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A Career in Paleontology


From The Paleontological Society brochure, originally written by Dr. N. Gary Lane.

 

If you are interested in science and enjoy the outdoors and field trips, paleontology may be an ideal career choice for you. This on-line brochure answers several basic questions that students commonly ask about the science of paleontology.

 

What is a paleontologist?

 

A scientist who studies fossils is a paleontologist. Fossils, which are preserved remains of ancient life, are usually found in rocks. They record the history of life on earth. A paleontologist may study fossils that range from tiny bacteria to giant dinosaurs. The fossils may be over three billion years old (that’s 3,000,000,000 years) or only a few thousand years old. The tools, living sites, art, and culture of ancient peoples are studied by archaeologists and anthropologists. Paleontologists study virtually every other kind of fossil, including human bones.

 

What does a paleontologist do?

 

Most paleontologists do two things. They may teach others about fossils and they do basic or applied research on fossils. A lot of research on fossils involves the study of how life forms have evolved or changed over long periods of time.

 

A paleontologist may also be concerned with the application of other basic sciences to the study of fossils. Chemical studies of trace elements and stable or radioactive isotopes in shells or skeletons may provide information about the earth’s temperatures, climate, and environment in ancient times. Mathematical studies of fossil populations may yield insight into ancient communities or the nature of extinctions. A paleontologist may study the sequence of fossil species through time and space and use this information to work out ancient geography or the nature of rocks laid down during the same age on widely separated continents. Fossils are used to provide the relative ages of the rocks in which they are found.

What are the different kinds of paleontologists?

 

There are several broad categories of paleontologists, depending on what kind of fossils they study. Generally, we can say that paleontologists study animal fossils, plant fossils, or microfossils. Microfossils are tiny fossils, either plants or animals, which can be seen only with a microscope. Some are so small that they require an electron microscope to be clearly visible. Micropaleontologists study microfossils. Microfossils are often very abundant and may occur by the millions in a small piece of rock. Many microfossils were once plankton, one-celled creatures that floated in ancient oceans. Others are the pollen of long-extinct plants. Scientists who study fossil pollen are called palynologists. Those who study larger fossil plants – wood, leaves, flowers, and seeds – are called paleobotanists.

 

         

            Globendothyra                                      Spirorobus                                            Rhus

           Microfossils - the realm of micropaleontologists                  Fossil plants are studied by paleobotanists

Animal paleontologists are of two main kinds – invertebrate and vertebrate. Invertebrate paleontologists study animals without backbones, such as corals, sponges, trilobite, insects, and starfish. Vertebrate paleontologists study animals with backbones – fishes, dinosaurs, birds, and mammals.

       

    Macrocrinus & Onychocrinus                        Calymene                                      Tyrannosaurus

                           Two types of invertebrate fossils                            A well-known vertebrate fossil

 

Each branch of paleontology requires specialized training in geology, paleontology and biology.

 

How does one become a paleontologist?

 

Almost all paleontologists have some graduate training. That means they have gone to graduate school after completing a bachelor’s degree at a college or university. Most employment opportunities require the completion of graduate training at the Ph.D. level.

 

As an undergraduate, the future paleontologist should get a strong background in basic sciences, especially geology, biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Math through calculus, a year of chemistry and a year of physics are a minimum. Paleontologists generally have a major in either geology or biology. Some have a double major in the two fields. Others take a major in one field and a minor area of study in the other.

 

In order to prepare to study paleontology in college, a high school student should take as many advanced science and mathematics courses as possible. Other important areas include foreign languages, especially German, French, Russian, or Chinese. Many papers on fossils are written in these other languages. Computer training is also essential.

 

Graduate school is different from the four-year college courses leading to a bachelor’s degree. In college you learn mainly by attending lectures, laboratories, and field trips, and by reading required text book assignments. You may also pursue an undergraduate research project on fossils. In graduate school you are expected to undertake independent research, with guidance and help from a professor. A master’s degree or doctoral degree is awarded for the accomplishment of original and significant research. Most professional paleontologists have doctoral degrees.

 

Micropaleontologists and invertebrate paleontologists usually have a degree in geology. Paleobotanists generally take their training in botany with a minor in geology, and vertebrate paleontologists usually major in zoology. Whatever your specialty, you will need to take courses in other fields, usually as a minor, in order to be a well-rounded paleontologist.

 

Where do paleontologists work?

 

Paleontologists usually work in colleges and universities, industry, museums, or state and federal geological surveys.

 

College professors usually divide their time equally between teaching courses and supervising undergraduate and graduate student research on the one hand, and conducting original research and publishing results on the other. Some high schools and junior colleges offer classes in earth science. Employment in these schools is primarily a teaching post, with little or no research. The greatest growth in teaching opportunities will probably be at the junior college level.

 

A paleontologist working in industry may conduct original research, usually on a topic that is expected to be of benefit to the company. In industry, most paleontologists are employed by oil companies where they work with various groups of microfossils that may be recovered from rock chips that come up while drilling an oil well. Fossils are that useful for dating rock layers are especially important. This use is called biostratigraphy. Of all career jobs in paleontology, industry jobs typically have the highest salaries.

 

Many museums employ paleontologists as research scientists. Paleontologists conduct field trips, work with large fossil collections, and publish their research. At some museums, paleontologists are involved in exhibits and educational programs. There are fewer opportunities for employment in major research museums than in universities or industry. Smaller museums may employ paleontologists in a teaching or educational role (such as an interpretive naturalist) rather than a research position.

 

State and federal geological surveys commonly employ paleontologists to work as part of a team solving problems important to the state or nation. The paleontologists may perform a service for geologists or the public by identifying fossils, giving programs or tours, consulting with industry or legislatures, or even providing advice to visiting paleontologists. Original research and publication are necessary for advancement.

 

Getting a job in paleontology

 

It isn’t easy to get a job in paleontology. There are more new paleontologists trained every year than there are openings available for employment.

 

There are about 3,000 practicing professional paleontologists in the United States (population over 300,000,000 people). A majority of these are working for universities and colleges. Industry, mainly oil companies, is the second largest employer. Government agencies employ several hundred paleontologists, although not exclusively in paleontology.

 

In universities the starting salaries for beginning assistant professors straight out of graduate school with a Ph.D. in hand range from $40,000 to $60,000 for an academic year of nine months. In industry and government, holders of doctorates can expect to earn $50,000 to $80,000 over a 12-month period.

 

If you have additional questions about paleontology, you should contact a paleontologist at your state university or museum, a nearby college, or your state geological survey.

A paleontology undergraduate class investigates Devonian fossils in a limestone quarry.

Created March 28, 2011