NAME: Benjamin Burger
CURRENT TITLE: Assistant Professor
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Vertebrate Paleontology (fossil mammals)
YEARS EXPERIENCE: 20
EDUCATION: PhD in Geology, University of Colorado; MS in Anatomy, Stony Brook University in New York; BS in Geology, University of Colorado
What’s your job like?
I’ve worked numerous jobs as a paleontologist, from organizing fossils in museum collections, to salvaging fossils from industrial building projects (roads, pipelines, but mostly oil and gas development on public lands in the Western United States), as well as teaching full time to hundreds of college students.
What’s a typical day like?
Typical days depend on the season and current job. Right now, I’m lucky to be teaching full time, but a typical paleontologist in the United States is working on fossil salvage and mitigation projects. This requires an early start as the sun rises (6am), a safety meeting before heading to the project area, then often a long drive to the site. At the site you could be either monitoring or surveying a vast area for fossils protected on federal lands. Because fossils on Federal and Tribal lands belong to the government, your job is to collect or protect them during development projects, often this means following behind large bulldozers as they dig, or working next to a trencher. If you are surveying this means often walking upwards of fifteen miles a day looking for fossils. As the sun sets you head back to the office, and spend the evening hours writing up long reports that are submitted to various land management offices within various government offices. Often you work very long hours doing this type of work, and save up money for the winters, which can be much slower. I’ve also worked in museums, which is very different. A typical museum job is started much later in the day, and often spent answering emails (requests for fossil loans), inventorying fossil collections and entering data into a computer, some workers prepare fossils brought in from the field, but much more of your time is spent conserving the fossils already held by the museum. (A museum job is very much like that of a librarian). My current job is teaching full time, which I’ve been doing since 2011 at Utah State University in Vernal, Utah. I typically start my day at 8am, spend several hours answering student email, several hours putting together lectures, recording video lectures for online classes I teach, several hours of grading projects and exams (or writing new ones), meeting with graduate students and advising them what classes to take or helping them with their research. I spend many hours writing grants, and various research papers. I try to get in the lab to prepare fossils or samples on various projects. Most of my fossil collecting is done on the weekends or holidays, since I teach a class most days of the week. I teach morning, afternoon and evening classes, so I often don’t come home for dinner.
Finding new fossils that no one has seen before, and realizing the great antiquity of these creatures from the past. I also enjoy sharing knowledge by teaching students about the amazing history of our planet.
Finding a job. Science jobs, particularly in paleontology, are hard to come by. Many of the top scientists in my field are unemployed. Finding both the time and income to do science, particularly in the United States, is challenging. Applying to grants and finding funding for science is nearly impossible and very disheartening. I find the greatest challenge is convincing other people geology, and particular paleontology, is worthy of study and funding.
What’s your advice to students?
Volunteer at a museum, learn how to collect and prepare fossils, start taking every science class you can, particularly in geology and biology. Diversify your skills, and start publishing and writing about your interests, so that you become well known to the scientific community. Be happy and grateful. And become friends with fellow paleontologists that you meet at various scientific conferences.