Advice for Students and Parents

There is no luckier person than the person who can make their passion their career. Most professional paleontologists are just such lucky people. They are people consumed with a passion to understand the history of life on earth. Paleontology is fun, thrilling, and fascinating, but it is also hard work. It is not "easier" than the more traditional "core" science disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, or geology. In many ways, paleontology is more difficult than any other science -- because to be a good paleontologist you must know a great deal about all of these fields. Paleontology is among the broadest of sciences.

What is paleontology?

Paleontology is more than just dinosaurs! Paleontology is the study of the history of life on Earth as reflected in the fossil record. Fossils are the remains or traces of organisms (plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and other single-celled living things) that lived in the geological past and are preserved in the crust of the Earth. There are many subdivisions of the field of paleontology including vertebrate paleontology (the study of fossils of animals with backbones), invertebrate paleontology (the study of fossils of animals without backbones), micropaleontology (the study of fossils of single-celled organisms), paleobotany (the study of plant fossils), taphonomy (the study of how fossils form and are preserved), biostratigraphy (the study of the vertical distribution of fossils in rocks), and paleoecology (the study of ancient ecosystems and how they developed). Paleontologists frequently are involved in studies of evolutionary biology.

What background do I need in high school?

The best starting point is a college preparatory program with as many science and math courses as possible. Outside reading in paleontology and visiting museums with fossil displays is helpful for building up knowledge of fossils themselves. No matter how interested or knowledgeable a student is in paleontology, however, good overall grades in high school are almost always required for admission to a good college or university, which is a necessary prerequisite for a career in paleontology.

What background do I need in college?

A strong background in the sciences is absolutely essential along with a strong concentration in both biology and geology. An undergraduate institution should be chosen on the basis of its quality of general science education and especially the quality of its biology and geology programs. At this stage the student often has to make a difficult decision about whether to major in biology or geology. The ideal arrangement is a double-major, with full undergraduate training in both biology and geology. If this is not possible, the best solution is to major in one and take substantial course work in the other. Liberal arts courses should not be ignored. A good reading knowledge of a modern language (especially German, French or Russian) should be obtained as an undergraduate. Don't wait until graduate school! At least a full year of chemistry, physics, and mathematics through calculus, are required by most graduate programs and should be taken as early as possible as an undergraduate.

The courses that are most pertinent to paleontology include the following: mineralogy, stratigraphy/sedimentation, sedimentary petrology, invertebrate paleontology, ecology, invertebrate and vertebrate zoology, evolutionary biology, genetics.

Ability in statistical analysis and solid computer skills are absolutely required in modern paleontology and should not be left for graduate school. The more courses and experience in these areas at the undergraduate level, the better.

What other experience can I get?

Although strong academic course work is the most important element of paleontological training, students interested in paleontology can also benefit from obtaining first-hand experience in the field itself. Access to such experiences depend greatly on where you live. Before college, you can often seek out a paleontologist at a nearby museum, college, or university. These people will usually be able to suggest places to collect fossils, and may have volunteer opportunities in their institutions. Local gem and mineral or fossil clubs are often excellent avenues for learning where and how to collect fossils in the local area, and for meeting other people interested in and knowledgeable about fossils.

During the undergraduate years, opportunities for outside experiences often increase. If there is a paleontologist at the college or university, you may be able to pursue independent research. If not, you may be able to find volunteer opportunities at nearby museums. It is very important during the undergraduate years to talk directly with a professional paleontologist who can answer your questions about not just the science but how the field works and how you can enter it.

Where should I go to graduate school?

A doctoral degree or PhD is almost always necessary for any serious professional career in paleontology. Many universities offer graduate training in paleontology, at both the Masters and PhD levels. Depending on your specific paleontological interests, specific requirements of individual schools, or personal considerations, you may wish to pursue a MS degree before a PhD or enter a PhD program directly. If you have not had much first-hand experience with research in college (such as writing a senior thesis), a master's degree first may be a good idea. More schools offer master's degrees than PhDs. After obtaining a MS degree, you may be able to remain at the same institution for your PhD or move on to another institution.

Different universities have different strengths in different areas of paleontology, usually depending on the interests of individual professors. You can find out what professors are interesting to you by reading their published papers in professional journals such as Journal of Paleontology, Paleobiology, American Paleontologist, Palaios and Geology. At least some of these journals are available in most college libraries. You should make an effort to contact professors whose work interests you directly, by letter, email or phone, and arrange to visit their departments. This not only helps you learn more about their graduate programs, but may impress them with the seriousness of your interest.

A MS in paleontology usually takes 2-3 years to complete. A PhD usually takes 4-6 years (if you already have received a MS) or 6-8 years (if you do not already have a MS).

Where can I get a job?

Most professional paleontologists in the United States today are college and university professors. Most work in departments of geology, where they usually teach general geology courses in addition to paleontology. Smaller numbers of professional paleontologists work in museums. These paleontologists generally carry out their own research and teach and consult on exhibits only occasionally. A much smaller number of paleontologists work for government surveys, usually in geological mapping or other applied geological problem solving.

Until relatively recently, a large number of paleontologists worked for major oil companies, helping to search for petroleum. These companies still employ some paleontologists, but a much smaller number than before.

Overall, there are probably fewer jobs in paleontology in the U.S. than there were a few years ago, but a few good jobs still become available each year.

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