available jobs at any one time, even if many of them are not the jobs you’ve been dreaming of.

Then, at the end, pour yourself one stiff drink and cast your fortune to the winds.

Good luck.

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25 Responses to “The central irony of life in academia”

  1. Ken Carpenter Says:

    The irony is the growth in the number of students in vert paleo (seen as attendees at SVP meetings) is due to the Jurassic World movies, as well as the dino documentaries showing people in the field making discoveries or researching specimens. There is a certain glamour and romance in the way things are presented, so no wonder students are drawn to it.

    Frankly, students do need to be discouraged from getting into the field. There are only so many jobs and retirement at the other end is not so high as to open up many positions. For decades now I have been telling students that unless paleo is a burning passion in you (as it was for me since I was 5), then find some other field to get a job in. Do paleo as a serious hobby and publish, like Jack McIntosh (physicist who became the world’s expert on sauropods), or Karl Hirsch (a machinist who pioneered the study of dinosaur eggs), etc. These are not exceptions in the field of science: Einstein was a patent clerk when he published on Relativity (think “advanced mathematics” as a hobby). In the end, you are going to leave your permanent mark on paleo by what you publish, not by your blogs or tweets, or any ephemeral social media posting.

  2. Andy Farke Says:

    I don’t know if I would go so far as to say students must be discouraged, but I do think they need to be given an absolutely realistic picture of the state of the field and the kinds of jobs open to them. I suppose that’s probably some form of discouragement! If paleontology (and academia in general) have fallen down in one thing, it’s a general reluctance to admit and promote the various ways in which one can be a paleontologist in a “non-traditional” route, _and_ find immense satisfaction. So, I guess we are mostly in agreement there!

    The other thing I’ve been wrestling with lately is to what extent our senior colleagues who train graduate students must shoulder responsibility–is it laudable to train students for jobs that don’t exist (or at the least, strongly imply to students that they’re only worthwhile as human beings if they get jobs that don’t exist)? At every award ceremony for senior paleontologists I’ve been to, there has been some mention of the scores of students they trained, and I’ve increasingly grown uncomfortable with the unquestioning portrayal of that as a definite Good. This is to some extent out of our colleagues hands–they have mandates from administrators, after all, and need to keep their program afloat–but at the least it’s something for our field to think about. It’s not just the fault of the starry-eyed students.

    I will disagree on the issue of what makes a permanent mark on paleontology. Yes, publications are scientific currency (and specimens probably even more so), but I do think that “popular communications” (whether in newspapers, TV, blogs, or whatever) have an impact, just in a different way. Paleontology as a field is not just a scientific pursuit, but a community of people. Discussions and action for many of the things that shape our field–ethics, the purpose of a museum, laws and regulations, modes of publication, etc.–are happening outside of journals. These discussions may not always be discrete and citeable units, but I think that they do have an impact on the direction of the field.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    If students do need to be discouraged into the field why do so many academics practice what is essentially r-selection, cultivating huge numbers of students as extra hands despite knowing that the vast majority of them will fall by the wayside.

    Another thing that should be mentioned is that if you don’t have an active job doing paleo, it is much harder to actually get involved in the field and harder for people to take you seriously. Jack McIntosh is a good exception, and there are other non-academics that have done good work in the field, but its a very uphill road and oftentimes others will not take your research seriously because you do not have a university or curator position unless you have name recognition. At the same time if you are working another job and your dream job in paleo does come up, it can be difficult to get it because a PhD is required for even the most mential grunt jobs (unless you get lucky), and often the institution in question has a specific person in mind when they post the job, and the actual job opening is just a formality.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    “If paleontology (and academia in general) have fallen down in one thing, it’s a general reluctance to admit and promote the various ways in which one can be a paleontologist in a “non-traditional” route, _and_ find immense satisfaction”

    This. You hit the nail on the head on how academic paleontologists seem to not take non-academic (read:non-traditional) paleontologists seriously. I have seen researchers go so far as to say anyone who is not in a tenure-track faculty position or a curator is not a “real” paleontologist, which I find funny given all the great work I’ve seen by this blogs own Darren Naish and Mike Taylor (which would certainly fall outside that category by their definition).

    I also worry about “discouragement” as opposed to “setting out the bleak reality”. There is a thin line between the two, of which the latter comes off as somewhat elitist. Even if there may not be enough jobs for everyone in paleo, perhaps having people leave the field bitter and angry AT the field as opposed to resigned is not a good thing.

  5. altondooley Says:

    When I was visiting potential graduate schools back in the day, I had a potential advisor tell me “Almost all of my former students are employed, but very few of them are being paid to do paleontology. The paleontology job market is very steady, at just above zero. If you’re going to study paleontology you need to be aware of that.”

    I’ve taken that to heart, and try to get across to students that you can do good work in paleontology while teaching in a high school, community college, or medical school, or even while doing a job that’s completely unrelated to natural sciences. Moreover, many of the skills you learn in paleontology are transferrable to other jobs; being able to make good observations, draw conclusions based on disparate data sources, and communicate effectively are useful in most fields.

  6. Donald Prothero Says:

    This problem goes back to long before “Jurassic Park” and other media made dinosaurs so popular in the public eye, and paleontology seem glamorous. The field was glutted with Ph.D.s even when I went through in the 1970s, and the attrition rate was almost as high as it is now–only 25% or less got good jobs. The only time this was not so was back in the early 1960s when academia was expanding due to the Baby Boomers going through. As a late Boomer myself, I got caught in the wave of academic contraction in VP jobs in the late 1970s-early 1980s, and the number of positions has shrunk even more–all while the pool of eager young grad students keeps growing.
    As my former students can tell you, I always give them “The Talk” when they first show signs of serious interest in paleo, and make sure they know the horrible job market ahead of them, and what they must do to have a realistic chance of success. I am appalled when I learn how many grad students show up at the SVP meeting and NO ONE has told them about reality. This is the sad state of our profession now–many faculty in academia think they need to have lots of students (even if the grant dollars for VP are nearly non-existent), and they take on students they know won’t get jobs. Or I look at all those places with huge numbers of students in VP classes who aren’t even encouraged to go to SVP each year and present each year of their grad career. Those students are just being suckered into a lifetime of disappointment. But that’s the nature of the game these days….

  7. Allen Hazen Says:

    I think I may be in the same general age bracket as Donald Prothero, and his comments seem to me to apply to many academic fields other than palaeontology. When I started graduate school in philosophy, in 1969, the academic job market was booming (baby boomers were coming of age and post-secondary education was expanding), and my older fellow-students regularly talked about their “geographical preferences” for jobs. A couple of years later the word went out: the department’s placement officer didn’t want to hear the words “geographical preference”: they were a waste of time. By the time I was on the job market in the mid-to-late 1970s, my father — an English professor who had done his Ph.D. in the 1930s — said that it was his impression that the academic job market was worse than it had been when he had started out, during the depression! I managed a decent academic career (mostly teaching outside my native country), but I have felt, at times, that it was ethically dubious to encourage my best students to apply to graduate school, the career outlook was so depressing.
    (D.P. I had your Indricothere book out of the library of my current university, and enjoyed it. Library books don’t get to keep their dust jackets, which is a pity since the jacket picture isn’t reproduced inside the book– I printed off a copy from the I.U.P. website and put it inside the book so the next reader could see the jacket image!)

  8. Thomas Holtz Says:

    Anonymous asks “If students do need to be discouraged into the field why do so many academics practice what is essentially r-selection, cultivating huge numbers of students as extra hands despite knowing that the vast majority of them will fall by the wayside?”

    There is an aspect of this not being addressed: the advisor’s jobs (especially if they are tenure-track but not yet tenured) in part hinges on their ability to attract, retain, and graduate students. So there is a positive benefit to the advisor trying to keep their job which may be simultaneously detrimental to the needs of their students.

    It is a shame that the obvious ecological/economic analogies (more individuals produced than the environment can support/supply greatly exceeding need) don’t occur to more people.

    There are many times I regret the fact that my appointment is as an undergraduate instructor without a graduate program. But this is one aspect of it I don’t actually miss.

  9. StupendousMan Says:

    (apologies if this is repeated)

    I work in a science program (physics and astronomy) at a large university in the US. As far as I can tell, the situation goes like this: there are two forces pushing the number of graduate students to increase at my institution:

    1) faculty members need grad students to do research for them, so that they can earn credit toward tenure via winning grants to pay those students

    2) the university counts the number of grad students in a program, and threatens to close programs with very few students

    There are no forces acting to decrease the number of grad students.

    Hence, professors continue to create more new Ph.D.s than are required to replace themselves.

    I don’t see the situation changing much in the near future. In fact, I think it likely that more programs in a wide variety of fields will fall into the same unfortunate situation. Grad school is becoming this century’s equivalent of college, just as college is becoming this century’s equivalent of high school.

    Now get off my lawn!

  10. Cerastes Says:

    I recall a comment I heard once concerning this same issue in the biomed field, which struck me as particularly insightful (though sadly I’ve lost the link). Essentially, it said that it’s very hard to predict future scientific successs at early career stages, and by moving the career stage at which the greatest selection happens earlier, we run a strong risk of losing “diamonds in the rough” who may have great potential but, for whatever reason, don’t yet have a CV that shows it.

    It would also possibly have a detrimental effect on diversity, since the kids with socioeconomic privileges will be more likely to have a good CV early and make the new, more restrictive grad school cutoff. What chance does the poor kid from a shittty high school in a tiny town with no museum who had to work through college have to really show their potential?

    I’m not saying these are reasons to not fix the problem, or even that I necessarily agree, but they do merit at least some consideration when proposing solutions.


  11. Matt, I’ve forwarded this to the graduate students here at SDSMT. Very nice summary of what we’ve all experienced! Thanks!


  12. There are only too many grad students if we accept as true the premise that the number of professional positions cannot grow. I do not know that this is true, and I find it very interesting indeed that this rarely seems to come up in conversations like this.


  13. Jack McIntosh told this tale many times so I don’t think he’d mind me repeating it here. When he was an undergraduate at Yale he had two passions; physics and sauropods. He met with Richard Lull, the famous vertebrate paleontologist at that institution, and talked to him about his dilemma. Lull told him there was no future in paleontology so Jack applied to physics graduate schools. The rest is history.

    Both McIntosh and Hirsch were exceptions at having other careers and being successful paleontologists. Einstein wasn’t a patent office staffer who came up with relativity, he was a fully trained physicist who had to take a job in a patent office. He quickly left the patent office once physics positions became available. Realistically, doing paleontology as a “serious hobby” has even less potential for making real science contributions than getting a PhD.

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    Victoria writes: “There are only too many grad students if we accept as true the premise that the number of professional positions cannot grow.”

    Well, the question is how fast the pool can grow. At a steady state, each professional will train exactly one person to enter the field. I think we can all agree that more than one ought to be possible, but is more than two possible? Can we legitimately expect the field to double in size every generation? How long is that sustainable for?

    In reality, of course, lots of professionals take on one or more new Ph.D students per year, so they’re on course to train 40 or 50 people across their career. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the field of vertebrate palaeontology is not going to keep growing by a factor of 40 every 15 years: if it did, then it would grow from the present ~2000 practitioners to the entire population of the world in about 50 years.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    @Andy and Victoria

    I’ve heard these sentiment from a few other people as well, but it seems like the fact that it is possible to have a “non-traditional” career in paleontology is almost a taboo subject for many people. It almost feels like the general reluctance from the community is not because they do not think they are viable ways to make a career in paleontology, but because they just don’t want the pool grow; they don’t want more competitors for research materials and grants.

    Mike writes: “Well, the question is how fast the pool can grow. At a steady state, each professional will train exactly one person to enter the field. I think we can all agree that more than one ought to be possible, but is more than two possible? Can we legitimately expect the field to double in size every generation? How long is that sustainable for?

    In reality, of course, lots of professionals take on one or more new Ph.D students per year, so they’re on course to train 40 or 50 people across their career. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the field of vertebrate palaeontology is not going to keep growing by a factor of 40 every 15 years: if it did, then it would grow from the present ~2000 practitioners to the entire population of the world in about 50 years.”

    I would say the current rate of replacement is even less than one, probably closer to 0.75 than anything. People are living longer, working longer, and paleontology has always been one of those jobs where the only way a position opens is to pry the seat out of the previous occupant’s cold, dead hands. To reappropriate the late Terry Pratchett’s saying on wizards, “when a paleontologist is sick of doing paleontology, he’s sick of life”.

    To get back to what Andy said several comments above, perhaps what we need is a better metric to determine the number of researchers actually remaining in the field to “academic stillbirths”, something akin to “number of surviving adult offspring” in ecology.


  16. But does the field need to double in size every generation, or maybe just once? I don’t know the answer to that, but it seems like if there is an increase in the number of people interested in contributing to our field, maybe we should try to increase the number of jobs available. Presumably all of us with jobs think it’s a profession worth doing, so why not make the party bigger? Surely the more, the merrier?

    I know it’s not exactly like we can just snap our fingers and poof jobs into existence, but I feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea that if I manage to stick the landing on one of these job interviews, that I’ll just kick the ladder down behind me. Maybe we need to work harder at lobbying our universities to expand the number of professional scientific appointments – less middle management, more professors, researchers, and technicians. Nobody else is going to push for that except us, and I’d rather see dissatisfaction directed in that direction rather than at the non-problem of having too many smart and enthusiastic people wanting to join palaeontology.

  17. Brad Says:

    I seriously wonder if the whole concept of having a job will become obsolete within my lifetime. If we get to the point where we can automate everything and nobody has to work to survive, everyone can devote their life to palaeontology if they choose. Too sci-fi?

    I agree that right now, deciding to be a palaeontologist is like deciding to be professional lottery player. Even getting *into* a PhD program depends on winning a lottery, in that the universities near me require new PhD students to bring their own funding, which is only allowed to come from an official funding lottery (I understand that this may not be the situation globally, but unfortunately I’m not able to move right now). Does the advice “Don’t go into palaeontology” apply to people who already have a master’s degree in the subject? What else does that education qualify me to do? I have no idea if I can still cut my losses now and find a job doing something else (please tell me if you have any idea what that might be!), or if my master’s degree makes me qualified *only* to pursue a PhD in palaeontology as the next step.

  18. Mike Taylor Says:

    Victoria asks: “But does the field need to double in size every generation, or maybe just once?”

    That is going to be a worrying question for the kids just developing an interest in palaeontology. From their perspective, it’s going to sound very much like us pulling the ladder up after ourselves. “The field needs to expand now so we can all have job; but once we’re all settled, the field will be exactly the right size and won’t need to expand any more.”

    Now I know that’s now what you’re saying; but it’s how people will hear it.

    Ultimately, jobs markets do not expand to fulfil the demand for employment; employability grows and contracts as the job market dictates. We can’t just create jobs in popular fields so that everyone who wants to work in that field can do so. (I wish we could!)

    So I agree with the sentiment behind everything you say, but I think the practicalities are just not going to fall the way we’d like them to. 90% of palaeontology Ph.Ds are goingto be awarded to people who then immediately leave the field to get jobs elsewhere.


  19. I think that’s a bit of a willful misreading of my point re: how many times does the field need to double – you made the point that eventually the doubling would encompass the entire population of the earth, and I’m making the point that maybe it doesn’t need to go that far..

    I guess I also just wonder if job markets must only expand to fulfill the demand for employment. This is another one of those things we just take as a given, and yet the job market seems to me to fulfill the whims of whatever couple of very rich people happen to be at the top at any given time. It’s already arbitrary, so why not work on making it the way we want? And there are already systems in place for expanding the number of PhD positions – you can work to get cluster hires at a university, you can lobby your department to get a palaeontology-oriented position if you don’t already have one, you can work to build a new museum and ensure the funding is properly directed towards research positions. There are ways to make space for our colleagues, and I think the field would be better for it.

  20. Mike Taylor Says:

    All of this is true, Victoria, and might successfully increase the number of palaeo positions by, say, 10% across 15 years. But the rate we’re training students is enough to fuel a growth of at least 1000% per academic generation (i.e. per 15 years or so). So I think the idea that we could ever reach a point where there’s a job in palaeo for everyone who wants one is wildly optimistic. (I hope I’m wrong!)


  21. You’re not wrong! …I also just think that wild optimism is the only way forward for solving problems like this.

  22. Anonymous Says:

    @Mike and Victoria

    I agree that trying to set things up so everyone who wants a job in paleontology can get one is probably wildly unrealistic, but at the same time just shrugging and saying that is nothing just means that the problem will continue unabated. While it may be impossible to eliminate the issue completely, it may be possible to at least reduce the severity of the issue such that its not as much of an uphill battle.

    To bring up something that has been discussed extensively on this blog, compare this problem to the current issues with paywalling versus open access. We’re not in a perfect world where every paleontology paper is being published in freely accessible journal, but if no one had decided to do anything we’d still be in a situation where every bit of paleontological research was still going through paywalled journals. PLoS ONE and PeerJ might still exist, but far fewer paleontologists would be aware of them as potential venues for their research.

    Another issue is that it is generally assumed that the surviving post-grads in paleontology represent the “cream of the crop”, when that is not always the case. Someone who did great graduate work but did their thesis on Permian therapsids or Eocene mammals is going to be much less likely to get a job than someone who may not have done as good of work but happened to do their research on a theropod.


  23. >many faculty in academia think they need to have lots of students

    At my university it is a metric by which an academic is measured and needs to attain minimum numbers!

  24. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, Victoria, I do agree that the only way to take on a massive problem is with wild optimism. You remind me of my favourite George Bernard Shaw quotes: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

    And I also agree with Anonymous (and with William Lonsdale Watkinson) that it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Yes, when there is an opportunity for a small move in the right direction we unhesitatingly should take it.

    But I’m still not sure what all that means for the present culture of each palaeontologist generating ten to a hundred possible replacements for himself across his career.

  25. Anonymous lecturer Says:

    A few comments relevant to the above discussion from a current UK academic. These comments are not necessarily relevant to the situation anywhere apart from the UK:

    – At least in the UK, many students will make an active choice at the end of their PhDs not to pursue palaeontology/academia. I can think of contemporaries of mine who became teachers, lawyers, journalists, scientific communicators and civil servants. In the UK, PhDs are short, so you are still readily able to switch careers at the end should you decide academia is not for you.

    – The new doctoral training programmes that the UK research councils have forced universities to create in recent years have the idea of transferable skills at their core – they are based on the assumption that the majority of students will *not* go into academia at the end of their PhDs, and so aim to provide skills and training that will be useful outside academia.

    – Even among those students that go on to stay in palaeontology, many will make their careers in museum, rather than university, settings. University jobs are not the only ones!

    – Although a few labs/researchers average a new PhD student every year, there are many others who only rarely take on students. I can think of quite a few academics that have no current PhD students. I graduated through a research group that averaged a PhD student a year: most of us who stayed in academia are now in permanent positions.

    – The job market for palaeontologists is tough. But palaeontologists in the UK have also been very successful in recent years. We are currently seeing palaeontology expand into departments and institutions that have no history of the subject, and expand in other institutions at the expense of more applied subjects. Palaeontology, and vertebrate palaeontology in particular, is doing exceptionally well relative to many other areas of the Earth Sciences.

    – As noted by other people above, universities expect academics to actively recruit PhD students. It is not optional. At some institutions there are formal or informal targets for the number of PhD students each faculty member should have, and recruitment and successful completion of PhD students may well form part of academic probation, and will certainly be considered for promotion applications.

    – The flipside of that is that most academics *love* working with highly intelligent, talented young PhD students, who challenge our ideas and take research in exciting new directions that we might not have considered or don’t have time to explore ourselves due to ever mounting academic teaching and admin loads.

    – Finally, let’s not forget that there are *many* areas of human endeavour where it is highly challenging to build a career and there are more people trained than there are jobs. People involved in academia get caught up in the idea that it is uniquely difficult – few job opportunities, poorly paid, requires frequent relocation etc. But this is also true of many of the other careers that people find exciting and desirable.

    In sum, the job market for palaeontologists is definitely very tough, and students should be informed of that before they enter PhDs, and as well-trained as possible so they have the best possible chance of success should they wish to pursue an academic career. But it is not as difficult as several comments here suggest, and we should certainly not be active discouraging students from doing PhDs. That way lies the end of palaeontology as a serious research field.


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