How to Become a Palaeontologist

Illustration of a hand excavating a dinosaur fossil

Becoming a palaeontologist is a walk in the park – Jurassic Park.

But while you (hopefully) won’t spend the best part of two hours being chased by a hungry T-Rex and ‘six-foot turkeys’, you will spend a great deal of time – and money – obtaining the appropriate education needed to successfully start a career in palaeontology.

Of course, it will all be worth it in the end – if the salary prospects are an indication!

So, if you want to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Richard Owen and Jack Horner, and their fictional counterparts Ross Geller and Alan Grant, read on.

Here’s how to become a palaeontologist.

1. Research the Profession

Whether you’re in the process of deciding on a career path to pursue after school or you’re looking to do a complete 180 on your professional journey so far, and you’re considering a career in palaeontology, the first step is to do your research.

As with any career decision, it’s imperative that you first get a complete understanding of what the job entails before you jump head-first into a lifelong career you might not even enjoy.

After all, there’s more to palaeontology than just digging up dinosaur bones and visiting lost worlds.

Job Description

In basic terms, palaeontologists are scientists who study the fossilised remains of all kinds of organisms, from plants to bacteria and fungi to animals. They try to figure out, among other things, how life was in ancient times, how plants evolved over time and what dinosaurs sounded like. (And who knows? Perhaps Ross Geller’s imitation of a Velociraptor was an accurate one!)

There are several different areas of study within palaeontology in which you can specialise, as described below:

  • vertebrate palaeontology – the study of fossilised vertebrates (animals with backbones) such as fish, birds and, of course, dinosaurs
  • invertebrate palaeontology – the study of fossilised invertebrates (animals without backbones) such as insects and molluscs
  • palaeobotany – the study of fossilised plants, flowers and seeds
  • palynology – the study of living and fossilised pollen and spores
  • micropalaeontology – the study of all microscopic fossil organisms, regardless of which group they belong to
  • palaeoecology – the study of fossil organisms and their relationship to ancient ecosystems
  • palaeoclimatology – the study of past climates (sometimes treated as part of palaeoecology)
  • biostratigraphy – the study of rock strata based on fossil content
  • biogeography – the study of the geographic distribution of plants and animals on Earth
  • taphonomy – the study of how organisms decay and become fossilised
  • ichnology – the study of tracks and traces, including vertebrate footprints, nests and burrows
  • palaeoanthropology – the study of prehistoric human and proto-human fossils.

While the exact scope of your work will vary depending on your speciality and employer, your general day-to-day duties will largely remain the same, and can include:

  • determining the location of fossils
  • excavating fossils with various tools such as chisels, drills, shovels and brushes
  • collecting data and samples
  • comparing new data to existing data
  • using specialised computer programs to evaluate discoveries
  • analysing findings in a laboratory
  • recording and classifying samples and collections
  • doing research and publishing your findings
  • managing displays and exhibitions
  • planning and delivering lectures
  • developing courses and workshops
  • writing articles for scientific publications
  • managing volunteers on field trips
  • giving talks to the general public
  • providing expert advice to filmmakers, broadcasters and publishers.

Essential Skills and Qualities

Not everyone is cut out to be a palaeontologist. It takes a special kind of person with a unique skillset.

Beyond a love for dinosaurs and fossils, you’ll need to possess (or at least be willing to develop) the following professional skills and personal traits to enter and progress within this exciting profession:

  • analytical skills – a large part of the profession involves a lot of research, both in a laboratory and in the field; as such, you’ll need to be an expert in analysing and interpreting data
  • attention to detail – when excavating fossils, you’ll need to accurately identify and document the exact stratum of rock the fossils were found in and their precise location
  • interpersonal and communication skills – a large part of your job will involve interacting with people (whether working with colleagues or giving talks and lectures to clients and the general public), as well as writing reports and research papers of your findings
  • organisational skills – these will be particularly useful when working with fossils and museum collections
  • physical fitness – excavating fossils is a painstaking and physically demanding process, while carrying heavy equipment (often for long distances and over less-than-comfortable terrains) is expected
  • patience – discovering fossils isn’t as common as you might think, and on the rare occasion that you do, removing them from the surrounding rock can be a long and arduous process (it took 17 days to excavate Sue, the most complete T-Rex specimen ever found – and that’s actually considered a fast excavation!)
  • technical ability – your technical skillset should include a specialist knowledge of electron microscopes, remote sensing equipment, computer programs (such as computer modelling and digital mapping software), as well as various hand tools
  • outdoor skills – camping, hiking and even geocaching skills will prove extremely valuable when working in the field.

Working Hours and Conditions

Most palaeontologists work 35 to 39 hours a week, typically from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. However, this will largely depend on where you work. For example, if you’re employed by a TV or movie production company, your hours will be less predictable than those of someone working at a museum, university, consulting organisation or government agency.

You could either work in a classroom, office or laboratory environment and, depending on your role, you could spend time in the field, too.

Fieldwork can be particularly challenging and sometimes dangerous and typically involves hiking in steep terrain to remote locations, carrying heavy equipment in backpacks and even encountering venomous snakes and other dangerous animals. You’ll also need to endure extreme weather conditions, including high temperatures.

Frequent travel (both locally and internationally) is expected, and you’ll often spend long periods of time away from home, whether it’s to participate in excavations, attend conventions or deliver presentations.

Salary Prospects

Due to the qualifications and technical expertise required for this profession, palaeontologists can expect to earn a generous salary. How generous, though, largely depends on their type of employer and their specific role.

That said, as an entry-level palaeontologist in the UK, you’ll generally start on £20,000 to £25,000 a year, according to the National Careers Service. This can increase to between £25,000 and £42,000 with experience, while highly experienced palaeontologists can expect to fetch up to £60,000.

Those working as museum curators, meanwhile, are paid on average £20,000 to £40,000 a year. University lecturers, on the other hand, take home about £33,000 to £55,000 a year.

In the US, meanwhile, the average wage for palaeontologists is marked at $105,830 per year, or $50.88 per hour, according to the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook. Greater Houston, Texas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Midland, Texas command the highest salaries at an average of $154,890, $158,510 and $175,140 per year, respectively.

Your salary will also depend on the industry you work in. For example, palaeontologists working for management, scientific and technical consulting services in the US generally earn $86,600 per year, while those in oil and gas extraction can expect to make around $152,960.

Job Outlook

Though interest in dinosaurs is still widespread across the world (among children and adults alike), the job market tells a very different story.

But while palaeontologists aren’t quite as in demand as other professions like accountants, nurses and software developers, for example, the BLS projects a 14% growth rate for geoscientists (which include palaeontologists) in the US between 2016 and 2026.

This means that an estimated 4,500 jobs will be added to the 32,000 geoscientists already working in the profession by the end of that 10-year period. However, this is a 4% drop from the previous 2008-2018 estimates, which could signal a decrease in overall demand in the coming years.

There is no reliable data for the future demand for palaeontologists within the UK, but it is believed to be significantly lower compared to that in the US.

2. Get the Qualifications

At a bare minimum, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in palaeontology, geology, botany, zoology or Earth sciences if you’re serious about becoming a palaeontologist. Some of the best palaeontology courses in the world are offered at the following institutions:

  • University of Birmingham (England)
  • University of California, Berkeley (US)
  • University of Chicago (US)
  • University of Edinburgh (Scotland)
  • University of Science and Technology of China (China)

Entry requirements vary from university to university, and educational establishment. In the UK, for example, you’ll generally need 5 GCSEs (grades 4 to 9), including maths, English and science, as well as 3 A-levels, including maths and physics. In the US, an above-average GPA is expected.

Either way, it’s always a good idea to check the website of the university you wish to study at, or to directly contact the relevant admissions office, for detailed information about entry requirements, as well as tuition fees and even financial assistance.

Degree courses typically take three to four years to complete (though this largely depends on whether you’re studying part or full time) and include both theoretical and practical training. For example, students enrolled on the Palaeontology and Geology BSc (Hons) course offered at the University of Birmingham typically spend six weeks in the field in the UK, Spain, Romania or the US.

Most employers also require a postgraduate qualification. For example, oil and gas companies and museums typically only hire palaeontologists with an integrated master’s degree (such as an MBiol, MGeol or MSci), while universities and research institutions are notorious for not accepting anything less than a PhD.

3. Land Your First Job

Gaining employment as a palaeontologist will take more than fieldwork experience and an extensive list of qualifications. Indeed, due to the relatively low demand for palaeontologists across the globe and, therefore, scarcity of available vacancies, competition will be incredibly fierce for the jobs that do become available.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doomed to fail as a first-time jobseeker. It simply means that you need to stand out from the crowd of Jack Horners, Ross Gellers and Mary Annings applying for the same roles as you.

This starts with a well-written CV that incorporates critical keywords from the job description, highlights the relevant skills and fieldwork experience you bring to the table, and generally targets the specific job you’re applying for. Thoroughly preparing for an interview – including researching the employer and coming up with questions of your own to ask – is also essential for a successful job search.

Where to Look

Though job opportunities are few and far in between, they are mostly advertised online these days, so you’ll need to regularly check museum, university and research institution websites for vacancies. LinkedIn and other job boards can also be a great source of job openings, as can be specialist websites like:

Your local newspaper is also worth browsing for vacancies, while many scientific magazines and journals often feature a classifieds section you can peruse.

Lastly, but not least, don’t underestimate the power of networking while looking for a job. You just never know who you might meet along the way or what they have to offer!

Alternative Routes

An internship is another good way to enter the field of palaeontology. Not only can it add credibility to your CV and result in a good reference, but it can also lead to full-time employment if you demonstrate the right amount of ambition and a strong work ethic.

Palaeontology internships are typically organised through university and college placement programmes, though are also often advertised on the job boards of research organisations. The Bighorn Basic Paleontological Institute website, for example, lists all available internship opportunities in the US across a broad range of areas, including fossil preparation, digitising collections and non-profit management.

4. Develop Your Career

As you progress in your career – and job security and status gradually become more salient to you – you should constantly seek new learning opportunities to refresh your previously acquired skills and develop your existing knowledge.

This will not only enable you to keep abreast of the latest contributions, technological advances and technique developments within palaeontology, but it will also expose you to new employment opportunities.

Indeed, you could move into the oil and gas industry or work as a consultant in mining and mineral exploration, or you could become a geological surveyor, a preparator or even a writer for a scientific magazine.

You can even find employment on the set of a TV or movie production. Take Jack Horner, for example, who is credited with discovering and naming the dinosaur genus Maiasaura. He not only served as the technical advisor for Jurassic Park (and all its sequels) but also as the inspiration for its main character, Dr Alan Grant.

As a university lecturer, meanwhile, you can work towards tenure, which typically takes about seven years. As a tenured lecturer or professor, you’re essentially guaranteed permanent employment, and you can’t be fired or otherwise let go from your position (except, of course, under extraordinary circumstances). That said, while the concept of academic tenure also exists in the UK, it’s more common in the US.

The Geological Society provides a handy list of lifelong learning courses in the UK, while the Bighorn Basic Paleontological Institute offers different educational programmes within the US, though these are mostly aimed at the general public and recent graduates.

In addition to pursuing lifelong learning opportunities, meanwhile, you should also consider becoming a member of a professional association such as the Palaeontological Association in the UK, the Palaeontological Society of Japan or the Paleontological Society in the US. This will allow you to connect with like-minded individuals, access professional development opportunities, as well as receive subscriptions to industry publications.

As with any career path, becoming a palaeontologist isn’t easy. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day – or rather: Sue the T-Rex wasn’t excavated in a day! But with the perfect combination of hard work, dedication and investment (financial and otherwise), you could well be on your way to becoming the next Jack Horner or Mary Anning in next to no time.

Do you dream of becoming a palaeontologist? Who or what inspired you to consider this exciting career? Join the conversation down below and let us know!

And for those of you who are currently working towards a degree in palaeontology or who have already completed their journey of becoming a palaeontologist, don’t forget to share your experiences and wisdom with aspiring palaeontologists!