A Guide to Surviving a Career in Academia: Navigating the Rites of Passage

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Sinikka Kurri what this? Thus, their jobs and economic welfare have been largely at the mercy of wars, social upheavals and cuts in public funding prompted by economic crises. In the past years, job opportunities in paleontology have been steadily worsening. Universities and museums have their budgets reduced whenever politicians need to cut costs and, even during good times, economic resources have regularly been re-routed from paleontology to fields more likely to provide economic returns or widespread public support.

Not a few paleontology departments or programmes have been entirely closed and their research staff "sent home", and this trend is far from over. Employment prospects for geoscientists in general are better than for a paleontologist, mainly because there is a demand for geoscientists outside the academic world. For generic information of what a geoscientist can do as a professional, see sciencebuddies.

If your answer to the above question is yes, my first recommendation would be to think again. By selecting paleontology as your main field of study in a university curriculum, you are likely headed toward unemployment or, in the best of events, twenty or thirty years of precarious employment, often with a pitiful salary. If you are lucky, you may eventually reach safe employment as a university professor, albeit with a relatively low salary compared to the efforts you spent throughout your career, insufficient funding to do much meaningful research in the time allotted to it, and a total lack of incentives based on your actual performance as a scientist.

Most paleontologists, however, are not that lucky, and remain eternally precarious or satisfy themselves with more menial jobs.


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In quite a few research institutions, you may land into a department where everyday life is governed by personality conflicts, nepotism, bosses who claim credit for your work, petty revenge among colleagues often diagonally directed against their more vulnerable subordinates , life-long feuds and, sometimes, open paranoia apparently born out of the combination of bright minds, too much free time and insufficient funding to do much with either brains or time.

Indeed, many paleontologists and other scientists as well are helped to remain sane by their love for the chosen field of research.


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  • You might wish to question, however, whether your love for paleontology is really worth accepting all the rest that may come with the job. Out of six universities and research institutions where I spent substantial amounts of time during my career, three did display the above symptoms on a large scale, and two more had at least some signs of them. Are the above problems exclusive of non-profit research institutions?

    However, the difference between an institution for higher education and a profit-driven company is that the latter, if run in the way described above, will quickly lose its most valuable employees, i. The rest of the employees will be freed from their daily misery once the company goes bankrupt, which typically happens pretty quickly.

    As a result, there are few companies where these problems have a chance to develop to the extent frequently seen in non-profit research.

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    On the other hand, it is traditional for non-profit researchers to spend their entire careers at a single institution, or maybe to move once or twice throughout their lives. For paleontologists in particular, job mobility is largely the substance of which daydreams are made, rather than a real opportunity. As a result, their employers can with impunity treat them as liabilities, rather than assets. In several countries, public sector bosses, and sometimes museum directors and even university professors, receive their jobs largely as political favours - not exactly the type of persons who can be expected to encourage a young employee who is obviously brighter than themselves.

    a guide to surviving a career in academia navigating the rites of passage

    Admittedly, there are exceptions. A family business may be forced to keep a stupid boss who happens to be a family member, but business is not likely to thrive. A big corporation may leach large amounts of capital into the pockets of an incompetent and greedy leadership year after year, but a big crunch is certain to come sooner or later. A non-profit institution, instead, is largely sheltered from both public scrutiny and the laws of economics. Indeed, there are many other fields, besides paleontology, where the above problems are a well-recognized truth.

    I am talking about paleontology because this is my area of expertise, and the subject of this page. If you did not change your mind yet, you may go on reading. After all, I did not follow my own advice, and indeed went on to a career in paleontology which ended happily a few years ago - I am now a technical writer at a software company. Nonetheless, I did enjoy the first two-thirds of my career in paleontology, which brought me to many countries and gave me much satisfaction at least, the research part of it did.

    During the last years, I actually felt that retirement was the best thing I could look forward to.

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    As it turned out, I was wrong, but I needed to lose my job as a paleontologist before I was able to realize that I could get a better, unrelated one. Although you may love paleontology - and there is nothing seriously wrong with it - you must not let this love blind you to the fact that there is a life outside paleontology. In particular, there are many other jobs and careers that you may enjoy, even though they have little or nothing to do with paleontology.

    You may discover, for instance, that marine biology has much in common with paleontology, and that a research career in some fields of marine biology can be at least as rewarding, in terms of satisfaction, as one in paleontology and possibly more rewarding in terms of salary and funding. The same may be true of biomedical research. My own career is another example. I always have had a side interest in computers.

    I used to design and build my very first computers in my bedroom as a university student, and later became interested in programming and software development. As a result, I did quite a lot of computer modelling in my paleontological research. I subsequently took up a half-time job as a systems manager at my university institution when things started to get really bad, and after finally being set free from my job as a senior lecturer I spent a couple of years as a visiting professor at Japanese universities in itself, quite an interesting time , partly on the off chance that a job in paleontology might appear on the horizon.

    It didn't, so I finally took a full-time job in the computer industry - all of this without having any formal education in computer science. I actually discovered that I don't really miss paleontology as much as I expected. I may feel an occasional longing for research, and have nebulous plans of doing some research in the undetermined future, but so far I have not been sufficiently motivated to act on these intentions.

    I feel just fine working as a technical writer and, in my free time, writing about scientific photography and photographic techniques on my web site and in a book I am preparing, just for the fun of it. In fact, I am still doing largely what I used to do and to enjoy in paleontology, i. I must stress, however, that neither type of skills can be acquired by carrying out the type of "standard" paleontological research and publishing that constitutes the bulk of current paleontological literature.

    These skills are largely the result of my unusual choice of a specialization within paleontology. Incidentally, I am by no means unique as a scientist who left academic research to move to a profit-driven company.


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    I am not even unique as a scientist who turned into a technical communicator - quite the opposite. I did not know it at the time I made this choice, but in fact, scientists who turn technical writers, technical communicators, science journalists or commercial editors are quite numerous, and this type of career switch is a mainstream one.

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    The decision about starting a career as a paleontologist is largely irreversible, given the almost inexistent prospects of obtaining a non-academic employment with an academic training exclusively as a paleontologist. When making this type of lifelong or almost commitment to a career or vocation, it is wise to consider many aspects and consequences of this choice. One of these aspects is the attitude of politicians toward scientific research, and in particular the attitude of those politicians who hold the strings to the purse of research funds.

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    Holly Rus recently completed her Ph. While working with Psychology Professor Jitske Tiemensma, she was listed as lead author on five papers published or now under revision or review in journals including the Annals of Behavioral Medicine and Computers in Human Behavior. Besides helping her secure a postdoc position, being first author taught Rus several important lessons. She learned about the scientific publishing process, from writing cover letters to journal editors and submitting revisions and rebuttals to navigating copyright transfer; it helped her develop her professional identity because first authors are prominently claiming public responsibility for their science; and showed her what it takes to see a research project through from initial idea to publication.

    Being a lead author also gave her the confidence that she can conduct independent research, which is ultimately the goal of earning a Ph.