Last November, the 73rd annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) was held here in Los Angeles. SVP is my professional society, since my primary training and research is fossil vertebrates (especially fossil mammals like rhinos, peccaries, camels, horses, and others). My first SVP was the 1977 meeting, the last time it was held here in Los Angeles, when I was just a beginning graduate student. Since then, I’ve been to every meeting of SVP, a streak of 36 years in a row. It’s my lifeline, and I wouldn’t consider missing it for anything. Once a year I get to see all my closest professional friends and colleagues, people I spent months in the field with, former officemates from grad school, and find out the latest news about people I’ve known for 30 years or more. I also present my own research (I always do at least one presentation, and sometimes my name is on several more by my students), and I usually get to see my former students as they grow and thrive in their own careers. For five years (1999-2004), I was the Program Chair, running the entire meeting and producing (editing, typesetting, etc.) the abstract volume with over 600 individual abstracts. At that point, I couldn’t miss the meeting for anything, including my brother’s wedding (I told him in advance NOT to schedule it to conflict with SVP). Most importantly, I go each year to get some positive feedback and affirmation that my 40 years of research and scholarship is valued and means something to people who appreciate it. This is essential when you spend the other 51 weeks of the year in a hostile department where they don’t appreciate you and try to tear you down at every opportunity.
Over the 36 years between the two Los Angeles SVP meetings, I’ve seen enormous changes in our profession. When the SVP was first founded in 1940, it consisted of at most a dozen men and two women, and their meeting was small enough that they could all get together in Al Romer’s office at Harvard (their first venue) and take turns chatting about their latest projects. When I first started in 1977, the meeting was still small, as was the profession. The total attendance was less than 200, nearly all old white male professionals with jobs in museums or top universities, plus a few graduate students. Although jobs were scarce, only a few institutions were training Ph.D.s in VP, so the job market wasn’t severely glutted. The meeting barely lasted 3 days, with nearly everyone attending giving an informal presentation, many without slides. There was only one session, so most of us sat through nearly every talk to learn what was going on with fossil fish or fossil amphibians as well as within our own specialities. There were at most half a dozen dinosaur paleontologists in the entire profession, and their talks were a tiny part of the overall program. The meeting had a short one-page program listing the order of speakers, but there were no abstracts or bound volume containing them published by the society. Best of all, the profession was so tiny that after attending a few SVP meetings, I knew nearly everyone in the field, and they knew me.
Over the years, both the meeting and the SVP have grown dramatically. Last year’s meeting in Los Angeles topped 1400 participants, near the previous records set by meetings in Austin, Texas, and Las Vegas, Nevada. SVP’s total membership is over 2300, a dramatic increase over just a few decades. The meeting is now a huge four-day extravaganza, with three and sometimes four concurrent sessions running in different rooms (often blocks apart, so you can’t jump from one to the other), and almost 700 abstracts presented (both platform talks and posters), and a thick abstract volume both on line and printed on demand. When I was Program Chair for five years (the longest term anyone has held this impossible job), I had to review and screen them all, then program them into a sequence that would minimize the conflicts between talks in concurrent sessions that might appeal to the same audience. The nature of the program has changed as well: now the biggest of the three main rooms is a dedicated full-time dinosaur session, running with non-stop dinosaur talks from beginning to end of the meeting (mostly to appeal to the amateurs at the meeting, who care only about dinosaurs). Another meeting room is nearly always mammal-oriented talks, and the poor fish, amphibians, and non-dinosaurian reptiles get the remaining scraps of program time.
The meetings 30 or more years ago might have had an opening reception in the host museum on the first night, and a banquet on the last night. Now the meeting has non-stop social events each evening. There is not only a huge reception opening night at the museum, and a big banquet the last night when awards are given, but also a huge auction of VP-related paraphernalia (fossil casts, publications, art, knick-knacks) to raise money for the SVP and for students, another night devoted to a big reception for the students only, plus meetings of many smaller interest groups (Women in VP, LGBT in VP, Preparators’ Sessions, Blogger Groups, Government Employees in VP, and many, many more). The auction is a very lively event, with the entire auction committee creating costumes in a similar theme: Star Wars, Superheroes, Indiana Jones, and many others; this year, they were all characters from Hollywood horror movies. First there’s a silent auction, then the live auction begins once everyone is suitably drunk, and many are bidding way too much for something they could easily get much more cheaply elsewhere. (All items are donated, and all proceeds go to the SVP student fellowships). In recent years, they’ve added a huge after-party late into the final evening after the banquet is over, where the younger members dance the night away until 3 or 4 a.m.
A lot of this huge expansion of the SVP meeting has come through the growth in amateur attendance, since SVP is one of the few professional societies that encourages amateurs to join us. Almost half of the 1400 attendees are amateurs, who just want to see talks about dinosaurs, and rub shoulders with famous dinosaur paleontologists. Fewer than 200-300 of the 1400 attendees are VPs with jobs at museums or major universities. But the largest component of the attendance is the students.
All this youthful vitality and enthusiasm is wonderful, and I’m glad to see increasing numbers of people as excited about VP as I am. After all, I’m one of those kids who got hooked on dinosaurs at age 4 and never grew up! I knew I wanted to be a paleontologist as soon as I knew what that word meant. Back when I grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, however, I was the only kid I knew who loved dinosaurs. Today nearly every kid goes through a dino-mania phase before age 10. But I also look at all the new young faces at the meeting with a touch of melancholy as well. Almost 40 years in the profession have taught me some of the hard realities, especially regarding employment. Despite a ten-fold increase in membership and meeting attendance, the job market for VPs has shrunken in that same time frame. The post-Baby Boom years since the 1970s meant most universities had fewer students and hired fewer faculty, and most did not replace the VP on their staff with someone of similar training when the VP died or retired or left. This was true when I finished my Ph.D. and graduate school in 1982, and there were at least 10-50 applicants for every job even remotely connected to VP. Now a job listing nets 100-500 applicants. The plum jobs at the few museums with VP collections open up once in a decade, and I remember spending a lot of time as a student wondering when certain people were going to retire. In the meanwhile, the few survivors of my cohort that DID get jobs took employment wherever we could find it. I spent my entire career in small liberal arts colleges (Vassar, Knox, and then Occidental College for 27 years) where they gave us heavy teaching loads and showed no interest in my research or publications. Ever optimistic that my hard work and publication would pay off, I was always applying for university or museum jobs that opened up in hopes of moving to a place that supported and appreciated research. Now the job market is so bad that any kind of employment—community colleges, environmental consulting firms, teaching human anatomy to medical students, even if much lower-paying that the traditional university professor’s salary—is better than unemployment. Never mind aspiring to one of the plum research positions at major museums! As the recent problems at the Field Museum in Chicago, and now the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh have shown, these jobs are no longer very secure. All it takes is a few incompetent administrators to botch up the museum’s planning and finances, and the first one out the door are the curators who perform the essential research function at a museum (not the administrators who actually caused the problem in the first place).
Every student who has come to me, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and eager to pursue a VP career, gets my version of “The Talk” early on, before they have committed too much. I try to explain to them how daunting the odds are, how hard they will have to work, how they will have to publish like crazy while still in grad school to have at least a small chance of making the cut—and how even then, there is so much politics and cronyism and other stupid stuff going on that the most qualified candidate (as I often was in many searches) doesn’t get the job. Sadly, most of the rest of the profession doesn’t seem to realize that students need to hear this information early before they get too far in the profession. Over and over again at the meeting, I’m introduced to new graduate students who have no idea what they’re up against and how long the odds are, because no one who advises them told them the truth. So many academic institutions are now advertising themselves as places to get a graduate degree in VP. Yet only a handful of the elite institutions with multiple VP faculty or curators and sizable research collections of unstudied fossils (typically, it’s Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History where I was trained, plus Harvard, Yale, Michigan, Berkeley, Texas, and just a few others) turn out students who get jobs. Tiny podunk colleges with one VP staffer and limited research collections are now turning out dozens of students with no chance of getting a job, given their limited training, and lack of publications as a grad student. Yet they keep advertising and luring more and more students to enroll in their programs, never taking responsibility for what happens at the other end.
I was always glad that I was trained in one of the top programs in the country at Columbia/American Museum, and that my advisor, Malcolm McKenna, took at most one or two students a year, so there were never more than 3-5 of us at a time. We all got unlimited access to the best collections in the world, and plenty of time to do our own research and publish. Not surprisingly, the American Museum program has by far the best per capita success rate, with nearly every student who finished there getting a decent job. In fact, many of the curatorships in major museums (Bob Emry at the Smithsonian; John Flynn at the Field Museum and now as McKenna’s successor at the American Museum; Bob Hunt at the Nebraska State Museum; Bruce MacFadden at the Florida State Museum; Margery Coombs at the Beneski Museum, Amherst; Rich Cifelli at the Stovall Museum, University of Oklahoma; Tom Rich, Pat Rich, and Mike Archer at museums in Australia, and many others) were or are occupied by former McKenna students. No other academic institution can make such a claim.
All of this was painfully obvious as I saw the ranks of clueless students grow and the job market shrink. Yet even I was not aware of how badly the trend for academic employment has become. A new study by Schillebeeckx et al. (2013) points out that Ph.D.s are being minted far in excess of the slow rate of growth of academic jobs. And this is for fields like molecular biology and chemistry and certain types of physics, which have generally had plenty of employment and funding, and lots of non-academic options to pursue. For the VP who has limited options of academic employment (geology, biology, or med school anatomy programs are the main choices), this is positively alarming. Basically, anyone pursuing a Ph.D. and wishing to remain in VP must be willing to take any opportunity that comes along, no matter how badly paid or how far it is from a plum research job. That’s going to be a bitter pill for these bright-eyed, bushy-tailed students, so full of energy and excitement and promise at their cool field of study, where they get to work on dinosaurs and other amazing prehistoric beasts. But after almost 40 years in this profession, I’ve watched a lot of outstanding students undergo huge psychological stress as they dealt with the realities of the job market that their advisor never warned them about. I’ve seen the cost in human capital, and in disappointment and ruined lives. I wish it were otherwise, but I have little power to warn all these students who are not being told the truth.
This recent article, entitled “The Odds are Never in your Favor”, in The Chronicle of Higher Education compares searching for academic jobs to “The Hunger Games”: young people pitted against each other in a battle for survival, cruel and unfair judging by the older generation determines your fate, poor odds of making it out alive, disappointment is the most likely ending. I wish it were a joke…
And so, I tell my story here. Pass it on to any student who thinks they might want to study dinosaurs for a living.