Paleontology is the scientific study of plant and animal fossils. Paleontologists strive to understand how life was like millions of years ago and how it has evolved over time. These scientists typically combine knowledge from other disciplines, including anthropology, biology, geology and computer science. To become a paleontologist, you need a graduate degree in paleontology and excellent research skills.
What Do Paleontologists Do?
Before listing the general duties of paleontologists, it is crucial to note they can choose to focus on one or more of the following sub-fields:
- Ichnology – Study of fossil footprints, trails and tracks
- Paleoecology – Study of the relationship between fossils and climates of the past
- Micropaleontology – General study of all microscopic fossils
- Paleobotany – Study of fossil plants
- Vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology – Study of fossil with and without backbones, respectively
- Taphonomy – Study of decaying, preservation and other processes that lead to the formation of fossils
Regardless of a specialty, these scientists perform numerous duties including:
- Using scientific concepts and methods to identify possible fossil sites
- Handling equipment used in excavation, including shovels and chisels
- Excavating sedimentary rocks to unearth fossils
- Transporting the excavated materials to labs for study and scientific analysis
- Using computer software to, for instance, evaluate the age of the fossils
- Recording their findings and writing reports on research work
Paleontologists work for about 40 hours a week, Monday to Friday. Most of this time spent conducting field work. When out in the field, they are often faced with adverse conditions. For example, they may be required to navigate challenging terrain or work in a hot environment.
Many fossil sites are often contaminated. So paleontologists must wear protective clothing such as boots and gloves to protect their bodies from this contamination.
How much do paleontologists earn in a year? Find out below?
Like many scientists, paleontologists are highly educated professionals. To get a meaningful position in this field it is necessary to have at least a master’s degree in paleontology.
In undergraduate school, it is advisable to pursue a bachelor’s degree in earth sciences, such as:
Besides preparing you for a graduate degree, a bachelor’s degree enables you to find entry-level jobs in paleontology labs and other relevant settings.
To become a competent paleontologist, you should have:
- A detailed knowledge of geography
- Sharp research and analytical skills
- Manual dexterity to overcome physical difficulties in the field
- The ability to establish working relationships with other researchers
- Practical skills to handle a wide range of excavation details
- A high level of attention to detail and a good eyesight
- Good computer skills
- Good report-writing skills
After earning a master’s degree and finding a job, you will begin by working alongside experienced paleontologists. As you gain more experience, your employer will allocate you more challenging research projects.
To improve your chances of getting ahead, you should pursue a doctoral degree in paleontology. The following organizations also provide membership opportunities, which you can grab to access more career progression resources, such as training workshops:
- The Paleontological Society
- The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
- The Association of Applied Paleontological Sciences
The primary employers of paleontologists are:
- Mining companies
- Research institutions
- Learning institutions
- Oil and gas companies
The top-paying jobs belong to PhD holders. With this credential and vast work experience, you can be hired as a senior researcher or higher education lecturer in universities.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of all geoscientists, including paleontologists, will grow by 16 percent through 2022. Considering the average growth for all jobs is 11 percent within the same period, we can safely conclude paleontologists have good employment prospects.
So if you are interested in studying the origin and evolution of life, becoming a paleontologist can prove to be a sound career decision.