“You have to have a thick skin – much of being an academic is having people criticise your ideas.”

As part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special, palaeontologist Susannah Maidment discusses dinosaurs, parenthood – and her journey as a woman in academia.Friday, 8 November 2019

“It’s incredibly competitive just to get onto a PhD programme in palaeontology, let alone get postdocs, fellowships and eventually a tenured job.“ Susannah Maidment.
“It’s incredibly competitive just to get onto a PhD programme in palaeontology, let alone get postdocs, fellowships and eventually a tenured job.“ Susannah Maidment.
photo by Simon Ingram / National Geographic
This article is part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special – celebrating the women around the world who fearlessly push boundaries. The November issue of National Geographic is the first issue in which all written and photographic content has been created by women contributors.
This article is part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special – celebrating the women around the world who fearlessly push boundaries. The November issue of National Geographic is the first issue in which all written and photographic content has been created by women contributors.

Dr Susannah Maidment is a palaeontologist. Graduating in geology from Imperial College London, she gained a PhD from the University of Cambridge and her roles have included work as an exploration geologist in Vietnam and a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton. Considered a world authority on stegosaurs she has published over 40 scientific papers and won the Palaeontological Association's Hodson Award in 2016. She is Researcher in Vertebrates and Anthropology Palaeobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences, at London's Natural History Museum. 

I wanted to study dinosaurs since I was a small child. When I was six, my grandfather asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. At the time I thought being a scientist would be fun, but I was also quite keen on being a princess. My grandfather steered me strongly in the direction of scientist, and asked me what sort of scientist I’d like to be. I didn’t know there were different types of scientist, but I really liked dinosaurs. So my grandpa suggested I be a dinosaur scientist. 

In palaeontology, as with any academic discipline, you have to have a great deal of persistence and self-belief. It’s incredibly competitive just to get onto a PhD programme in palaeontology, let alone get postdocs, fellowships and eventually a tenured job. You also have to put up with low pay and lots of criticism on the way. You have to really, really want to do it to succeed.

Maidment with sauropod dinosaur bones in Morrison Formation sandstone near Hanksville, Utah, 2015.
Maidment with sauropod dinosaur bones in Morrison Formation sandstone near Hanksville, Utah, 2015.
photo by Susannah Maidment

“In palaeontology, as with any academic discipline, you have to have a great deal of persistence and self-belief. You have to really, really want to do it to succeed. ”

Susannah Maidment

For palaeontology there can be a lot of travel and fieldwork depending on your research programme. So a love of travel and the outdoors are very helpful. It helps to be collaborative, because it is such a multidisciplinary field that no one is an expert in everything. And you have to have a thick skin, because much of being an academic is having people criticise your ideas and your work. 

Nothing in my career has been anywhere near as scary as being a parent of a small baby. You spend your whole existence being scared: scared that they aren’t eating enough, sleeping enough, that you are doing it all wrong and they will grow up damaged in some way, or not grow up at all, and it will all be your fault.

Maidment and PhD student João Leite evaluate 3D scan data during the recent digitisation of the Natural History Museum's Mantellisaurus specimen.
Maidment and PhD student João Leite evaluate 3D scan data during the recent digitisation of the Natural History Museum's Mantellisaurus specimen.
photo by Simon Ingram / National Geographic

What is your greatest strength?

I’m direct. I have neither the time nor energy to beat about the bush. My colleagues may disagree that this is a strength. 

What is the greatest hurdle you’ve overcome?

My gender. If you asked me what I'd do differently if I started my career again, I'd be a man. That’s a flippant answer, and one that doesn’t make me happy to say, but it’s true. I’m the only woman whose research focuses specifically on dinosaurs with a permanent job in the UK. It took me nearly 10 years to get a permanent job after my PhD – by which time my two closest PhD contemporaries were both already Professors at Russell Group universities (both are men; most of my contemporaries who were women have left academia). In those ten years, I turned down a fellowship at Cambridge to move abroad with my partner, and gave up my career for  two years. I had a baby and spent a year on maternity leave, and then worked part time for three years when she was little.

We still live in a society where the expectation is that men are bread-winners. I should have pushed back against that, but it’s so ingrained in our culture. Fairly early on in my career I decided that I’d only apply to jobs in the south east of England because my partner worked in London and he earned all the money, so I felt I couldn’t really ask him to give up his great job to move for the pittance I would be earning as a postdoc. This severely limited my options and meant I didn’t apply for many great opportunities. I made decisions to the detriment of my career that I felt were expected of me as a woman and supportive partner. Shared parental leave is an amazing step forward, and I think it will help a lot of women. Getting back into research after taking a year or more out is incredibly hard.  

"[When I was six] I didn’t know there were different types of scientist, but I really liked dinosaurs. So my grandpa suggested I be a dinosaur scientist.“ Susannah Maidment with 'Sophie', a near complete stegosaurus specimen, at London's Natural History Museum.
"[When I was six] I didn’t know there were different types of scientist, but I really liked dinosaurs. So my grandpa suggested I be a dinosaur scientist.“ Susannah Maidment with 'Sophie', a near complete stegosaurus specimen, at London's Natural History Museum.
photo by Simon Ingram / National Geographic

“Nothing in my career has been anywhere near as scary as being a parent of a small baby. You spend your whole existence being scared.”

Susannah Maidment

What was your breakthrough moment?

I’ll let you know when it happens. 

What is the most important challenge that women face today? 

Women face a diversity of challenges, depending on where they are born and the society that they live in. I think it’s very hard to generalise or state that one is more important than another. My mother’s generation didn’t really get the opportunity to have careers – or at least it wasn’t impressed on them at school and by society that they could do whatever they wanted. They may well have had a job of some form, but not one that would have compromised running the household, and doing the majority of the childcare and household duties.

What is the most important change that needs to happen for women in the next ten years?

Today, we are told we can do and be anything we want, but society’s expectations on our roles have not changed in concept. I think for women who have careers and families, the ‘mental load’ is a huge challenge. All sorts of things have to change for women to shrug this off. Flexible working has to become more accepted and common, shared parental leave has to work financially for both partners, women have to receive equal pay. But most of all, our societal perceptions of gender roles has to change. 

What advice would you give young women today?

Don’t compromise yourself for other people.

 

Follow Susannah Maidment on Twitter.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Explore National Geographic's Women of Impact articles – and get access to our landmark November 2019 issue here. 

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