Paleontology

Paleontology is a science that examines the development and extinction of prehistoric life. Read about the educational requirements and employment options for paleontologists here, including what types of courses you'll take and how much you can earn in the field.

Is Paleontology Right for Me?

Career Overview

Paleontology is the study of prehistoric life forms and ecosystems through geological formations like fossils. Paleontologists often split their time between excavating fossils in the field and analyzing them in the lab. Some paleontologists focus on the remains of organisms, including teeth, bones and shells, while others examine trace fossils, such as the imprints of leaves or footprints from animals. Paleontologists use this information to better understand the Earth's past, learning how fossils form, how long past organisms have aged and how ancient species developed and became extinct. As a paleontologist, you need a solid background in both biology and geology, coupled with strong statistical and computer skills.

Career Options

According to the Paleontological Research Institution, the majority of professional paleontologists are employed in academia as geology or paleontology professors (www.museumoftheearth.org). You might also find employment with natural history museums, which may involve working in education as a curator, researcher or consultant. You might also work as a geologist with government agencies involved in mapping or solving geological problems, such as the U.S. Geological Survey.

Employment and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecast faster-than-average growth in jobs nationwide for geoscientists and hydrologists, as well as postsecondary teachers between 2012 and 2022. Those with graduate degrees will have the best job opportunities; however, tenure-track positions for college or university professors are generally more competitive than non-tenure track positions. As of May 2012, the median annual salary for geoscientists, including paleontologists, was $90,890, with the top 75% earning more than $130,000, as reported by the BLS (www.bls.gov).

How Can I Become a Paleontologist?

Undergraduate Programs

Undergraduate degree programs in paleontology are not currently offered in the United States. If you're seeking a career within the field of paleontology, you'll begin by completing a bachelor's degree program in biology or geology. Many schools offer paleontology as a concentration within their geosciences and biological sciences departments.

If you follow a paleontology track, you take core courses in chemistry, mathematics, geology, biology and physics. Advanced coursework generally includes topics in vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology, evolutionary biology, sedimentology and field methodology, some of which may be taken through online paleontology courses.

Graduate Programs

Most paleontologist positions in research and academia require graduate-level education. Graduate degrees in paleontology are rare, with only a few master's and doctoral degree programs offered in paleontology nationwide. However, graduate degrees in geology and biology are widely available, with many schools offering concentrations in paleontology and its sub-specialties, such as paleobotany, paleobiology and paleoclimatology.

If you have sufficient undergraduate coursework and training, you may choose to enter directly into a doctoral program, which takes between 6-8 years to complete without a master's degree. Otherwise, the typical path is to complete a 2-year master's degree program before pursuing a doctorate degree. A graduate degree in museum studies can also prepare you for research and educational careers in museums.

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