So, you want to become a paleontologist. Well, if you love dinosaurs and you’re fascinated by prehistoric life, it just might be a wise career choice.
But just what exactly does the job entail? What skills and qualifications do you need? How much can you earn? And what’s the job market like? All those questions — and more — are answered in this comprehensive guide to becoming a real-life Dr Alan Grant or Dr Ellie Sattler (without, hopefully, all the running and the screaming).
Without further ado, here’s how to turn what is possibly your childhood dream job into reality.
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Paleontologists are geoscientists (or earth scientists) who specialize in studying the history of life on Earth through the fossil record. Their job involves searching for fossils, collecting samples, taking them back to a laboratory, and then cleaning, studying and storing fossils.
They can work for a wide range of employers, including museums, colleges and universities, gas and mining companies, and government agencies. Some even serve as consultants for TV and movie productions.
Types of paleontologists
Paleontology is a very broad, highly complex field, and paleontologists generally specialize in one of its many, more specific, subdivisions — including:
- Vertebrate paleontologists who study prehistoric animals with backbones, like fish, birds and, of course, dinosaurs.
- Invertebrate paleontologists who study prehistoric animals without backbones, like insects and molluscs.
- Paleobotanists who study fossilized plants, flowers and seeds.
- Palynologists who study fossilized pollen and spores.
- Micropaleontologists who study microscopic fossils, such as bacteria, hairs and cells.
- Paleoecologists who study the relationships between ancient organisms and their environments.
Duties and responsibilities
Although the exact day-to-day duties and responsibilities of paleontologists vary depending on a wide variety of factors, including their specialty and employer, they are generally tasked with the following:
- Determine possible and probable locations of fossils by reviewing and analyzing satellite data, aerial imagery and geological maps.
- Perform excavations to uncover fossils, and gather data concerning found fossils.
- Identify and classify fossils through various methods, such as chemical tests, microscopic analysis and CT scans.
- Clean, prepare and reconstruct specimens for mounting and exhibition, or for scientific study.
- Conduct research to study the history of life on Earth, design laboratory experiments, and use specialist computer software to evaluate discoveries.
- Compare findings to recorded data by colleagues, translate data into reports and publish findings in peer-reviewed journals.
If you’re seriously considering becoming a paleontologist, it’s important to understand what the job is really like — particularly in terms of typical schedules and the work environment — so there aren’t any surprises down the road. After all, there’s much more to the job of a paleontologist than conducting excavations on fossil sites (and warning eccentric British billionaires against cloning dinosaurs for exhibition in wildlife parks).
Paleontologists spend a great deal of their time in the field excavating and collecting fossils, which sometimes involves travel to fossil sites abroad. As such, they’re exposed to all sorts of challenging work environments and weather conditions. Indeed, accessing fossil sites often requires navigating rough terrain, while work is often performed in extreme heat.
But they do get to enjoy more comfortable work environments, too, as they also spend time in laboratories analyzing and cataloging their finds, as well as in office settings preparing reports, books and research papers for publication. Those who work for universities, meanwhile, also spend time in lecture halls where they impart their wisdom to aspiring paleontologists who want to follow in their footsteps.
Paleontologists usually work a standard 40-hour workweek, though their exact schedule varies depending on where they work. For example, paleontology researchers, college professors and museum curators generally work during regular business hours. Those consulting on TV and movie productions, meanwhile, tend to have more atypical hours, including early mornings and late evenings.
Extended hours are quite common for paleontologists conducting fieldwork, who may need to alter their schedules when new discoveries are made. Likewise, they may need to work beyond standard office hours to prepare reports with strict deadlines or to conduct further research on their findings.
Although paleontologists don’t exactly have a dangerous job (compared to, say, roofers and firefighters), they are exposed to a wide variety of occupational hazards, especially when working in the field.
Climbing and hiking to fossil sites, for example, can lead to slips and falls (which can result in bruises, sprains, contusions and fractures), while sun exposure can cause sunburns and heat strokes. Moreover, working with various tools like hammers and chisels can cause scrapes and cuts, while dust exposure can lead to eye irritation, asthma and various lung diseases.
Of course, all these potential injuries and illnesses can be negated by wearing protective gear like hardhats, safety goggles, gloves and face coverings.
Paleontologists generally rate their job satisfaction highly. This is largely due to the high salaries that they command, as well as their overall interest in studying the history of life, the opportunity to travel the world, and the work itself. Discovering fossils, and successfully removing them from bedrock, can be particularly gratifying, and even more so when it concerns a completely new species that they get to share with the world.
On the flipside, some of the biggest complaints that paleontologists have about their jobs are the limited funding they receive for excavations, the often-challenging work conditions, and being away from family and friends for long periods of time.
Ever since English naturalist Robert Plot discovered the first dinosaur fossil in 1674 (originally described as a thighbone of a Roman war elephant, then attributed to a biblical giant, and later recognized as the femur of a Megalosaurus), dinosaurs and all prehistoric life have continued to inspire generations of children and adults alike into pursuing a career in paleontology.
But entering this field is highly competitive, with limited paleontologist jobs available. Currently, there are only 24,500 geoscientists (which include paleontologists) employed across the US, with the highest concentration in the professional, scientific and technical services industry, making up 47.7% of the total waged and salaried employees.
The good news, however, is that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 4.9% growth in jobs by 2031 and about 2,400 openings each year over the decade. The mining support activities industry, in particular, is expected to have the largest growth at 33.3%; jobs within the federal government, meanwhile, will take the biggest hit and are projected to decrease by 3.8%.
Like all scientists, paleontologists are notably well-paid, largely due to their highly technical expertise and extensive formal training.
On average, paleontologists (and all other geoscientists) in the US command six-figure salaries in the range of $103,550 a year (or $49.78 an hour), according to the latest Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics data compiled by the BLS. That’s over 44% more than the national average salary for all occupations across the US, which is $58,260.
Of course, earnings depend on a wide range of factors, including years of experience and the industry in which a paleontologist works. Indeed, salaries typically start at $48,880, with top-earning paleontologists making an estimated $172,490 a year.
Location also matters. Those working in Texas, for example, are the highest-paid across the country, commanding an average annual salary of $144,950. They are followed by paleontologists in the states of Oklahoma, Colorado, Massachusetts and California, where wages average $136,680, $107,750, $106,850 and $105,280, respectively. Wisconsin, meanwhile, generally offers the lowest salaries, at just $59,970 a year.
Here's a quick overview of the salary for a paleontologist:
Paleontologists need more than just a love of all things prehistoric (and the movie Jurassic Park) to succeed in the job. In fact, it takes a special kind of person with a unique combination of hard and soft skills, as well as personal qualities, to not only enter but also thrive in the field of paleontology — including:
- Analytical thinking skills: Beyond finding and excavating fossils, the job of a paleontologist involves a lot of research, particularly in terms of analyzing fossils and examining and interpreting data.
- Problem-solving skills: A career in paleontology requires solving complex problems, such as figuring out how to extract fossils from the ground and troubleshooting preservation techniques.
- Physical stamina: Fieldwork can be physically demanding, as it often requires hiking to remote locations while carrying heavy testing and sampling equipment.
- Outdoor skills: Paleontologists spend a lot of time in the great outdoors when conducting fieldwork, which often involves camping. Geocaching skills may also prove useful.
- Communication skills: A large part of the job involves interacting with people, such as supervising other paleontologists on excavations, giving talks, and educating the general public. Good writing skills are also necessary for authoring research papers.
- Patience: It can take months — sometimes even years — to find any new fossils, as remains are often destroyed or consumed soon after death. As such, a lot of patience and perseverance will go a long way.
If your heart’s set on becoming a paleontologist, you’ll need to start preparing for the journey ahead — the earlier, the better. Here’s how to navigate your way from school to the fossil site.
Step 1: Determine if it’s the right job for you
First things first, make sure that becoming a paleontologist is really what you want to do. After all, you don’t want to waste the time, effort and resources necessary to pursue a career in paleontology, only to discover later on that your interests lie elsewhere.
Take the time to figure out your values, strengths and personality type — and how they all fit the requirements and demands of the job. Ask yourself if you’re really willing to commit to 6 — or more — years of studies, and whether you can actually see yourself digging up bones, conducting experiments in labs and writing reports day in and day out.
Still not quite sure? Head over to CareerHunter to take our career test and find out whether a career in paleontology is right for you — or if you should consider another branch of science or even something else entirely.
Step 2: Start preparing in high school
Your actual journey to becoming a paleontologist starts as early as your high school years. Indeed, to be accepted to a decent college or university, you’ll need to put a great amount of effort into your schoolwork and maintain consistently good grades.
Take as many Earth sciences, biology, physics, math, chemistry and computer science courses as you can. English and public speaking are also important subjects, as a paleontologist’s job largely involves writing clearly and communicating their findings to colleagues and the general public. Consider taking a foreign language class, too, such as Chinese, German, French, Russian or Spanish.
Step 3: Complete a bachelor’s degree program
After high school, you’ll need to pursue a postsecondary education. This begins with a bachelor’s degree. Ideally, a BSc in paleontology should be your first option, but such programs are rare, so be sure to research what’s available, including abroad.
Alternatively, any major science specialization will do, such as biology, geology, geography, zoology, botany, environmental studies or a related field — that said, a double major in biology and geology will be particularly useful (or at least majoring in one and minoring in the other).
Always check what classes are offered in the program you’re considering. Programs that include coursework in subjects like vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology, evolutionary biology, genetics, stratigraphy, mineralogy, ecology, and sedimentary petrology should be at the top of your list!
Step 4: Earn a doctoral degree
Your academic journey doesn’t end with a bachelor’s degree. In fact, employers generally only consider applicants with a postgraduate qualification. You’ll need at least a master’s degree, but most careers in paleontology (particularly in research and academia) require a PhD degree in geological sciences with a focus on paleontology.
Some of the best paleontology graduate programs worth considering are offered by Yale University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Step 5: Get some hands-on experience
Beyond the right qualifications, employers also want candidates who know what they’re doing through some proven practical training, which you can gain by attending excavations. Most university programs include several weeks of fieldwork at local or international fossil sites, but it’s also a good idea to do some volunteering at excavations (both over the summer holidays and while still in high school).
Not only does hands-on experience help you develop the skills and knowledge needed for a career in paleontology, but it also looks great on your CV, as employers will be more inclined to consider your candidacy.
Equally important, meanwhile, is to attend as many industry seminars and conferences as you can, while joining a professional association (like the Paleontological Society and the Paleontological Research Institution) will provide you with networking opportunities, and access to exclusive workshops, lectures and journals.
If you’re hoping to become a paleontologist, you’ll need to be prepared to put in a lot of effort, time, dedication and resources to obtain the right qualifications, as well as patience and perseverance to land your first job in what can only be described as a highly competitive field. It’s definitely no walk in the park. Well, perhaps it’s a walk in Jurassic Park — just without hungry “six-foot turkeys” chasing you.
But once you make it, it will all be worthwhile, as you’ll be doing what millions of others have only ever dreamed of: digging up dinosaurs and other fascinating fossils.
Are you interested in becoming a paleontologist? Let us know in the comments below!
Originally published 2 January 2019.