Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Paleontologist
In pop culture, the term paleontologist has largely evolved to refer to someone who studies dinosaurs, but paleontology is actually a branch of science that focuses on many different fossilized animals and plants. A paleontologist is a person who devotes their career to this study.
What does a paleontologist do?
As highly trained scientists, paleontologists study fossils — the remains of plants, animals, bacteria, fungi, and other organisms encased in rock or which have left impressions in rocks — found within the Earth to glean a better understanding of the history of life on this planet.
A paleontologist analyzes fossils in order to classify organisms and learn how they may have interacted with in their ecosystem and the environment in which they lived. Rather than studying every single fossil out there, paleontologists will often specialize in one branch of the field.
Below is an overview of various sub-disciplines that a paleontologist may study, according to information from The University of California Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley:
- Micropaleontology: The study of microscopic fossils of any group
- Paleobotany: The study of fossilized plants
- Palynology: The study of pollen and spores (living or fossilized)
- Invertebrate Paleontology: The study of invertebrate animal fossils
- Vertebrate Paleontology: The study of vertebrate animal fossils
- Paleoanthropology: The study of prehistoric human fossils
- Taphonomy: The study of decay, preservation, and formation of fossils
- Ichnology: The study of fossil tracks, footprints, and trails
- Paleoecology: The study of the ecology and climate of the past
The day-to-day work of a paleontologist will vary based on which sub-discipline they study and where they work. In general, however, these scientists gather data from a variety of sources, locate fossils, and perform excavations of fossils for preservation and analysis.
Paleontologists often analyze their findings using specialized computer systems which help them track their data and compare it to existing information. Their analysis is then shared with others in the scientific community through journal articles, books, internal communications, curated exhibits, and more.
How do you become a paleontologist?
Most paleontologists will hold a minimum of a master’s degree, though many will opt to earn a Ph.D. in the field, depending on what their overall career goals are. For entry-level roles in paleontology on research teams and in museums, however, some positions may only require an undergraduate degree in geology or biology.
During the course of their education, paleontologists will usually study within a university’s department of Earth sciences of geological sciences. They’ll take courses that cover a wide array of physical sciences including the study of the formation of fossils, ecosystems, biochemistry, sedimentology, and more with a combination of hands-on laboratory experience, classroom lectures, and research projects.
A common higher education path for a paleontologist would be to earn an undergraduate degree in geology or biology, then a Master’s degree in geology or paleontology, followed by a Ph.D. in geological sciences with a focus on paleontology.
What skills do you need to become a paleontologist?
As so much of a paleontologist’s job revolves around research and the communication of that research to colleagues and the scientific community as a whole, have strong written and verbal communication skills are necessary. As paleontologists also spend much of their time working in teams and with others in the field, they should also possess strong interpersonal and collaboration skills.
Critical thinking and the ability to analyze data also play a significant role in the day-to-day work of a paleontologist. They should be adept at hard skills like record-keeping, observation, research, organization, data collection, and analysis.
Paleontologists often have to employ reasoning skills and logic in their work as they analyze fossils and work to preserve and catalog them. Problem-solving skills are also necessary when they must collect fossils from difficult terrain or troubleshoot preservation techniques with their findings.
What is the average salary for a paleontologist?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes paleontologists in their salary data for geoscientists, which includes anyone who studies the earth’s composition. According to the BLS, the average annual salary for geoscientists was $93,580 in 2020.
The average salary for a paleontologist will vary depending on where they live and what industry they choose to work within. For example, The BLS reported that those who work in the oil and gas industry will make much more than those who work for government entities or teach at universities.
What is the typical career path for a paleontologist?
The typical career path for a paleontologist can vary based on where they would like to work. Most commonly, paleontologists choose to work within museums, government entities or become professors at a university. They do a variety of things within these entities like curate exhibits, create maps and charts for educational purposes, make presentations, and teach others about paleontology.
Other paleontologists choose to become science journalists or researchers focused on publishing new findings within the field. They use their skills to conduct laboratory tests in research facilities, perform research, publish studies, write books, and raise awareness about issues within their field of study.
A career in paleontology can also segway into work in various fields like environmental conservation, alternative energy, and mining where they can offer their skills to evaluate job sites, preserve items of ecological significance, and aid in different geological studies related to the field.
The BLS predicts that the job market for geoscientists will grow by approximately 5% over the next decade, which is slightly faster than all other occupations in the U.S. This is good news for scientists looking to enter the field of paleontology.
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