John “Jack” R. Horner is Regents Professor of Paleontology at Montana State University and the curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. He studied geology and paleontology at the University of Montana , Missoula, but undiagnosed dyslexia made it impossible for him to obtain a degree. He went on to become a leader in the fields of dinosaur growth and behavior. As described in his 2011 TED talk biography, “Horner discovered the first dinosaur eggs in the Western Hemisphere, the first evidence of dinosaur colonial nesting, the first evidence of parental care among dinosaurs, and the first dinosaur embryos.” Horner has also discovered several new dinosaur species and worked as a scientific consultant for the Jurassic Park movies (also inspiring the movies’ main character) and for TV documentaries. He has two honorary doctorates: one awarded by the University of Montana 1986 and another by the Pennsylvania State University in 2006.
The following interview highlights were edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Please tell us a little bit about your education.
J.H.: Well, I went to college, and I spent a lot of time there, but I flunked out many times. I have very severe dyslexia, and so I wasn’t able to do anything having to do with much reading. I wasn’t lazy or anything. I studied a lot, but I studied paleontology. I didn’t really study mathematics or chemistry or physics or anything else, and of course to get a degree at a university you have to have lots of other stuff.
Q: Were there any support services at the university at the time?
J.H.: No, people didn’t know what dyslexia was, so there was no support whatsoever, but that was OK. I mean, I still learned the things that I needed to learn, and I also worked in a laboratory so I could do hands-on things, and I went out in the field. The nice thing about paleontology is that you can do most of it through on-the-job training and you don’t really need a lot of book learning. As I tell my students, if you do something first you don’t have to read anything.
Q: So you found a way of learning that allowed you to do what you wanted.
J.H.: That’s right, but I basically trained to be a technician. When I got my first job, becoming a technician didn't require a degree of any kind and so I got a job as a technician and then basically worked my way up by publishing papers. So I would go out and find something new and then publish papers about that, and my first papers were in Nature, which is a good place to start.
Q: How old were you at the time?
J.H.: Around 32. Back then I was working at Princeton University as a technician, and the people at Princeton realized that if I could publish in Nature, I could be a research scientist. So I was given a promotion, and then I could write grants. But I didn’t have a Ph.D., so I couldn’t sign them. But I wrote them and I got them, and then I was able to get another job, at Montana State University, as a curator. When I came here they weren’t too excited about me having a grant, but someone co-signed it for me and then I got another one, and then the National Science Foundation said it was OK if I wrote them myself. I came to Montana State in 1982, and in 1986 the University of Montana gave me an honorary doctorate and I also got a MacArthur Fellowship. And so with that, the university decided I could have graduate students and teach classes, and basically do anything I want to do. So if you don’t get a Ph.D., you’d better get yourself a MacArthur Fellowship.
Q: It sounds like many doors are much more difficult to open when you do not have a Ph.D.
J.H.: There really is a lot of pressure to get a Ph.D. But what’s interesting to me is that the piece of paper doesn’t make you any smarter or more creative, and many people with dyslexia are very creative but just can’t read. And so I think people should start taking some of that into consideration.
Q: What pushed you to keep going in spite of the difficulties?
J.H.: I couldn’t tell you other than the fact that I really love what I do.
Q: Any positives to not having followed the standard path?
J.H.: Well, for people like myself, all of our thinking is outside the box. And one of the things that puts a person inside the box is reading too much. Preconceived ideas are everywhere in science, but you can only have a preconceived idea if you read someone else’s idea of what is true. If you haven’t, then you don’t know what is “true” and you can basically ask any question. Most of the questions I ask are very simple, but they are questions that have never been asked before because everybody thinks they already have the answer.
Q: Could you give some specific examples?
J.H.: A lot of the research I’ve been doing lately has to do with dinosaurs changing drastically the way they look as they get older, and in the past people have just thought because the littler ones were so much different than the bigger ones that they had to be different species. But nowadays we have technologies that allow us to figure that out. One way is cutting the bones up and then looking to see whether they’re juvenile or adults. Because people have preconceived ideas that museum specimens are precious, they’re not willing to cut them open and look inside, when in fact the information inside is more important really than the exterior of the bones.
Q: Regarding your interactions with traditionally trained scientists, have you always felt well accepted?
J.H.: There were times in my past where people with a Ph.D. acted as though they were lots smarter than me, therefore, I couldn’t be in their little club. But I didn’t really let things like that bother me very much because I was asking good questions and finding some interesting answers and getting my material published. I knew that my science was as good as theirs.
Q: Did you find some good mentors along the way?
J.H.: Yes. There was a fellow by the name of Don Baird, who was the curator of paleontology at the museum at Princeton, and he definitely didn’t care that I didn’t have a degree. He just liked the fact that I loved dinosaurs, and he was willing to help me and show me some of the ropes.
Q: Anything that you see in young researchers that could be improved if the entry routes within an academic career were a little more open?
J.H.: I have six doctoral students, and I teach them a lot different than most people would teach their students. I tell them that their preconceived ideas won’t help them any. Test hypotheses to see what we actually know and what we don’t actually know.
Q: Any advice for scientists without a Ph.D. on how to increase their chances of making it?
J.H.: Well, for everyone, if you want to lead a field and not follow, you have to be willing to take the risks. And if you fail, then you just get up and do it over again. And that’s probably the most important thing I have learned in life. As a dyslexic person who failed a lot of things, I think that gives me an edge, because people who get straight As and have never failed at anything are unlikely to take risks and to end up doing wonderful things in life.
Q: Do you think it’s better to have a Ph.D. or not to have a Ph.D.?
J.H.: Well, if a person has a deep passion and they really, really want to do something, I don’t think it will make any difference whether they do or they don’t because they’re going to end up publishing an awful lot of stuff and they’re going to be doing science long before they would normally get a Ph.D. Having said that, people with a Ph.D. have a much easier time getting a job and whatever. But that doesn’t mean that they’re any smarter, so we have to educate the administrators first.
Q: So what would you like to convey to the administrators?
J.H.: When they’re trying to hire someone, they just need to take a lot of things into consideration that they probably don’t right now. Right now, they want someone to have a Ph.D. and they want to know what fancy school they came from.
Q: So what other criteria would you like to encourage them to look at?
J.H.: Publishing records. If you’re looking for a good researcher, a good researcher’s already done good research some way or another, and it is not just like everybody else’s research. Also, where they get their money or how they get it. Maybe not a lot of people get money from private institutions and private individuals, so creative fundraising.
Q: Would you like to add anything to conclude this interview?
J.H.: If you have passion and you are willing to take a risk and you’re willing to fail, then you will reach your desired place in life.