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So, you want to be a paleontologist…

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Summary for those in a hurry:
Becoming a paleontologist who can support a family is difficult and rare. Up-and-comers end up supporting powerful professors. Outsiders and insiders with new ideas are sometimes ridiculed and/or ignored to silence debate and prevent upsetting the status quo.

Once you get your PhD in paleontology…
sure it’s a happy day of celebration, a great achievement invested with time and treasure. But then reality sets in as you realize you are not automatically a ‘made man‘ as in the gangster movie, “Goodfellas.”

You still need to get that first good paying job in paleontology,
and those are hard to come by. Black 2010 reports, “it is extremely difficult for researchers to find jobs and secure funding for their research. Prior to the beginning of the 20th century most paleontologists were self-funded enthusiasts who either used their family fortunes (O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope, for example) or sold fossils (the Sternberg family, for example) to underwrite their work. For most paleontologists most of the time, research funding comes in the form of grants.”

Through the grapevine
I hear that anywhere from 40 to 80% of grant money goes to the university or museum that provides office space for the paleontologist. (Is that correct?).

It comes as a disappointment to many PhDs
that they end up as preparators, docents, research assistants, artists and librarians, rather than highly-paid professors making decisions, doing field work in the summer and buzzing around the world doing book tours. That jarring dose of reality comes at a time when young, former students are starting from scratch, trying to buy a house, start a family, pay off loans and hoping to make a name for themselves by publishing discovery after discovery.

Evidently it is worse for female students and scientists…
Harassment and bullying were chronicled in a recent (April 14, 2021) PBS NOVA documentary you can access here.  Some notes follow:

PAULA JOHNSON, M.PH., M.D. (President, Wellesley College): “The best estimates are about 50 percent of women faculty and staff experience sexual harassment. And those numbers have not really shifted over time. If you think about science, right now, we have a system that is built on dependence, really, singular dependence of trainees—whether they are medical students, whether they are undergraduates, or if they’re graduate students—on faculty, for their funding, for their futures. And that really sets up a dynamic that is highly problematic. It really creates an environment in which harassment can occur.”

KATHRYN CLANCY, PH.D. (Biological Anthropologist): “Generally speaking, sexual forms of sexual harassment, like come-ons, unwanted sexual advances, those are actually the rarest forms of sexual harassment. They actually don’t happen very much; mostly you see putdowns.”

One woman noted, “an invitation to have a beer with someone important interested in your poster sometimes has little or nothing to do with your poster.” It is noteworthy that the dropout rate in STEM studies is higher in women, who suffer from unequal treatment according to this documentary.

Fossils are hard to come by.
If post-grads don’t find their own fossils in the field, the fossils that come in the door are going to be distributed by the professor as they please, like a mother bird feeding hungry nestlings. (BTW, I’m talking about paleontologists who like bones. Others in the petroleum industry with a Master’s Degree make better money than a PhD in dinosaur studies because they are in greater demand.)

In the typical bell-curve of success after a doctorate,
every year or so, some few do come to international attention for their discoveries and publications. Most do not. Many struggle just to keep up an association with a university, quite aware of the fact that year after year another clade of young, eager, intelligent, well-connected future paleontologists with scholarships are coming into the professors’ view with the exact same dream and goal.

When grad students and post-docs are trying to establish themselves,
they tend to maintain relationships with universities and ally themselves with groups that huddle around and support established professors. It’s the only game in town. These 20- and 30-somethings are known to professors as ‘cheap labor’ due to an over supply of young, eager and bright hopeful students.

Older, established professors decide
who of their underlings gets funding and who goes hungry. Well-known professors bring a lot of money into universities, so universities undervalue underlings based on this value system.

New hypotheses that upset those in textbooks are not welcome.
If those ideas come from outside the tribe, someone is sent out to dismiss and dismantle that radical. Discoveries and hypotheses are welcome only if the professor is made a co-author and it doesn’t depart from the paradigm (i.e.  supporting invalid clades like ‘Ornithodira‘, ‘Avemetatarsalia’, ‘Afrotheria‘, ‘Laurasiatheria’ and ‘Cetacea‘).

Peer review was not always part of the publication process,
but it is now. Dinerstein 2017 wrote, “The controversies that have plagued peer review from its earliest days, censorship, conflict of interest, the tension between early reporting and veracity, the need to fill space, the desire for prestige and income remain with us today. They may have assumed different forms, but at their core are flaws in a system designed by flawed humans. It may not be the best system, but it is the one we use.”

According to Kampourakis et al. 2015,
“The peer review process can be one of the most subjective endeavors in the scholarly world. It should not be, and it does not have to be subjective, but it can be. Each reviewer has his/her own conceptualizations, views, experiences, and biases, which can collectively impact the stance taken toward a manuscript.”

Established authors,
who are often established professors, who are well-known to established editors, have an advantage over independent researchers. Reviewers (= referees) are typically other professors hoping to get their work favorably reviewed when their time comes. If papers support the general narrative found in textbooks, they are more likely to be published. Departures that show textbooks are in error are at a disadvantage. No one wants to weaken the power of established professors, least of all other professors who understand how to play the game.

More on manuscripts from Kampourakis et al.
“Most manuscripts are not appropriate for publication when we initially receive them. They always have limitations, which authors themselves are unable to identify—we know this from our own publication experiences. Therefore, if the editors only relied on reviewers for a decision, this would most likely be a “reject” one in the first place. Reviewers are always experts in their domains, and when their review is constructive, it provides crucial feedback to authors.”

Actually reviewers/ professors are not experts in their domain if they are teaching untenable traditions as facts. You wouldn’t think that happens, but it does.

Actually reviewers/ professors can not be experts if the subject of the manuscript is a discovery, something new, something not seen or understood before by anyone.

The issue is: will reviewers and editors recognize ‘the new order’ or will they defend ‘the old order’, the one they teach, the one that creates their monthly paycheck coming from lectures and textbooks.

Discoveries should be a cause for celebration,
if followed by confirmation after testing using methods and materials.

discoveries by outsiders encourage young PhDs (e.g Naish, Cau, Witton) to start name-calling (e.g. ‘pseudoscientist‘, ‘crank)‘. Be aware that this sort of behavior has a long history in humankind, going back at least as far as the Romans, who called non-citizens ‘barbarians’. So, if you make a discovery don’t hold your breath waiting for accolades and citations (see John Ostrom link below).

Name-calling by teachers/ professors/ colleagues is inappropriate.
Better to help colleagues with suggestions or data if genuine errors are found.

Errors are everywhere.
I just spent the weekend correcting errors in the LRT. Finding new insightful data is its own reward.

The LRT is online day and night, world-wide,
available to anyone looking for taxon list suggestions and citations. In like manner, is a source for data. It would be great if someone else were to create a parallel study to confirm, refute and compare discoveries found here. In the last ten years, no one has yet ventured forth to do this, or threatened to do this. That may be because they are stuck in the present academic world and all of its restrictions.

You should do science
because you love science.

There are only so many discoveries to be made, and fewer every year.
No PhD wants to simply confirm what someone else has already discovered. That’s not why they spent their time and treasure getting their PhDs. They want their own discoveries. When someone else makes a discovery, that’s one less out there waiting to be discovered. That’s the sort of frustration that has led to name-calling when it should have led to unemotional scientific confirmation or refutation following scientific methods and materials.

And speaking of vague insults,
the latest I’ve heard is “Your methods are flawed.” Really? No more specific instruction? No actual testing of the methods? I keep hearing, “your character list needs to be expanded.” Daily testing shows this is a myth. Experts are not always correct, as you will sooner or later find out for yourself.

Once you’ve shown and labeled
all your taxonomic data, let the software recover a cladogram in which all sister taxa actually look alike. This simple method has led to several satisfying discoveries, like ancestors for pterosaurs, snakes, whales, and turtles back to Ediacaran worms.  Make all  your .nex files available to strangers. Have the balls to tell PhDs that genetic analyses deliver false positives in deep time studies, if that’s what your studies reveal.

Your methods are flawed” comes off as a vague and baseless claim coming from an immature and insecure worker who has turned to projecting their own faults on others. Pressed for details, something real scientists are usually eager to fill an hour with, disgruntled post-grads usually retreat to social media. Funny that the ones who say, “your methods are flawed” do not repeat the same insult to their fellow PhDs when they make the same discoveries years later.

By design, the manuscript review process
usually takes months. It might take years. This is also a professional ‘brake’ on new ideas that keep the established professors behind their lecterns for as long as possible. Why would a professor return a favorable review on a paper that upsets his own hypotheses, lectures and textbooks? Professors rely on lectures and books for their salaries, royalties and status. Any manuscript that upsets the status quo is going to sit at the bottom of their growing IN pile for as long as possible, then begrudgingly returned with a ‘NO’. Cogent reasons are not required by editors.

In an ideal world
arguments should be published immediately, while the subject is still fresh in the public’s mind and before inaccurate myths get out there and spread into the world of general knowledge. Colleagues should treat each other more like co-pilots rather than saints vs. sinners.

Even if you become a tenured professor,
you are not always free to do what you want to do. “One way of getting rid of tenured professor, that’s known, is you ask the person to report on their research and you load them up with teaching and you give them a lousy office. And then eventually they’ll just quit.” Eric Weinstein on Joe Rogan #1626 3:15
Even tenured professors are steered.

The red pill and blue pill.
This is a common meme from a scene in the 1999 film The Matrix. It refers to a choice between the willingness to learn a potentially unsettling or life-changing truth, by taking the red pill, or remaining in contented ignorance with the blue pill. Over the last ten years of building the LRT I’ve come to realize when a PhD has taken the blue pill. Keep working and soon you will, too.

That’s why this blogpost exists.
Blogposts sponsored by major publications like Scientific American, are less about science and more about journalism, reporting the untested results of published papers.

Textbooks are too often used as unchangeable bibles,
instead of jumping off points for the next set of discoveries.

American physicist, Richard Feynman once said,
“As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

it has taken an outsider, someone not beholding to one professor or to the rest of the professors, to clean house. Yale paleontologist John Ostrom was an insider with an outsider idea and even he had a frustrating story to tell about how long his ideas took to come to consensus.

The video above
at 33:40 discusses the tiny (5%) number of those who train for jobs in academia actually get jobs in academia. It also discusses the large percentage (50%) of grant money that goes directly to the university. Under this system the university hires students, often foreign students, to do the teaching for low wages leaving the successful grant writers to keep writing expensive grant applications.
reports readership for my papers and manuscripts on their site has surpassed 5000 with some papers exceeding 600 reads. That’s good to hear. Just getting the information out is why anyone writes a manuscript. Nowadays everything is downloaded. If you’re not a card-carrying student or faculty member at many universities, you’re not going to be allowed in their libraries to browse the increasingly old-fashioned book shelves.

Finally, it’s up to others to approve or dismiss,
and that’s out of our control no matter if we publish fact or fancy, online or in the literature. Good luck in your career. Don’t let anything restrict your studies.

Black R 2010.
Dinerstein C 2017. The surprising history of peer review. American Council of Science and Health. online here.
Kampourakis K et al. (3 co-authors) 2015. Peer review and Darwinian selection. Science & Education 24:1055–1057.


For more PhD shenanigans, click on these links:
Padian 1 –  Padian 2 
Hone and Benton  –
Benton 1
Ezcurra 1
Cau 1


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