How to become a professor in PRIMATOLOGY

In this episode Richard Wrangham, British primatologist and professor at Harvard specifically lays out how he would plan his career in the field of PRIMATOLOGY today.

More specifically, in this PLAN YOUR CAREER episode you will learn:

  • Why being involved in research projects as early as possible will give you a head start.
  • Why conducting, writing and publishing your research is more important than attending a lot of conferences.
  • Why it is important to be proficient in one subdiscipline and knowledgable in others.

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About Prof. Richard Wrangham


Richard Wrangham, British primatologist and Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard would plan his career in the field of primatology today. Prof. Wrangham is co-director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, the long-term study of the Kanyawara chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda. His research culminates in the study of human evolution in which he draws conclusions based on the behavioural ecology of apes. As a graduate student, Prof. Wrangham studied under Robert Hinde and Jane Goodall. He is the co-author of the book Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence with Dale Peterson. And along with Eloy Rodriguez, Wrangham helped to introduce the concept of zoopharmacognosy. A concept that refers to the process by which non-Human animals self-medicate.


Raw Transcript

Stephan: If you want to learn how to plan your academic career in the field of primatology, stay with me.  Hello and welcome to  The web show to learn from proven professors and experts.  I’m your host Stephan and today you will learn how Richard Wrangham, British Primatologist and Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard would plan his career in the field of primatology today.  Richard is core director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project.  The long term study of the Kanyawara chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda.  His research culminates in the study of human evolution in which he draws conclusion based on the behavioral ecology of apes.  As a graduate student Wrangham started under Robert Hines and Jane Goodall.  He’s the co-author of the book Demonic Male:  Apes and the Origins of Human Violence with Dale Patterson.  Along with Ilo Rodriguez, Wrangham helped to introduce the concept of zoopharmacognozy, a concept that refers to the process by which non-human animals self medicate.  All right.  Richard, thank you very much for taking your time for this interview.

Prof. Wrangham: You’re welcome.

Stephan: I believe that you just come back from a field trip from Uganda, so could you please as a self started for our interview, tell us what you did there.

Prof. Wrangham: Oh, I was there for about two weeks and I have a research team who are in the field every day, so what I was doing was going and encouraging them.  Finding out how things are going and making sure that the standards that we need, in terms of observation of the primates, the chimpanzees are being maintained.  Then, of course, I love being with the chimps myself so I want to go out every day and simply catch up with the ongoing stories about what the chimpanzees are doing and then the particular study that I’m involved with when I get the chance to spend some time with the chimpanzees is object play.   Every day I was happy to be able to, almost every day I was there, was happy to see my other chimpanzees playing with objects in rather unusual ways.

Stephan: Right.  Okay.  That sounds very interesting and how did you get into the field, into the academic field, primatology in the first place?

Prof. Wrangham: Well, I’m a biologist in training, so I study zoology at Oxford University as an undergraduate and I wasn’t particularly interested in primates.  In fact, I had not experience, but by the time I graduated, I’d already done field work in three different places in Zambia and two in Kenya.  Taking expeditions while I was an undergraduate and even before I went to university and I mention this because it reflects the fact that I had just a tremendous amount of interest in the behavior of wild animals.  I studied some antelope and some moles and I had all sorts of interest in just understanding what it is about the way that animals live that is responsible for differences in their social relationships.  After I graduated, I had the opportunity suggested to me by someone as Oxford to write to Jane Goodall and say would she like to have somebody come and assist her in her observations.  She said yes.  I was very lucky that it was a good time in her career and so that sent me to study chimpanzees and within about 20 minutes of seeing chimpanzees in the wild, you realize that you’re dealing with a species as different from most other animals because they’re thinking.  The way they use their eyes, the way they are behaving shows that they have a level of cognition that is elevated compared to many different species of animals.  Then that just becomes really fascinating.  You got this bridge between other animals and humans and so it’s such a privilege to be able to work with a species like this that is clearly very threatened by threats to its existence in the wild.  Growing agriculture, logging, disease and so on.  It’s only going to be probably a few decades that people are going to be able to describe this.  Well, here we are humans on earth with a close relative that tells you something about where we came from, so how could you resist just wanting to spend all your time studying them.

Stephan: Right.  Well, that’s very inspiring.  You are one of the leading figures in your field and you’re a professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard.  How would you…your career already lasts…has been lasting 40 years you told me before and how would you plan your academic career from a bachelor to professorship today?  If it’s possible, please try to be as specific as possible.

Prof. Wrangham: Well, the first thing I would say is that academic life in this area and probably many areas is not easy.  It’s very competitive.  Funding is not that easy to find.  If you want to combine research career with teaching and particularly as a graduate student there are all sorts of uncertainties about whether or not you will find the right sort of project that will enable you to develop a finished product.  The reason I say that is because if, as a young scientist, you are at all uncertain about whether or not you want to do this, you should not do it.  The motivation has to come from within because you’re just so fascinated that you’re completely mad that you have to this.  If you do that then you will have the level of excitement and motivation to carry you through.  So that’s the first thing.  Don’t do it unless you just have to do it.  Now, when you’re planning a career on that basis, now I think that now a days you need to think of the fact that most research is done in teams and the teams involve multiple specialties  but it is nevertheless vital that you, as a budding scientist, not only have your own specialization, but are well capable of understanding the specializations of people whose work you will use as a collaborator even though you will not develop it yourself.  For instance, almost everybody now a day’s needs to understand some genetics because very likely at some point you will need to take access to genetic data and you need to be able to critique it yourself.  I think the way to do it graduate school is to learn a couple of techniques that you will have that you can use in your laboratory that you can develop in your own laboratory and be on the cutting edge, but then you also have to have an ability to understand the language of other techniques, as well.  You’re a primatologist.  Most primatologists work in captivity or maybe half who work in captivity, half work in the wild.  Either way, there are some things like endocrinology, understanding the hormones, which you can gather without invasive procedures.  You don’t have to inject them; you don’t have to take tissue samples.  You can get them from urine or feces.  The same now, non-invasively, you can get access to genetics.  You can learn something about how to do analysis of their movements using force plates.  You can do some anatomical analysis.  You need to take two or three of these techniques and really get to understand them very well.  One of them in the end will be what you will base your laboratory on where you can train your undergraduates themselves.  Because that’s what you need in a career.  You need to be able to train other people.  Then, meanwhile, of course, you’ve got to have just a fascinating problem that will lure you along and that’s going to be something that you can’t orchestrate quite so easily, but the way you can, I think, develop the kind of scientific hypothesis testing approach that will be most attractive to the universities that are going to hire you and the granting bodies that are going to give you money is to find someone to work with who is doing what you think is really interesting stuff. Don’t do it just because they are working on a species that other people haven’t worked on.  Does it because the problem is fascinating and then they will help you, hopefully, guide you towards other equally fascinating problems?

Stephan: All right.  Let’s break it down to wrap it up, so really to get started if you decide to start in the academic career, you really have to be motivated intrinsically, right?

Prof. Wrangham: Yeah.

Stephan: Drive must be come from within.

Prof. Wrangham: Exactly.

Stephan: In terms of developing your skill set you said you must be aware of the different academic cultures from other collaborators, other academic fields and, at least, become proficient in one, right?  Very…

Prof. Wrangham: Proficient in one and knowledgeable about others.

Stephan: Right.  I understand.  I understand.  I mean in your case you started zoology, right?  Would be biology also a potential major for becoming a primatologist?

Prof. Wrangham: Yes, for a primatologist you could take classes in biology, zoology, psychology or biological anthropology.  All of those are good as an undergraduate, but it’s when you go into graduate school that you start your professional development and that’s when you want to make sure that you have some really specialized knowledge of some cutting edge technique.

Stephan: I understand.  Let’s move on to the second part of our interview.  It’s called Selection, what I call Selection.  What are the most important milestones along the road to professorship?  I’m talking in particular of the most relevant conferences to attend and which journals shall young academics aspire to submit their original research work and you could you break down this for each stage of the career?

Prof. Wrangham: Well, as an undergraduate, you don’t have to worry too much about those things, but undergraduates who succeed in doing a senior honors thesis and publishing it are obviously getting a running jump and that publication could be in a primatological journal like International Journal of Primatology.  If they can do that, that’s wonderful.

Stephan: That’s also a realistic goal for an undergraduate, from a undergraduate thesis.

Prof. Wrangham: Yes.  It’s not common and, of course, by the time your applying to graduate school, it might not actually be published because probably being written and submitted about that time, but it’s a reasonable go.

Stephan: I see.  Okay.

Prof. Wrangham: Then the student finds a professor and gets help from the professor and then they do probably write that paper together.  As a PhD. student I think a really good goal is to aim for something like a paper published every year, so that by this time you’ve come to the end of your typically six year career, you’ve got five or six papers.  Either published or ready to go.  Some people don’t have any.  Some people have more than that, but if you can get five or six you’re doing really well.

Stephan: Which are the most relevant journals to really, to focus on?

Prof. Wrangham: For the starting student, then journals that specialize in primatology are good ones to go for.  These are like the American Journal of Primatology, International Journal of Primatology, Folia Primatologica, Primates.  Those things.  But the more ambitious students will then go for papers that can be published in journals that are outside primates, so if you’re interested in hormones, it might be Hormones and Behavior.  If you’re interested in behavior, it might be Behavioral Ecology.  And so on.  Then the really exciting aim is to get a paper in one of the journals that are relatively short and communicate to a lot of people things like the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences or Science or Nature. And only very few will have the luck of getting a paper that is sufficiently high impact to get into one of those journals, but it’s a great aim to have.  Now then you’ve got your PhD.  You’re going to become a post doc probably for a year or two and after that you hope to become an assistant professor.  You got maybe six or eight years as an assistant professor in order to develop your body of work to get tenure, then you want to publishing like four papers a year and, again, you want to go for the higher impact journals if possible.  I think it’s still true that if you have a paper in science or in nature, that almost gets you a job.

Stephan: I understand.

Prof. Wrangham: You know, it’s that important.  If you have by that time, by the time you’re going up for tenure, something like six or eight years after you’ve become an assistant professor, if you’ve got your 20 to 30 papers in that time then you’ve got a very good chance of being a respected member of the profession who will get tenure.

Stephan: All right, so the aim number, so to speak in order to get tenure when you reach your 40s or something is to accumulate 30 papers, 30 articles.  This is right?  Can you…

Prof. Wrangham: Yes, I think that that’s a reasonable sort of aim.  It’s a relatively high aim.  Now, of course, I’m not wanting to suggest that it’s simply the number of papers that important.

Stephan: Of course not.

Prof. Wrangham: Obviously, their quality is very important, but it’s kind of…it gives you an idea of the rate of consistent effort that is needed to be able to be a competitive professional.

Stephan: I understand.   All right.  Okay, thank you very much.  You covered the journals very nicely.  Thank you so much for that.  What about the conferences?

Prof. Wrangham: Well, in primatology there is a big meeting of the primatologists every two years, which is the International Primatological Congress and that happens roughly in Europe or America every two years or every four years and then in the off four years, somewhere else in the world like Brazil or Indonesia or Vietnam is going to be the next one and those are very good to go to.  They’re something between 500 and 1200 people go to those.  So a lot networking possible.  For Americans there is every year, there is the American Society of Primatologists.  There are various European meetings, so these are very good meetings to go to meet all sorts of people in your field, but then in addition for the ambitious primatologist, there is no question it is very good to go to a meeting that includes primates, but is not restricted to them.  If you’re in interested in primate evolution, you might want to go to the society for Vertebrae Paleontology.  If you are interested in behavior, you go to the Animal Behavior meetings and so on.  It’s very good to go to something that embraces all mammals or all vertebrates because there what you see is the development of techniques that haven’t necessarily been applied yet to primates.  As a budding professional, you can say, “A-ha!  Look what they did those lizards.  I bet I could modify that technique and do it with my primates.”  It’s an opportunity for you to develop new ideas and bring them into the field.

Stephan: I understand.  How many conferences would you attend per year and would you advise young scholars to present each time they’re attending a conference a new topic, a new presentation, a new paper or shall they try to get feedback for one topic in various conferences?

Prof. Wrangham: I tend to suggest just one conference a year and try and present something at it.  That gives you a bit of focus.  You’re busy during your graduate career as a assistant professor.  You’ve got a lot of responsibilities and if you go to many conferences, you do less writing, so I think people should…are best advised to be relatively selective and use the conferences, not as a distraction from writing, but as a platform to get something written.  Remember that every conference you go to when you submit your abstract and give your paper, there’s a lot of work that simply goes into doing those things.  I would only go to as many conferences as you can capitalize on them by letting them lead to publications.

Stephan: Okay.  I understand.  One conference a year is a good number for…I mean…

Prof. Wrangham: Some people might say more, but I mean, again, you got to find the funding to go to the conferences and that; again, applying for the funding takes time.  If you can go to two then fair enough, but avoid the temptation to simply go to lots and lots of conferences and allow that to interfere with your onward progress.

Stephan: Okay.  I understand.  All right.  Let’s move on to the third and last part of our interview, it’s called Stakes.  How did you maintain or have you been maintaining a very high level of motivation and discipline throughout your four decade long career?

Prof. Wrangham: Well, I think that like most people who maintain their motivation, it’s just the lack of being in an area that one finds completely fascinating.  It does…there’s very little problem with it.  The problem is that life is too short and the number of problems that are intriguing and exciting are too many, so I suppose that if there is any kind of guidance I would offer, it would be to be remain open to new problems.   You know, in my own case, I was very much a primatologist and then I started thinking about the significance of cooking for the adaptation to the diet.  This led me into a new area that, in my 50s, I guess or 40s became a whole new area and thanks to having wonderful graduate students who sort of showed me the way, we developed in my lab a completely new area of being able to investigate with rodent models what was happening when we cooked food, in terms of the physiology of digestion.  Well, you know my student Rachel Carmody led the way on that, but it enables exciting new questions to be available.  I think that’s what you see in my colleagues that if they stick very narrowly with what they always have done then life will not be quite as exciting and motivating as if they opened themselves up to new possibilities.

Stephan: All right.  Okay.  Let’s wrap it up a little bit.  We covered today three broad areas.  The first one it’s called Deconstruction.  Richard explained step-by-step how he would plan his career in the field of primatology today.  Second, Selection, Richard shared with us what are, in his opinion, the most relevant journals and conferences.  Number three, Stakes, yeah, as you said, it’s very easy.  If you’re very fascinated about your topic, it’s kind of easy and yeah you have the inner desire to conduct research. Professor Richard Wringham, thank you very much for contributing so much value to the Online School for Unconventional Academics and we learned so much very specific and practical stuff from you.  I’m sure many of our users will put your recommendations into good use.  As always, I like to end each of my interviews with following quote:  “The best advice is worth nothing if it’s not put into practice.”  Thank you very much.

Prof. Wrangham: Thanks, Stephan.

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