BY LINDA TAYLOR
Update: Linda Taylor is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Miami and studies lemurs. She is also a scientific advisor for the Lemur Conservation Foundation.
I’m a primatologist – but I got here from anthropology. How? I started college later in life with no real major in mind. I took an anthro class to satisfy a general ed requirement and thought it was a way cool class. Then, I took another, and another. When I had a class in which I really didn’t like the teacher, but really liked the material, I knew I had to do anthropology. Psych didn’t do it for me. Bio didn’t turn me on at all. Anthropology called. I think that psychologists have the best experimental methods on the planet when it comes to lab stuff, but they often don’t know zip about the natural history of the animals they study. Too much universal learning paradigm for me. Biology tends to think only those animals in the wild are doing “real” behavior for their species – and most of the bio types were premeds anyway who only wanted to do cellular stuff. I crave the whole, living, breathing complex animal in any and all places, knowing that there are questions best answered in each kind of setting (lab, zoos, forests).
Anthropology is the best road to studying monkeys, I think, because it borrows the methods from psych and the natural history data from biology (or ethology as it is often called), and combines it with evolutionary history of all primates. Anthropologists know it all – from the anatomy of the earliest primates, to that of living primates. We ask questions about what monkeys eat, who is eating with whom, where they sleep, and who is sleeping around. Anthropologists get to do it all – labs, zoos, the “field” – you name it.
Why primates? Two reasons – one personal and one professional. In terms of the former, I had to go to the San Diego zoo as part of an assignment. I heard ruffed lemurs making this outrageous call and was fascinated. I asked my prof why the lemurs made that noise and she said she had no idea. That’s exactly how I got started. In terms of the latter, nonhuman primates are our closest living relatives. What better way to know what makes humans human, than by understanding our relatives? Claud Bramblett’s book PATTERNS OF PRIMATE BEHAVIOR lists a lot of great reasons for studying them. However, the best reason is the fact that I’m crazy about them…the way they look, the way they act, the way they sound…all of it. If you aren’t really a little crazy about your study animal, you will have a hard time making a career of it.
You should go into this field only because your curiosity compels you to do so. You should do it because you can’t imagine yourself doing much else. No, this isn’t Dr. Doolittle where you just hang out with monkeys. All of us do problem-oriented research. We’re all working to answer some kind of question(s) that relates to nonhuman primates. Yes, you will spend lots of time alone, in the field, with bugs biting, rain falling, equipment failing, and various government agencies making you wait for permits here and in the country you work, You will also spend many, many hours alone in an office writing, analyzing, and double checking your work. No, you won’t make a bunch of money. No, your folks won’t quite understand why you want to do this instead of being a lawyer or a doctor. Primatology is not a field that you pursue for a job that will be waiting for you when you finish. A degree is no guarantee of a job and there is no routine predetermined career path. There are many job opportunities in this field, each suited to particular kinds of primatologists.
Yes, you should have a college degree to enhance your employability – and it should be an MA or better because so many people want to do this work. There are various jobs in government, academia, and the private sector that you can do. You can work wherever there are monkeys if you really want to. You must be patient, methodical about record keeping, patient, curious, patient, and singularly determined to get what you want. As my mother told me once, if you are good enough at whatever you choose to do, there will always be a job for you someplace.
Your employment prospects depend on what kind of primatology you do within anthropology and how far you have gone in school. Most of us do a combination of research and teaching. That way we get the best of both worlds. To support one’s research habit, you must learn to write grants. They are like shopping for money, but they are getting harder and harder to get because there is so much competition. The answer to that is practicing until you are very good at it. Look for a graduate program that includes at least one course in grant writing. The more grants you can secure, the more successful you will be. It’s just a fact of life.
Remember, that as a professor of anthropology you won’t ever make as much as faculty in business or medicine, but you will have a fascinating time. Most of us have our vocation and avocations as the same thing – our work with nonhuman primates. You can spend your summer months in Botswana, listening to the calls of baboons, or in Madagascar looking at how female lemurs oust unrelated females from their social group. You could look in the caves of Madagascar for recently-extinct lemurs or dig around in Wyoming or Egypt for long-extinct species. You can tramp around the rain forests of Costa Rica while recording what squirrel monkeys eat – you can do it all. If you learn to write grants well, agencies will pay you to do it!
There are drawbacks – like your parents not understanding what you are going to do with your life or why. Expect little respect from the general public if you want to work in zoos. We don’t hold animal husbandry jobs in much esteem in our society. Also, there is competition – lots of it. For example, if you think you want to “do monkeys” for a living, expect that EVERYONE will want to work with chimps and gorillas. (They’re too human for my liking.) It can also get frustrating to see forests chopped down and primates racing towards extinction as a result. Then there’s the whole primates in captivity thing. One has to realize that biomedical research and zoos are a necessity for improving the future of all primates. You can’t trash one aspect of the discipline, although you can have a healthy disagreement. Conservation, preservation, and research are all part of the same picture. Lastly, you might encounter some people who think that if you know about evolution, and accept it as the explanation of creation of life as we know it, then you are a godless heathen. Be prepared for religious fundamentalist arguments that will never be resolved. All you need to know is that science is always open to question. That’s why it’s not religion. Science is a way of knowing.
So, you think you want to do this kind of thing for a living? Then, my best suggestion to you is to get yourself to the meetings of the American Society of Primatologists. Hang out, listen to the papers and look at the posters. Better yet, talk to some of us around the local watering hole. We’ll even have name badges on so you can spot us and call us by name. Almost all of us, regardless of how we got into this field, are very willing to chat with you and let you know what we did to get where we are, as well as telling you what you don’t want to do.
Ultimately, you need to decide whether you are a species person or a question. Many of us start out as species people, i.e., you are fascinated with a given species and want to know everything about it. Many of us change to question people, i.e., what is maternal behavior like in many species? Once you know for sure where your interests lie, it will make finding a school and a mentor easier. You need to find a program and/or people with whom you want to work. Further, you must find a way to set yourself above the competition for places in those programs. Good grades and a willingness to work for the experience will go a long way in helping you get ahead. Volunteer, write letters, and send email about projects that interest you. Make yourself known. Try it. Write to me. I’ll answer.
So, what’s the reality of a career in this field as an anthro undergrad? My former students who continue to work with primates are veterinarians, one does environmental wildlife law, one is a wildlife biologist for a forestry company in Canada, one managed a biodiversity center for the Smithsonian Institution in Guyana, one is a former Navy SEAL who will now prowl for small nocturnal primates in southeast Asian jungles, and another just returned from Botswana where he really did listen and record the calls of baboons. Expect your working life to grow and change as you meet people and as you mature in the field in general. The only limits on your career will be those you set for yourself.
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