What is a paleontologist?
A paleontologist is a professional who studies the life forms that existed in past geologic periods, primarily by analyzing fossil remains. They focus on understanding the history of life on Earth, making significant use of the fossil record. These individuals work to gain insights into long-gone eras and comprehend how life has evolved over time periods spanning millions of years. This profession contributes valuable knowledge about Earth’s history and provides information critical to the future of our planet.
Paleontologists often focus on specific areas of study based on the type of fossils or the period in which they are interested. They work to reconstruct the environments of past eras and take a comprehensive look at the climate and seismic data from those years. They also work to identify extinct species and study their interactions with their environment, contributing key insights about biodiversity and environmental factors that have shaped life on Earth.
Duties and responsibilities
A paleontologist’s duties and responsibilities primarily revolve around conducting research, analyzing, and interpreting data from fossils. This work often involves fieldwork, where these professionals go to various locations around the world to dig up and examine fossil specimens. They also spend a significant amount of time in laboratories, conducting careful analysis and dating of fossil materials.
Additional responsibilities may involve publishing their findings, presenting at scientific conferences, teaching in universities, or contributing to museum exhibitions. Some may also advise or consult on projects related to environmental conservation and natural resource management, applying their knowledge of past climates and ecosystems to present situations.
A paleontologist’s work environment varies depending on their specific area of focus. They often split their time between field sites, laboratories, and offices. The fieldwork can be physically demanding, involving working in various outdoor conditions and excavation sites. This may require using tools and equipment and can involve carrying heavy loads. In laboratories, they work with specialized equipment for analyzing and dating fossils. Offices present a more conventional work environment for writing research papers, planning projects, and teaching courses.
Typical work hours
Like many scientific research roles, the hours for a paleontologist can be quite variable. During fieldwork, they may spend long days in the field, sometimes working weekends or irregular hours depending on the specific project’s demands or the excavation phase. Laboratory work and office hours tend to follow a more traditional work schedule, roughly 40 hours a week. However, this job often requires a significant commitment to research and writing, potentially leading to extended work hours.
How to become a paleontologist
This career guide section outlines the process of becoming a paleontologist. Paleontology combines principles from geology, biology, and chemistry to study ancient life. To embark on this exciting career, you will need a solid academic foundation and practical field experience.
Step 1: Obtain a high school diploma
As a starting point, earning a high school diploma is an important step. Courses like biology, chemistry, physics, math, and geology can lay the groundwork for your university studies. Other relevant subjects include statistics and computer science. Excellence in these subjects will be beneficial when pursuing this career path.
Step 2: Earn a bachelor’s degree
Aspiring paleontologists must obtain a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field. Majors in paleontology specifically are rare, so related majors could include geology, earth sciences, biology, or anthropology. A foundation in these sciences will prove useful in understanding the physical world and the history of life on Earth.
Step 3: Gain field experience
Paleontology involves a lot of fieldwork, so gaining experience early on is crucial. Look for internships or volunteer opportunities with natural history museums, geology departments, or paleontological societies. These exposures to work directly with fossils and other geological formations further your understanding of the profession.
Step 4: Pursue a master’s degree (optional)
Some individuals choose to earn a master’s degree after their bachelor’s. This may be beneficial for more specialized positions or for those wanting to gain more detailed knowledge before entering a Ph.D. program. The focus of these programs is typically on research and often includes a thesis requirement.
Step 5: Complete a doctoral degree
To become a professional paleontologist, a doctoral degree is typically required. Doctoral programs offer the opportunity to specialize in a particular area of paleontology, and they usually involve a significant research component that culminates in a dissertation. This significant academic achievement demonstrates a comprehensive understanding of paleontological study.
Step 6: Obtain post-doctoral experience
After completing a Ph.D., many paleontologists work in post-doctoral positions. These temporary jobs, often in academic institutions or museums, allow for the continuation of personal research projects. This additional experience allows for the improvement of research skills and the ability to settle on a particular specialty within paleontology.
Step 7: Begin a career as a paleontologist
Finally, after completing all the steps above, you will be qualified to start a career as a paleontologist. Whether in academia, museums, or independent research, the paths to take are diverse. Continue to stay updated with the latest research in your field as you begin actively contributing to the body of paleontological knowledge.
How much do paleontologists make?
Paleontologist salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Compensation can particularly rise with years of fieldwork experience and successful research published in recognized scientific journals.
Highest paying industries
- Petroleum and Coal Products Manufacturing – $113,68
- Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services – $110,35
- Oil and Gas Extraction – $107,44
- Architectural and Engineering – $97,32
- Federal Executive Branch – $95,45
Highest paying states
- Texas – $108,32
- California – $97,84
- Oklahoma – $95,68
- Louisiana – $92,56
- Colorado – $89,44
Types of paleontologists
Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for paleontologists. This section aims to shed light on the different pathways within the broader paleontology profession, providing key insights for those interested in this exciting field of study.
Specializing in studying ancient animals with backbones, this type of paleontologist digs deep into understanding extinct creatures. Vertebrate paleontologists shed light on the life processes, structures, and evolutionary history of ancient mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. Their findings often provide invaluable insights into our planet’s past ecosystems.
Unlike their vertebrate-focused counterparts, these paleontologists focus on ancient animals without backbones. They study extinct species, including insects, mollusks, and other invertebrates, illuminating the history of life on Earth. These professionals often analyze sedimentary rock strata to understand different periods, epochs, and eras of geological history.
Specializing in the study of microscopic fossils, micropaleontologists examine the remains of organisms too small to be visible to the naked eye. Using high-powered microscopic tools and technologies, they contribute valuable insights into the planet’s past climates, ecosystems, and geological developments.
Investigating the past’s plant life, paleobotanists directly impact our understanding of ancient flora and its role in shaping our present ecosystem. They study plant fossils, including algae, fungi, and land plants, providing a perspective on the evolution of plants and their impact on the environment over time.
A blend of paleontology and ecology, these specialists study the relationships between extinct organisms and their environments. By examining fossil records, they develop theories on ecosystem dynamics, environmental change, and extinction events. Their work helps determine how ancient life forms adapted to changes in their environments.
Top skills for paleontologists
This career guide section outlines the skills and abilities that will help you find success as a paleontologist.
From observing fine characteristics of fossils in the field to scrutinizing elements under a microscope in a lab, careful attention ensures that no vital information is overlooked. Picking out differences and patterns in specimens contributes to accurate identification and analysis.
Understanding of earth sciences
Knowing about various earth sciences is fundamental. For instance, understanding geology helps establish the context and age of fossils. Besides knowledge of earth sciences, having a grasp on evolutionary biology can offer insights into species’ survival, evolution, and extinction.
Strong research skills involve not only fieldwork to discover and excavate fossils but also studying relevant literature, formulating and testing hypotheses, and writing papers to disseminate findings. The ability to plan, conduct, and report on investigative studies is essential.
The physical demands of rich exploration and the excavation of fossils require resilience. Field expeditions can involve enduring harsh weather conditions, carrying heavy equipment, and undertaking meticulous, laborious tasks. Having perseverance and physical fitness will certainly assist in this job.
Good communication skills are essential for paleontologists, especially those working in academic settings who may need to present findings at conferences or to students. Additionally, clarity in conveying ideas and hypotheses can promote efficient and productive work relationships when collaborating with other scientists.
Career path options
As a paleontologist, your career trajectory depends largely on your level of education, experience, and specialization. While initially, you may start in fieldwork or research assistance, with time and experience, you could progress to senior roles such as lead researcher or project supervisor.
For those seeking advancement, completing a doctorate offers the potential to move into academia as a professor or lecturer. This opens up the possibility of leading research projects and contributing new knowledge to the field. Consequently, it offers a clear path for those passionate about research and teaching.
Outside academia, opportunities exist in resource extraction industries, consulting, or government work. Professionals who have honed their skills and expertise in paleontology may find that their knowledge is sought after in sectors such as oil, gas, and mining, where they can contribute to environmental assessment and resource exploration. Advancement in these fields may lead to management, executive, or consulting roles.
There is a wide range of job roles within paleontology for professionals to consider as they seek to advance their careers. In addition to roles within academia as lecturers, professors, and research leads, other potential roles include becoming a museum curator, an exhibition designer, or a science writer focusing on paleontology. Each role provides a unique avenue for individuals to share their love for paleontology with the public.
In resource extraction industries, jobs such as environmental consultant or petrologist are potential pathways. Within the government sector, roles can range from policy adviser to environmental analyst, offering meaningful ways to contribute to decision-making processes at the highest levels.
Similar job titles
Position trends and outlook
The field of paleontology continues to advance rapidly due to ongoing changes in technology and methodology. From enhanced tools for excavating fossils to sophisticated software for analysis, the profession has never been more exciting or dynamic. A significant shift in this profession has been the integration of more sophisticated technology and analytical tools to advance research efforts in this field. CT scanners, for instance, have allowed paleontologists to examine fossils in unprecedented detail, making it possible to make more precise determinations about how long-extinct creatures lived and died.
Additionally, this profession’s skill set is also expanding. These professionals must possess strong technical skills, a deep understanding of geology and biology, and a substantial capacity for scientific research and fieldwork. Computer competencies are becoming increasingly important in the industry as well, given the sophisticated software platforms used in data analysis.
Employment projections for paleontologists
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics includes paleontologists in the broader category of geoscientists. Employment of geoscientists is projected to grow 5 percent from 2021 through 2031, as fast as the average for all occupations. The need for energy, environmental protection, and responsible land and resource management is expected to drive demand for geoscientists in the future.
Paleontologist career tips
Expand your scientific knowledge
It’s important to deepen and broaden your scientific knowledge continually. The field of paleontology evolves continuously with frequent discoveries and scientific advancements. You should stay informed about the latest research, excavation techniques, and findings in the industry. Subscribing to relevant scientific journals, attending seminars, and participating in workshops can keep your knowledge current.
Mastery of the necessary tools
Work in paleontology often involves extensive fieldwork, making it critical to have a solid understanding of the tools used in excavations and research. Familiarizing yourself with modern excavation methods and technology can enhance your efficacy in the field. Hands-on practice, workshops, and advanced study can be beneficial.
Document your work correctly
Proper documentation is a key aspect of paleontology. It involves maintaining accurate records of all excavations, specimens, observations, and research findings. This helps preserve your work’s integrity and can contribute toward scientific discovery and progress. Consider taking a course or seminar in scientific writing or documentation to improve your skills here.
Build a professional network
Networking within the field can open up numerous opportunities. It helps to share knowledge, exchange ideas, and even gain exposure to job opportunities. The following are some professional associations and networks you may consider:
- Paleontological Society
- The Paleontological Research Institution
- The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
- American Association of Stratigraphic Palynologists
Pursue continuous learning
Given the dynamic nature of paleontology, you should strive for continuous learning. This can take different forms, including some suggested below:
- Enroll in advanced courses to learn about new developments in the field
- Attend workshops and seminars to hone practical skills
- Pass certification programs specific to your area of interest
Where the jobs are
- Smithsonian Institution
- American Museum of Natural History
- University of California Museum of Paleontology
- Denver Museum of Nature and Science
- The Field Museum
- New York
What kind of educational background is needed to become a paleontologist?
To begin a career in this field, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree in paleontology, earth sciences, or a related field. Master’s degrees and Ph.D.s are common among those wanting to conduct research or work at a university level.
What are the typical tasks and responsibilities of a paleontologist?
Work in this field often involves locating and excavating fossilized remains and artifacts. Specialists then interpret these findings to better understand the history of life on Earth. They publish their findings, contribute to museum exhibits, and participate in speaking engagements.
Are there any specific skills or traits that can positively impact one’s career in paleontology?
Precision, patience, and overall attention to detail are vital characteristics of this profession. Additionally, a passion for learning, problem-solving abilities, and excellent writing skills for technical reports and academic papers are beneficial.
What are the physical demands of a paleontologist?
This profession can be physically demanding, as it often requires long hours in the field, sometimes in various weather conditions. Additionally, excavation and fieldwork can require strength and stamina.
Can paleontologists specialize in certain areas?
Yes, many choose to specialize in certain eras, types of organisms, research methods, or regions of the world. Specializations can provide opportunities to conduct unique or pioneering research.
Is travel a normal part of a paleontologist’s job?
Yes, travel is often a significant part of this profession. They may travel to dig sites, conferences, exhibits, and research facilities. The extent of travel can depend on the specific job role and individual project requirements.
What’s the difference between a paleontologist and an archaeologist?
While both professions study the past, the focus differs. Paleontologists study the history of life on Earth primarily by examining fossils. Archaeologists, however, focus more on studying past human cultures through artifacts, buildings, and other remaining material evidence.
How does the work of a paleontologist impact other scientific fields?
Their findings can affect various scientific fields. They can influence our understanding of climate change, contribute to biological research, or guide oil and gas exploration. Their work also aids in reconstructing the Earth’s past environments and helps us understand the evolution of life.
Is paleontology a field with good job prospects?
The job market in paleontology can be competitive, and often, a higher degree can help stand out among other candidates. Some graduates may also find employment in related fields such as geology, biology, or environmental science.
Does a paleontologist’s work necessitate a lot of outdoor activities?
Yes, a considerable portion of their responsibilities involves outdoor activities. Fieldwork is vital to discovering and excavating fossils. However, the work balance can depend on the specific role, as roles focusing more on research or teaching may involve more indoor activities.