What is your current profession/job? What did you study at Yale? When did you graduate?
I’m the Withrow Farny Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology and Associate Vice President for Science & Research at Cincinnati Museum Center. As senior scientist, I direct the research efforts of the Museum while also having specific responsibility for the care and advancement of its fossil vertebrate collections and research program. I report to the Museum’s President & CEO as supervisor of its science curators and also oversee the staff and activities of a 17,000-acre nature preserve in south-central Ohio. At Yale, I earned my PhD in Geology and Geophysics in 1986 with a specialization in vertebrate paleontology. Following graduation, I briefly worked as a staff member at Yale’s Peabody Museum, before accepting a post-doctoral position at the University of Bristol, and ultimately coming to Cincinnati.
What do you like most about your current role? What do you find most challenging and/ or rewarding?
I truly enjoy the great variety of experiences offered by working in a museum setting, including the ability to conduct research, teach, collect and handle museum specimens, work with volunteers, interact with the public and a diverse staff, contribute to exhibits, and cultivate museum supporters. I especially appreciate the continued opportunity to conduct fieldwork, such as supervising the excavation of dinosaurs and other fossils, which has added to the museum’s scientific holdings and the global database of science. While I have been able to continue my research career, the time available for research has lessened as I have advanced in my profession and assumed additional responsibilities at the Museum. This, in addition to the day-to-day requirements of staff supervision, budget creation, report writing and meeting attendance, is perhaps the greatest challenge of my job. No doubt, all administrators feel this way.
How did your time at Yale shape your career trajectory?
Although like many people, I was interested in a career in paleontology from an early age, my Yale education was a critical factor in my success as a museum scientist. First and foremost, in a field as specialized as vertebrate paleontology, a limited number of graduate programs are able to provide the depth of knowledge, supervisory guidance, networking opportunities, and exposure to a world-class fossil collection as does Yale. The long history of discovery and excellence that is Yale paleontology provided me with a firm basis upon which to found an academic career, but my immersion in the Peabody collections and exposure to other museums dictated by my dissertation research allowed me to gain experience that has benefited me greatly as a museum professional.
What are the main skills that you acquired as a PhD student which help make you successful in your current career?
My primary skill gained is perhaps my ability to think strategically, whether it is in developing and pursuing a research project, planning for major collection improvements, procuring funding and other resources, or growing staff and exhibits. I developed confidence and the experience to compete and contribute in a competitive and challenging, yet stimulating atmosphere. Exposure to a broad range of other students, faculty, and visiting researchers helped me find my place in the university and my field. As a result, even before rising to a senior position, I came to recognize that it is not enough to hire staff members with stellar scientific skills. Finding a good scientist is easy, but finding someone who is a good fit and who can be an enthusiastic ambassador for our institution is always the real challenge.
Did you acquire any professional experience related to your line of work while in graduate school?
In many ways, the traditional path of course work and research was, for me, the requisite training to pursue the field/profession that I have. A Ph.D. is essentially the “union card” needed for employment as a research paleontologist. Beyond that, however, working in the fossil collections and labs on Science Hill and elsewhere gave me valuable experience in how to handle, prepare and preserve museum objects, track data, and identify unusual specimens that have stood me in good stead as a museum curator. Similarly, helping to plan exhibits and write some of the content labels at the Peabody are precisely in line with what I do now.
What advice would you offer PhDs who are interested in your line of work?
This is a difficult field to pursue, precisely because as with academic positions, jobs are few and far between in paleontology and there are always more applicants than openings. Nevertheless, not having ever been able to dissuade someone from following their dream, I tell them that dedication, perseverance and commitment to quality work are the only path to success. I also say, however, to have a back-up plan. There was a time when only universities and museums needed, or wanted, paleontologists but increasingly, they are finding opportunities in non-traditional places such as medical schools, consulting firms, governmental agencies, geological industries, science reporting, etc. Find a way to earn a living where you can maintain your interest in your discipline as a secondary endeavor if need be. For other fields, such as history or the biological sciences, I would say, don’t be afraid to consider a museum career.