When most people think of paleontology, they think of Jurassic Park. But paleontologists discover more than dinosaur bones. Paleontologists study fossils—the remains of various organisms that were one alive (including humans!). These fossils, or their imprints, have been preserved in the Earth. Paleontologists can unearth various fossils and study many types of impressions these bodies have left behind, which include single-celled organisms, plants, and other types of animals that once roamed this planet.
It is important that paleontologists exhibit specialized qualities and strengths that will help them conduct their work:
A desire to learn the Earth’s history through the study of fossils
An aptitude for science and math, such as physics, chemistry, geology, and biology
Knowledgeable about specialized computer programs and analytical statistics
Adaptive to changes in work setting (between field and laboratory work; independent versus teamwork)
When paleontologists and other geoscientists dig into various materials, they collect specimen that help them determine the geologic history of the Earth and its past life forms. Paleontologists must have a passion for exploring the history of Earth and its many creatures. Through studying this history, paleontologists can get a clearer picture of how geologic formations (mountains, oceans, and other terrain) have evolved. They can also find out how animals and plant life have changed through the billions of years the Earth has existed. This information can better inform people about present-day plants, animals, and people.
There are many sub-fields that aspiring paleontologists can go into:
Taphonomy is the study of fossil formation and preservation
Micropaleontology is the story of single-celled organisms
Vertebrate paleontology is the study of animal fossils with backbones
Invertebrate paleontology is the study of animal fossils without backbones
Paleobotany is the study of plant fossils
Paleocology is the study of prehistoric ecosystems
Biostratigraphy is the study of the vertical preservation of fossils in rock formations
The information that paleontologists collect can help them and other researchers learn about the decomposition process and fossil fuels formation. Paleontologists often work alongside other geoscientists, such as petroleum geologists, geochemists, and engineering geologists. These professions help keep modern life safe and improve the development of various materials that people use on a daily basis.
Paleontologist Work Environment
Paleontologists can work in the field, laboratory, or classroom. Their work depends on what sub-field they are involved in. The most lucrative need for paleontologists is in the oil and gas industry, where they may work alongside other geoscientists. This aspect of paleontology is practical but may not reflect a person’s desire to learn about the history of the Earth. Many individuals choose to practice paleontology as college and university researchers and professors, as well as museum curators and advisors.
The field work of a paleontologist can take them to far away and remote places. This type of travel could create travel opportunities for lengthy assignments. Once in the field, they may oversee and be a part of collecting samples and charting information. They can create graphs, maps, and take pictures to log their activities.
Once the field work is accomplished, the data must be analyzed, compared, and classified to understand its importance. Paleontologists who work in the field often perform their own research, too. This research can be done independently or as a part of a team. Research is often conducted for government use, and college and university projects. From here, the findings of the research can be presented to their clients or the public through lectures, written reports, and museum exhibits. What paleontologists find can also help other geoscientists do their jobs.
The objective of a paleontologist is to find fossils, which requires other various job duties:
Locating and assessing dig sites
Excavating several rock layers
Collecting data (age, size, classification)
Manual use of tools (shovels, brushes, picks)
Technological data entry and analysis using specialized computer programs
Comparing, evaluating, and determining essential information about each fossil
The salary of paleontologists is dependent upon the industry they work in. The median annual salary for geoscientists who work in the oil and gas industry is $129,550. This field will provide paleontologists and other geoscientists the most financial compensation.
Geoscientists can also work in engineering services ($80,180), scientific and technical consulting firms ($73,840), the government ($69,790), and at colleges and universities ($66,230). The median annual salary for all geoscientists was $89,700 in May of 2015.
Paleontologist Career Outlook
The job outlook for all geoscientists is better than average, at 10 percent growth throughout the next decade. But this doesn’t mean that all people who dream of digging up fossils will get to play in the dirt. Paleontologists will be needed to figure out better ways to harness energy, determine adequate methods for protecting the environment, and manage mass land development projects.
Technological improvements will create new opportunities for geoscientists and paleontologists. Those interested in the technological side of digging and analyzing data will have the best chances at employment. Colleges, universities, and government agencies (which include museums) will always have a place for paleontologists to tell their story.
Most careers in paleontology will require a Ph.D. Some field work may be conducted with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the field.
Step 1: Get a bachelor’s degree. High school coursework and a bachelor’s degree that focuses on math and science is the best path toward a career in paleontology. A Bachelor of Science in Geosciences is probably the best program to meet your educational requirements. Any undergraduate degree that focuses on math and science (especially geology) will help.
Note: Make sure to get as much field experience as you can during your undergraduate years. Keep an eye out for travel opportunities or small excavation projects near you. The geosciences and paleontology department, and local museums, should have a list of activities occurring near you.
Step 2: Get a graduate degree. It’s important during your time as an undergraduate student to determine your career focus (sub-field). Once you have decided the more specialized area you want to study, find a graduate program that will help you achieve your goal. Some programs provide only a master’s degree, and then you must pursue a doctoral program later. Many will lead directly to a Ph.D.
Make sure that your coursework includes botany, geology, and paleontology, as well as computer classes specific to the needs of paleontologists. Mathematics, chemistry, and physics are also essential, and it may be a good idea to study various languages (for all those travel opportunities!).