Case study

Palaeontological researcher — Thomas Clements

Thomas is a leading palaeontological researcher specialising in taphonomy. Find out how his love of fossil collecting led to a career investigating the processes of fossilisation

How did you get your paleontological research job?

I grew up on the south coast and spent many years exploring the beach collecting fossils. Then, one day when visiting the Natural History Museum, I met a researcher who was studying fossils and it inspired me to study a geology degree like he had.

After my degree, I decided to do a Masters in paleobiology to learn more about the subject and to choose what area to specialise in for a career as a professional academic palaeontologist.

I then did a PhD, which gave me the specialism and skills I needed, and after completing it I applied for a research position and moved to the Republic of Ireland. My next step was to become an independent researcher by applying for my own funding and moving back to the UK. Now I am working at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität, in Germany as a researcher and lecturer.

How relevant is your degree?

Both my geology undergraduate degree and my Masters in paleobiology are highly relevant to my work.

My degree in geology provided me with a good insight into earth science, sedimentary processes and geochemistry. It gave me the skillset to come up with key questions to investigate, to do robust and diligent research, and to creatively problem solve when undertaking experimental investigations or analyses.

What are your main work activities at the university?

My specialism is in experimental taphonomy, which is the study of how animals become fossils. A lot of my time is spent in the lab, where I design experiments to observe what happens to animals after they die and to understand the processes of decay. It's very smelly and disgusting work.

I also spend a lot of time teaching, preparing lectures and workshops, and doing outreach work - disseminating my science, and informing the public about palaeontology. I write scientific papers and often deal with queries from other researchers, students, and sometimes media outlets. At times, I take on other responsibilities within the university such as managing student recruitment.

What are your career ambitions?

Eventually, I'd like to gain a permanent lectureship, but it's often necessary to move around a lot until you find a permanent position. It's extremely competitive and can be hit and miss because of the funding. For these reasons, I try not to plan too far ahead.

What do you enjoy most about your palaeontology job?

I really enjoy the teaching aspect of the job and enthusing students about a subject I'm very passionate about. I also like the sense of community - the palaeontology world is fairly small and it's a nice scientific community you can hang out with. I love being part of the cutting edge of science, using new technologies and getting involved in answering really big fundamental questions.

What are the most challenging parts of your role?

It can be quite unsettling because of the temporary nature of academic contracts, and you often have move around a lot.

What are your tips for doing a Masters?

Look at the courses and see which suit your interests academically. All palaeobiology Masters degrees give a broad introduction to palaeobiology, but some will be a little more specialised on analytical techniques or statistical methods.

Also, consider where you want to study, as well as the growing financial costs of fees and living costs.

Any words of advice for someone who wants to get into this job?

Read as much as possible and try not to specialise too much, too early on.

Try to find out about the geology of your local area and as much as possible about places, museums or institutions you can visit.

Find a university that has a palaeontology course and email them for experience and projects to get into. Most staff are more than happy to oblige and it's often a great way of getting involved with scientific projects that will help you to stand out.

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