Careers in Biology: Curators, what they do and how they do it

What is the role of curators in herbariums and museums? Do curators have to do research? Do they apply for grants? How stressful is their job?  These and more questions will be answered in this post of Careers in Biology, in which Dr. Charlotte Taylor explains her job as a curator of the Herbarium in the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT). The summary presented here was prepared by our guest blogger and PhD student Haydée Hernández, with contributions of the UMSL grad students Priya Maharaj, Vona Kuczynska and Alicia Marty.

In this column of The Naked Darwin, you will find interviews with outstanding professionals that have devoted their careers to different fields of Biology. Here, they share their expertise in their career, and we hope our readers can gain from the knowledge and advice they will share. The interviews are performed by students from the University of Missouri-St Louis, who are taking the seminar “Careers in Biology” offered by Dr. Parker.


WordCloudCuratorsDr. Charlotte Taylor’s research focus is in floristics and systematics of Neotropical and Malagasy plants of the family Rubiaceae. This interview session with Dr. Taylor was particularly exciting, because although most people have visited museums and botanical gardens, few know what happens behind the scenes. Curators are important personnel of these interesting places. They are the managers of the herbarium’s (or museum’s) collections and are content specialists that are responsible for species identification and the species’ geographical data. This interview was, therefore, a good opportunity to learn more about their job.

Dr Charlotte Taylor is a curator of the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT). Photo by Kate Lawless, MOBOT.

Dr Charlotte Taylor is a curator of the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT). Photo by Kate Lawless, MOBOT.

Can you walk us through a typical day as a curator? For example, the percentage of time spent in the field, in the office, or in educational outreach.

” I first start by taking my morning coffee, this is essential. My main duties are the identification of plant specimens, description of new species and taxonomy.”

Dr. Taylor also assists people from the different places in the tropics with specimen identification and verification. For instance, she recently received 150 boxes from a “blank area on the map” (a place that has been poorly explored), in this case the MOBOT Peru Project, filled with plant specimens that need to be identified. After identification, the next step is to compile the species data in a database for analysis. Geographical, community diversity and composition analysis are a few things that can be done with the data obtained. Dr. Taylor works closely with different personnel to perform these analyses, such as ecologists and conservationists working at the MOBOT. She also does field work, which can be either mind numbing or exciting, depending on the project and the location.

She explained that the main output of the work as a curator highly depends on the mission statement of the institution you work with. In the case of the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT), it relates to field exploration, research and conservation. Other museums allow curators to do their own independent research.

We previously had a talk given by Dr. Kellogg regarding project funding. How does the gathering research funds process work when you are a curator?

A MOBOT curator is responsible for a project, such as organizing flora or doing surveys of an ecological area, which is funded by the Institution. Yet sometimes curators can be responsible for the funding of the project, which means writing up proposals. Depending on the institution, curators will run projects in which they are interested. This is indeed very important, because institution-wide projects often have large grants or institutional funding, but smaller personal projects require curators to obtain their own funding through grants. At the MOBOT, Dr. Taylor has a specific set of duties that do not require her to apply for grants, but she has the option to apply for grants for her own research. She usually spends 10-20% of her time writing up grant proposals. However, there is much more pressure for grant writing in other museums, where the primary mission is cutting edge research and publications. Dr. Taylor has applied for and received her own funding in the past, and this has allowed her to manage her projects as she likes.


How about fieldwork and traveling as a curator?

 According to Dr. Taylor, young scientists working in the country where the samples are being collected primarily do the majority of fieldwork. Scientists and curators from the museum will occasionally travel and work alongside other field workers.

 In your job, how do you share your findings of new species and their locations?

 She writes as many papers as possible for publication in scientific journals, regarding the new species found. The MOBOT does a great job in terms of sharing information: TROPICOS is the MOBOT’s database that is used to upload project data on specimen information, literature references, and images. TROPICOS used to be an internal database, but has now become publicly available (you can access it at, and it is also used within the MOBOT to verify information from outside sources and ensure data accuracy.

How about innovations in the type of Museum work you do?

 Dr. Taylor expressed the need to integrate new technology into the museum work. Currently they use high-resolution scans, which are magnified, copied and printed, and then are used as reference in the museum. New positions are occasionally created for database work, data analysis, GIS work, and predictive modeling. These types of positions require plant/biological knowledge, as well as specific technical skills.

 Does one need a MS or a PhD degree to become an entry or senior level curator?

 Entry-level personnel are usually assigned specific topics consistent with their expertise, typically from their graduate research. A Ph.D. is required as a tool for projects that require heavy outside funding, even though people holding MS or BS degrees also work in other capacities in these projects. For example, individual projects have research assistants that help in data processing, specimen handling and identification and some may even have smaller projects; these assistants may have BS or MS degrees.

 What are the criteria for advancement?

 She explained that unlike other jobs, in Museums there is not much competition, and likewise little room for advancement. There are assistant curators, then associate curators and finally [full] curators, and in some institutions, senior curators. Advancing to the next level typically happens with time and may not always come with a salary increase. Other people can also switch to more administrative roles or take a position at a University.

What is the typical salary range (entry and senior level)?

 Salary can range from about US$30,000 to as high as US$250,000, with an average of US$40,000-60,000 per year. Some museums offer tenure positions, and generally administrative positions are higher up on the pay scale than curators.

QuotesCover-pic82What is the job security like as a curator?

Many people stay within the museum for life, and because of this, there is generally a low turnover rate in these positions. However, this depends on the institution. For example, in a sister organization, personnel in the molecular section have been denied tenure for not securing grants and publishing. Publishing may not always be mandatory, but Dr. Taylor views publications as her form of success and tries to publish as often as possible.

 How do you determine a curator’s productivity?

 Productivity is mainly in the form of publications: such as floras, identification guides and papers in scientific journals. In her job, the samples she receives are mainly from previously unexplored areas; this allows her to publish papers on approximately eight or more new species per year. However, Dr. Taylor estimates that she discovers 20-30 new species each year, but the publications associated with those sometimes require more time than what she has available.


How long does it take you to become an expert in the field?

 This is not something that happens quickly. It took her about 20 years before she got a handle on her area of expertise. She started out with relevant knowledge, and slowly learned more throughout her career and gradually became more comfortable and confident with her results, and identifying specimens quickly.

 How demanding is your job?

 She believes it is not as high pressure as a University setting. However, you have to learn to pace yourself because there is a lot of work, and there are no large breaks such as spring and summer vacation. Many curators work on weekends and devote extra time to their personal research, but you can limit yourself to 40 hours a week if you want.

Finally, to all readers out there, if you find yourself interested in pursuing this career and want to get some hands-on experience, Dr. Taylor shared information regarding volunteering at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

First of all, she explained that this requires a commitment of regular work, from two hours up to a full workday in the museum once a week. Interested persons can contact the volunteers’ office and they are matched with personnel according to their interests. Another possibility is to directly contact Dr. Peter Hoch, MOBOT Graduate Director, and he will spread the word to people who are looking for a volunteer. Another option for you is to directly contact a curator by finding their information on the MOBOT website.

I hope this has provided you with useful details into the life of herbarium and museum curators. As you read, one of their main duties is species identification, but they are also able to do their own research, and although they do not travel much, they can visit the sites where the species come from and collaborate with other professionals such as ecologists and conservationists. What do you think about this choice of career? Is it for you?



About Haydée Hernández: I am a PhD student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in Dr. Robert Marquis Lab. My main interests are ecological interactions and their role in community structure. I believe that pollination and herbivory are fascinating processes that are able to change ecological communities. I also enjoy reading and delving into the fascinating worlds that books can provide.


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