The short version
Like many people, my passion for palaeontology stems from a childhood fascination with everything dinosaur. However, my career has taken an unconventional route. Most would-be palaeontologists tend to study the subject (or similar) at university, but I did not have the grades or the finances to do so. Instead, at 18, I sold many of my possessions to fund a trip to excavate dinosaurs in America, then immersed myself in research and writing scientific papers and books.
Despite my initial self-taught status, over the years, my academic research was recognised at such a high standard that I became affiliated with The University of Manchester as a ‘Visiting Scientist’ in 2013. I then completed a postgraduate MPhil degree and eventually a PhD in palaeontology, despite not having an undergraduate degree. For somebody self-taught, from a poor background and who didn’t even pass his A-levels, I like to think that my journey is quite remarkable and that it hopefully inspires others to pursue their dreams.
Here's a short documentary about my career, presented by the very talented Ben G. Thomas.
I was one of those children who absolutely loved dinosaurs. That annoying kid telling everybody dinosaur facts and correcting them on their pronunciations – I still do this. Born in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, England, from as far back as I can remember, I’ve had a passion and interest for all things palaeontology and the natural world. All I ever wanted to be was a palaeontologist and, although I had encouragement from my family, living in a town where there were very few opportunities for would-be palaeontologists to gain experience of any sort, a career in this science seemed something so far away as to be unobtainable.
See, I’ve always known what I wanted to do, but figuring out how to get there was the hardest of all, especially having been told (on multiple occasions) that I would never become a palaeontologist. That I simply wasn't good enough.
As a youngster, to gain what experience and knowledge I could, at every opportunity I collected and identified fossils, visited museums, attended fossil-related events and read countless books. During my early-mid teen years, still bitten by the fossil bug, I began to look seriously at a career in palaeontology, but rapidly discovered that it wasn’t going to be easy. Palaeontology is a super competitive field with far more palaeontologists than there are available jobs. Nevertheless, between the ages of 16 and 18, I continued to read about palaeontology, collect fossils, and visit museums.
In school, I was really rubbish academically and struggled for most of my school years, having just about scraped by. In fact, due to my poor GCSE grades, I was not allowed to do A-level science (which I needed for university) and ultimately failed the two A-levels that I did. Thus, I didn’t have the qualifications or the finances to go on to university. Unsure of what to do, I initially completed a short course on fossils at the Open University, which my Nan kindly paid for. However, after taking advice from various professionals and friends, and considering that I could not attend university, I opted to hold off pursuing higher education in favour of gaining more detailed experience first. Thus, I could decide whether palaeontology was a realistic career option and could, theoretically, attend university if and when I felt it necessary. (FYI, I never actually did an undergraduate degree.)
To keep my dreams alive, I worked several jobs that I did not like (including as a bartender and delivery staff), and had to make numerous sacrifices to make ends meet; I even sold my cherished Star Wars collection (yes, really) among other possessions. After raising enough funds, during the summer of 2008, at the age of 18, I travelled to Wyoming, USA, to hunt for dinosaurs and further my professional experience in palaeontology. This was part of an almost four-month trip working with palaeontologists at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. That trip formed the backbone of my career. It helped me to realise my future goals and aspirations to succeed in palaeontology. In short, it changed my life.
On my return from Wyoming, still aged 18, I happened upon a chance discovery of an incredible ichthyosaur fossil at Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery – my local museum – which became the focus of my first-ever academic paper (despite not having any experience of writing a paper). This incredible discovery kick-started my career in academia and the transition from ‘amateur’ to professional.
I am an internationally recognised palaeontologist and a world expert on ichthyosaurs (extinct marine reptiles). My work includes academic research, fieldwork (managing quarries, leading excavations [digging up dinosaurs and other fossils]), science communication (public events and TV & Radio), museum projects (e.g. curating and reviewing collections), and much more. All this work has been fascinating and enjoyable in its own right, but it has also resulted in the publication of numerous peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals, presentations at conferences, articles for popular magazines, and the publication of multiple books (with more on the way).
Incidentally, I’ve had an increasingly prominent role as an ambassador for palaeontology, communicating this amazing science to the public through a variety of means (including public lectures, working with schools, societies etc.). Perhaps most importantly, communicating science at the biggest scale, I appear frequently on TV and Radio as an expert and presenter or co-host, including as the series advisor and expert co-presenter for ITV's/Amazon Prime's Dinosaur Britain – a two part series based largely on one of my books.
Since January 2013, I have been affiliated with The University of Manchester as a Visiting Scientist (academic), which includes mentoring students as a specialist advisor. Despite initially holding off attending university, I completed an MPhil in palaeontology at The University of Manchester (an ‘MPhil’ is a Master of Philosophy degree, a postgraduate research degree that lies between an MSc and a PhD in the hierarchy of academic qualifications), which I obtained without having an undergraduate degree. Although rare, the opportunity to study was based on my previous contributions to palaeontology (i.e. my academic record of publications demonstrated that I was capable of completing an advanced degree). Following on from my MPhil, I completed my PhD at The University of Manchester. I am currently an Honorary Research Fellow at the UOM and an 1851 Research Fellow at the University of Bristol.
The route I have taken in palaeontology has followed a more practical, hands-on approach, and has enabled me to work with some of the greatest minds in the field, along with some of the most extraordinary fossils in the world. As a result, I now have significantly more professional (research and practical) experience and have published more academic papers than would be expected of anybody my age. Although my specialism is ichthyosaurs, which has included the description of five new species (including naming one after my childhood hero, Mary Anning, Ichthyosaurus anningae), the identification of an ichthyosaur pregnant with octuplets, and the discovery of one of the largest animals that ever lived (giant ichthyosaurs from the UK), my research interests are broad. This has resulted in writing papers on other fossil groups, from describing a new species of dinosaur, to studying the epic death march of a Jurassic horseshoe crab and to studying sea scorpions. For my work and contributions to palaeontology and science communication, I have won various awards, including winning a gold medal (G. J. Mendel Award) for excellence in science communication at the Houses of Parliament, London.
No matter what your background is, how you got to where you are, or where you’re going, we all have goals in life, but everybody has an opinion on how to achieve those goals. Remember – we are all different. It’s important to find your own way in life and discover what works for you, not somebody else. Never let anybody tell you that you cannot achieve your dreams. I hope that my journey inspires you to continue pursuing yours.