BY JOANNA E. LAMBERT
Update: Joanna E. Lambert is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado-Boulder. She is co-founder of the Northwest Primate Conservation Society, has served as an advisor to the United Nations Environmental Program, and is currently serving on the Primate Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
For as long as I can remember I have had a passion for learning about the natural world. This passion includes not just primates, but other animals, plants, and the abiotic world as well. My so-called “natural history” perspective has greatly influenced the approach I take to studying primates. From my vantage, a primate species can not be fully understood without understanding the greater ecological community of which it is a part. Primates are not just passive benefactors in a habitat, but are instead active members, with the capacity to influence their habitat in a variety of ways, including, for example, through seed dispersal and pollination.
As you may have learned through coursework, reading, or from other sites on the Primate Info Net (PIN), the history of primatology as a discipline is deeply connected to the anthropological perspective. Indeed, it has long been held that garnering information on the anatomy, behavior, and ecology of our closest relatives, the extant primates, can lend insight into the evolution and behavior of our own species. This is a very important and unifying perspective that has facilitated the creation of primate models for hominid evolution. Since anthropology is the study of all things relating to humans, while zoology may be viewed as the study of all non-human animals, a major by-product of this history and theoretical perspective is that most academic primatologists that study primate behavior and ecology are found in departments of anthropology (and, to a lesser extent, psychology), rather than in zoology departments.
Nonetheless, primates can be studied for the sake of simply learning more about a particular primate species and how it interacts in the larger ecological and evolutionary picture, regardless of what this may be able to tell us about human adaptations and evolution. This community ecology perspective has often led me to literature and research taking place in academic departments outside of anthropology, such as zoology. Having received a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, followed up by a Postdoctoral Research position in a Department of Zoology, I have had the good fortune of interacting with scholars employing a diversity of perspectives, not just that of an anthropological orientation. This allows me to wear many professional hats. Depending on the context, I variously call myself a tropical biologist, an ecologist, a biological anthropologist, and sometimes a primatologist.
As you have probably determined from perusing the PIN resources, there are many routes to take in primatology, and the training that you require will differ depending upon your goals. Here, I speak from the perspective of an academic involved in basic research and student training. This is the classic university position, and to attain this, you will need not only a Bachelors degree and Masters, but also a Ph.D., and preferably several years of Postdoctoral Research experience. If you are interested in pursuing an academic position, and if your interests do not necessarily involve the anthropological perspective, you might consider focusing your efforts into ultimately achieving a position in a department of zoology, or, more generally, biology. To do this, you will need a Ph.D. in zoology, ecology, biology, or some related discipline. In order to get into a graduate school in one of these disciplines, you should have a well-rounded undergraduate education that prepares you well. Most graduate zoology departments require the GRE Biology exam, thus you will need to be well-prepared in all areas of biology. In addition, most biology-related graduate departments require several years of chemistry, physics, statistics, molecular and cell biology. This does not necessarily preclude you from pursuing an anthropology major (or art, or history…etc.) as an undergraduate, it simply means that you will have to make sure that you take relevant coursework in order to prepare yourself appropriately.
In order to set yourself up well for a professional career involving primates, perhaps my most important piece of advice is to obtain a diversity of hands on experience. Don’t focus in too narrowly early on in your education and research experience. Volunteer for any and all opportunities that you can. Approach professors at your university and ask whether you can help with any on-going work that she might be working on. Or, ask to do an Independent project with her guidance. While it may not seem like it at the time, even the most far-flung experiences may serve to help you later on in your career. Be as broadly trained as possible — it will give you an edge in the job market. For example, if you ultimately want to do laboratory research, gain some field research experience, and vice versa: if you want to be a field researcher, I would strongly recommend that you gain some sort of technical or laboratory skill (e.g., plant secondary compound assays, hormonal assays, molecular techniques). This will not only allow your application to stand out, but it will also provide you with a greater, more well-rounded understanding of the natural world. If you decide that you would like to be a part of a zoology department, either as a student, or, ultimately as a professor, then I would recommend not calling yourself a “primatologist”, but something broader that focuses on a process rather than on a taxon (e.g., “ecologist”, “evolutionary biologist”). Although it sounds petty, what you call yourself will in part serve to define who you are, and zoologists in general are a bit leery of scientists that define themselves so strictly. To focus in on just one Order of mammals is very narrow. If you do go the zoology route — rather than anthropology or psychology — it is important that you have had a variety of research experiences on other taxonomic groups. This will give you a broader perspective of the natural world and will enable you to see how and where primates fit in ecologically and evolutionarily.
In academic zoology, postdoctoral research experience is almost essential. As such, I will spend some time discussing what a so-called “postdoc” is and how to get one. Postdoctoral positions are an excellent way to gain more experience before you enter into the (these days, exceedingly competitive) job market. In addition, they allow you the time to do research before you become burdened with the teaching and committee obligations of a tenure-track teaching position. There are at least two ways that you can go about obtaining a postdoc, these are: to write a grant yourself, or to apply for an existing, advertised postdoc position. Overall, since funding for the position already exists, applying for an advertised position tends to be a lower risk strategy. However, it is less likely that you will work with someone you know, and also less likely that you will work on a project that matches your research interests exactly. Creating your own postdoc (through writing a postdoctoral grant) in some respects is a higher risk strategy since your grant might not get funded. However, the benefit of this strategy is that you can work on a project that is of direct interest to you. If you are going to write your own postdoc, it is essential that you start making contacts in the year or two before you graduate from graduate school. This means that you should single someone out that you would like to work with. You may either know this person already, or you may know of their work. Professional conferences are a great way to meet prospective collaborators. You might also consider having th person be an outside dissertation committee member. To write your own postdoc, you will need to get information regarding available grants. I would recommend visiting the National Science Foundation (NSF) website (http://www.nsf.gov), for information on NSF’s Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in BioSciences Related to the Environment. Also, look for information on the Life Science Research Foundation (LSRF) Postdoctoral Fellowships. For advertised positions, there are several sources that a prospective postdoc can use. Quite commonly, job and postdoc announcements are sent to department Chairpersons, who will then post them. In addition, a variety of academic and scientific journals, including Science, New Scientist, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Animal Behavior routinely advertise postdoctoral positions in biology and zoology.
However, there are other routes to pursue besides academia. For example, I would recommend that somewhere down the line you enroll in a conservation biology course. As most primate species are either endangered, threatened, or in danger of becoming threatened, having an understanding of current theory regarding conservation theory and policy will help you in your pursuit of a career in zoology. This will help considerably if you think you might want to become a field research scientist. Several large and important conservation non-government organizations (NGOs) hire either part-time consultants or full-time Field Scientists to work on projects in the field. Typically, these positions require that you spend most if not all of your time in the field. Since many NGO funded conservation projects are focused on tropical sites where there are primate species, then being a zoologist with a specialty in primate ecology can be a bonus. Take a look at the Wildlife Conservation Society (http://www.wcs.org) and World Wildlife Fund (http://www.wwf.org) websites for some insight into how conservation organizations work.
Regardless of whether you decide to engage in academic zoology/primatology or in more applied fields such as conservation biology, I would recommend that you look at employment advertisements well in advance of your graduation. Page through posted job descriptions and determine what array and types of skills are desirable in the area that would like to work in. Then, tailor your own training accordingly.
Take home message: It is extremely difficult to get a job in primatology, regardless of which route you choose to take. Because of the history of the discipline, most primatologists who study the anatomy, behavior and/or ecology of primates do most of their training in departments of anthropology. Primatologists in zoology department are less common, in part because in zoology focusing on a single Order of animals is rather narrowly defined. To increase your chances of getting a job in zoology, make sure that you are first and foremost a well-trained biologist with an understanding of organisms and processes other than just primates. Gain as much research experience as possible, including conservation biology, and see yourself as a zoologist that happens to study primates, rather than a primatologist, strictly defined. Good luck with your endeavor!
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