What is a paleontologist?
Paleontologists excavate and study fossils of extinct species of plants and animals. Most people think of them as finding and studying dinosaur bones, but these professionals study many other prehistoric life forms as well. They work to piece together the evolution of plant and animal life through their discoveries and research, and theorize about what life was like for these prehistoric life forms.
Some paleontologists work at excavation sites where fossils have been discovered. They work meticulously to unearth the fossils without damaging them and carefully transport them to museums and research institutes for study. They must be very careful as fossils can be thousands, or even millions, of years old, and can be extremely fragile. Other paleontologists teach and conduct research in universities or study the evolution of plants and animals in private research facilities.
Qualifications and eligibility
The qualifications of a paleontologist include the right combination of education and training to succeed in their role:
A bachelor’s degree in geology, earth science, or a related field is the minimum amount of education required to work as an entry-level paleontologist. However, a master’s degree or doctorate in paleontology is highly preferred and most jobs in paleontology require a postgraduate degree.
Aspiring paleontologists can find opportunities for training by applying for internships and doing volunteer work. Many universities can help students find internships while they’re working on their undergraduate degrees. You can also find training by working in museums.
Although certifications and licenses are not required to work as a paleontologist, registering with a professional organization, such as the International Paleontological Association, is a good way to demonstrate your expertise.
Beyond education and training, a paleontologist needs to have excellent verbal and written communication skills to present findings through presentations and published works. They must be organized to keep track of fossil locations, where fossils are transported, and who is working on them. They will need good research and observation skills as well. A wide base of scientific knowledge is very useful to identify and analyze fossils. These individuals also need to have a good amount of physical stamina as they can spend long hours of painstaking and careful work outdoors.
Most paleontologists work as university professors where they also conduct research and publish their work in scientific journals. Many participate in field expeditions during the summer. They spend much of their time teaching in the classroom, analyzing findings in the lab, or writing papers and grading school work in the office.
Paleontologists who do fieldwork may be exposed to various and sometimes extreme weather conditions. Getting to job sites can be physically strenuous while hiking over rough terrain, up mountainsides, and through muddy fields. They often have to carry tools and research equipment in backpacks. The days are irregular and can be unpredictable.
Those who work at research facilities typically divide their time between the lab and the office.
Many paleontologists work in museums, historical exhibits, oil, gas, and mining companies, and for the state and federal government in office, lab, and field settings.
Typical work hours
The work hours for paleontologists in the field can be long and unpredictable. They can spend hours crouching, digging, cleaning, and carefully extracting bones and other artifacts from excavation sites. They might have to travel long distances, even overseas to foreign countries, and spend days or weeks in the field at a time. Those who work in universities can have varied hours due to classroom schedules, and spend some hours of their day doing lab work. The professionals who work in the private sector tend to have regular 40-hour weeks in an office or laboratory setting.
Types of paleontologists
There are several different types of paleontologists. When considering this career, the types of paleontology you can choose from include:
- Biostratigraphy – the study of the vertical distribution of fossils in rocks
- Invertebrate Paleontology – the study of fossils of invertebrate animals (those without backbones), such as bivalves, trilobites, crinoids, and corals
- Paleobotany – the study of plant fossils
- Micropaleontology – the study of fossils of single-celled organisms, such as bacteria, protists, foraminifera, and diatoms
- Vertebrate Paleontology – the study of fossils of vertebrate animals (those with backbones), including fish, mammals, reptiles and dinosaurs, and birds
- Paleoecology – the study of ancient ecosystems and how they developed
- Taphonomy – the study of how fossils form and are preserved
- Paleoanthropology – the study of ancient hominins (humans)
- Paleontology – the study of fossil woods
- Paleopalynology – the study of pollen, spores, and microscopic plankton fossils to study past environments.
- Paleopathology – the study of diseases and injuries of ancient animals and plants
- Molecular Paleontology – the study of the DNA, lipids, carbohydrates, and more of prehistoric life
- Evolutionary Development Paleontology – the study of the developmental processes of different organisms to understand ancestral relationships.
The earning potential for a paleontologist can vary greatly depending on geographic location, education, experience, and acquired skills.
- According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, The median annual wage for geoscientists was $83,680 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $48,880, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $172,490. Geoscientists include engineering geologists, geologists, geochemists, geophysicists, oceanographers, paleontologists, petroleum geologists, and seismologists.
The average salary for paleontologists in some major cities according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics is:
- Houston, TX – $131,410
- Oklahoma City, OK – $101,383
- New Orleans, LA – $84,419
- Washington DC – $83,826
- Denver, CO – $81,546
The top 5 states for paleontologist salaries are:
- Texas – $139,870
- Oklahoma – $118,110
- Alaska – $101,580
- Colorado – $100,300
- California – $97,170
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the employment numbers for geoscientists are projected to grow about 7% from 2020 to 2030, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations.
There are several career paths a paleontologist can take, and the path you choose will depend on your education, experience, interests, and opportunities. You might go into academic research, fieldwork, or laboratory work. Some common careers include:
- Research Specialist
- Museum Curator
- Museum Collections Manager
- Park Ranger
- Science Journalist
- Environmental Specialist
Steps to becoming a paleontologist
1. Take math and science classes in high school
To be accepted into a good college or university, keep your grades up while in high school and take all the math and science classes you can. A high school transcript showing a strong background in these subjects will help you get into a good program.
2. Earn your bachelor’s degree
You’ll need a bachelor’s degree in geology, biology, or a related field to work as a paleontologist. Preferred classes you should take as an undergraduate include mineralogy, sedimentary petrology, invertebrate paleontology, ecology, invertebrate and vertebrate zoology, evolutionary biology, and genetics.
3. Take computer classes
As a paleontologist, you’ll need basic computer skills to conduct research and manage databases for fossil collection data.
4. Apply for internships
Hands-on experience is very important in your journey to becoming a paleontologist. Find intern opportunities to work in the field, in research, or as a lab technician. You can also look for summer camps and volunteer work. Here are a few sites where you can find internship opportunities:
- Elevation Science Institute
- National Parks Service
- Paleontological Research Institution
- Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections
- Smithsonian Institution
5. Choose an area of study & take certifications
As an undergraduate, choose which sub-discipline of paleontology you want to pursue as a graduate student. Look at what courses are needed to apply for that specialty and make sure you take the right classes before applying to graduate school. For example, if you want to specialize in invertebrate paleontology, you’ll need to take biology, botany, environmental science, paleontology, and zoology courses as an undergrad. School guidance counselors can help you plan your course schedule to meet your needs.
To learn a bit more about paleontology, Coursera has seven different courses to choose from, offered by top universities. Courses include Ancient Marine Animals, Dinosaur Paleobiology, Early Vertebrate Evolution, Theropod Dinosaurs and the Origin of Birds, Past, Present, and Future Extinctions, Emergence of Life, and Science and Religion 101.
This course is for anyone who is interested in paleontology. With five sessions, this certificate goes over the basic skills needed for paleontologists.
6. Earn your master’s degree
As most jobs in paleontology require a master’s degree, you’ll want to apply to graduate school after you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree. Search university websites for paleontology graduate programs. Many schools don’t have paleontology departments, but they offer master’s degrees in paleontology through other departments, such as integrative biology or geography.
7. Join a mentorship program
You can find a list of mentorship programs at the Geological Society of America, which include travel scholarships and grants and a luncheon for undergraduate and graduate students to meet faculty mentors. The Paleontological Society hosts a Mentors in Paleontology Career Luncheon for graduate and undergraduate students to talk to a panel of professionals about careers in paleontology.
8. Get a doctorate
If you are considering working as a professor at a university, you will need a doctorate in paleontology. You can either get your master’s degree first or enter a doctorate program after you receive your bachelor’s degree.
9. Find a job
There are many resources online to help you find a job in paleontology. Universities typically have job search resources that can help you land a job. You can also search Indeed, LinkedIn, or other job boards. The Paleontological Society and other paleontology sites have their own job boards that you can search.
Tips for becoming a paleontologist
If you’re interested in paleontology as a career, you’ll need to get a bachelor’s degree in biology, geology, or other relevant fields. Here are some other helpful tips:
- Take advantage of any volunteer opportunities. If you live near a museum, you can volunteer there. If you live in a college town, you can volunteer in a lab. These are great opportunities to gain valuable experience sorting, cleaning, and even identifying fossil material. If you are fortunate enough to live near an excavation site, you can volunteer there.
- Get fieldwork experience. This might be through a summer camp, such as Stones and Bones, through the University of Chicago. There are many opportunities to get outside and dig up fossils. The U.S. Forest Service has a program called Passport in Time (PIT) where you can sign up to be a volunteer in the field. You can find other opportunities in places like South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, and Utah.
- Read scientific journals and books on paleontology. Gain as much knowledge as you can. Some popular books to read include Vertebrate Paleontology by Michael Benton, The Dinosaur Heresies by Robert Bakker, and On the Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin.
- Participate in science fairs. This is your chance to show your skills and develop new ones. Most science fairs are sponsored by local school districts, but you can also find larger fairs, such as Google’s online Science Fair. Winning, or even placing, in a major science fair can sometimes mean awards and scholarships for school.
- Work hard on your math and science courses as these will lay the groundwork for your education.
- Network as much as possible. Talk to college professors or other professionals in your area. Ideally, find those who are doing research that you’re interested in. Networking can lead to research projects, jobs, fieldwork opportunities, or a letter of recommendation when applying to school or for a job.
- Join scientific societies, such as the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. They generally have meetings in different locations during the year, and you can attend when they have one near you.
- Apply for internships. This is a great way to gain hands-on experience. Check out opportunities through the Geological Society of America, the U.S. Forest Service, and many others. Internships can sometimes lead to paid positions.
- Stay inspired. The road to becoming a paleontologist can be hard. Don’t lose the love and fascination of discovering new things and gaining new insights from a time long past.