Skip to content Skip to navigation

Careering off Course: Sarah Gabbot (Academic Lecturer)

Note: this article featured on the previous Palaeontological Association website but was not part of the Careering off Course! Newsletter series; however it is now included within the series for consistency.

Dr. Sarah Gabbot's research broadly focusses on exceptionally preserved fossils especially those of entirely soft bodied animals. She is currently (2016)  a Senior Lecturer in Palaeobiology based at the University of  Leicester.


How did you get to where you are?

The short answer is hard work, luck and a fascination with animals. I believe that I have taken a fairly conventional route to becoming a lecturer via A Levels, a degree from Southampton University in Geology, a Ph.D. from the University of Leicester and a two year postdoctoral research assistantship, also at Leicester University.

After the post-doctoral money ran out, and I was (repeatedly) unsuccessful in gaining any more grant funding, I subsequently spent a year with periods of unemployment and living on 'soft' money. I was extremely fortunate during this time to have great support from the department at Leicester and encouragement from several individuals (thanks especially to John Hudson).

Unless you are extremely lucky and/or brilliant you may face the possibility of some time living in the financial twilight zone between grants. A number of my more deserving contemporaries have also experienced this situation. I started my lectureship in Leicester in September 1999.

Would you change your career route if you had the chance again?

I feel very fortunate that I am where I am, and except for the unemployment doldrums the getting here has been fun and rewarding. I was considering taking a year out after my degree to do conservation work, travel and learn to surf but then a lagerstätten Ph.D. topic became available, so the surfing had to wait. Seriously, a gap year, if spent fruitfully, can be a good opportunity for post-degree reflection where you can assess whether academia is really for you. Many people now choose to do a Masters after their degree, to better their qualifications and see if academia is for them. Whatever your route to academia you will need to be determined.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

This very much depends on whether its term time or not. Outside of term time then my efforts are focused on research. This may involve fieldwork, lab work, trawls through the library etc. Research has its more mundane side; don't expect "eureka" moments every day, but they do happen, and not many people can go home from work knowing that they discovered something new about the world - however small a something that may be.

In term time research becomes something that I squeeze into spare time. In the first year or two of lecturing (I'm just starting my third academic year) a lot of time is spent preparing and panicking about lectures and tutorials. In any one day I will be reading up on molluscs, sorting out some igneous rocks for a tutorial, replying to administrative e-mails, correcting a Ph.D. student's thesis text, finding a paper for a 4th year undergraduate, sorting out slides for a lecture on the origin of life, preparing for the next admissions day

As well as lecturing and tutorials I usually undertake three weeks, and the odd day or weekend, of fieldwork teaching per year.

What are the best things about being a lecturer?

Teaching enthusiastic students is a real joy, as is the moment when a student understands a difficult concept because you managed to explain it. Teaching students in the field is rewarding because you get constant questions and feedback, and when in breathtaking scenery you can feel smug by reminding yourself that this is actually work.

Having the opportunity to do original research on something you feel passionate about means the job will always be stimulating. There is still a large degree of freedom in research. Nothing is formulaic, you can vary the research you do, work on your own or within a team, read, do fieldwork, lab work or just think. And as an added bonus, you may travel to beautiful and interesting parts of the world (not as a tourist) to collaborate with people from other countries.

What are the worst things about being a lecturer?

As a Ph.D. student and postdoctoral researcher you are focused solely on your research and you don't appreciate how privileged a time that is until you don't have it any more. Lecturing involves a lot of multitasking and after a long period of being single minded it can be very difficult (it was for me) to switch to this. It can be frustrating that there never seems enough time in a day to get around to looking at that data you just got back from the lab, or to look at that new fossil, or to read that paper etc. I am assured that this gets easier after the initial couple of years!

In addition, the route to lecturing can be beset with uncertainty. There is no guarantee of a permanent post even after a successful postdoctoral period. Something else to consider is that often you will be expected to move around the country to get grant money or contracts. This is fine when in your early twenties, but in late twenties, thirties and beyond you might actually have a life! a partner, a house, children. Moving around the country to obtain contracts can then be a real problem. However, some funding bodies, such as the Royal Society, are more flexible and appreciate people's life circumstances. Given this peripatetic period, with short term contracts, it is little wonder that many leave academia during this period. Those wishing to start a family during this time may have an especially difficult time - but it can be done and there are many young lecturers who have extremely successful careers, undertake top-quality research and have a family (they have my deepest respect).

What is your area of research and why?

My Ph.D. was centred on the taphonomy and palaeontology of the Soom Shale, an Upper Ordovician exceptionally preserved biota from South Africa. Since then I have become increasingly interested in the sedimentary geochemistry and ecology of other exceptionally preserved biotas.

After undergraduate project work I knew that I really wanted to do palaeontological research but I wasn't entirely sure in which area, or whether I would be Ph.D. material. When I read the Ph.D. description for this project, supervised by Dick Aldridge and Kevin Pickering, I was instantly excited about it and had no doubts that this was a project I would really enjoy working on. Enthusiasm for your subject is really the starting point for a career in lecturing. This enthusiasm is transferred to the students, and means that you can always find the time for your research.

PalAss Go! URL: | Twitter: Share on Twitter | Facebook: Share on Facebook | Google+: Share on Google+