How to Become a Paleontologist: Career Path Guide
If you want to become a paleontologist, you first need to determine if this career path is a good fit for you. If the following description sounds like you, then you’re probably well suited for a career in this field:
Those who become paleontologists must have a passion for understanding the history of life on earth. They must be interested in working in the field, and have a strong aptitude for the natural sciences. Paleontologists are strong in academics and are emotionally stable, as this is required to complete the years of schooling that are necessary to work in this field.
Below we've outlined what you'll need to begin a career as a paleontologist in the United States (and Canada). We've also included helpful information for this career, such as job description, job duties, salary expectations, a list of possible employers and much more!
Paleontologist Job Description
Paleontologists are responsible for finding the fossils of animals and other organisms and identifying pertinent facts about the fossils using scientific techniques. Paleontologists are also frequently involved in the study of evolutionary biology.
Paleontologist Job Duties
• Determine possible location of fossils by analyzing data
• Locate fossils by excavating several layers of sedimentary rock
• Gather fossil information such as its age and whether it was formed on land or under water
• Use tools such as picks, drills, chisels, shovels and brushes
• Use specialized computer programs to evaluate discoveries
• Make comparisons of newly obtained data to existing data
• Analyze and study findings and data in laboratories
• Identify time period of fossil and share results with colleagues from other scientific disciplines
Education Needed to Become a Paleontologist
To become a paleontologist that works as a researcher or an instructor, you typically need a Ph.D. in paleontology. In order to ensure you have acquired a strong set of skills, knowledge and competencies that will be applied to your future career in paleontology, there is a certain body of coursework you should pursue during your undergraduate years.
Becoming a paleontologist requires a strong educational background in the natural sciences, with a combined focus in geology and biology. Having a double-major in these areas is ideal, although having a major in one of these areas with a minor in the other, or a substantial amount of coursework in the other, is also a great way to gain the necessary background knowledge in these areas.
Many graduate programs in biology, geology, or paleontology require students to have completed coursework in areas such as modern languages, mathematics, chemistry and physics. Skills in statistical analysis and computers are also necessary for a career in modern paleontology, so be sure to pursue this coursework during your undergraduate years, as it may be difficult to do so while pursuing graduate studies.
Where Do Paleontologists Work? Who Hires Them?
Paleontologists primarily work in colleges and universities as instructors and researchers for Geology and Paleontology departments. There are a few organizations outside of academics that are interested in employing the skills, knowledge and competencies of paleontologists, including:
• Self-employment (as consultants for academics and industry)
• Museums and historical exhibits
• Provincial/state and federal government departments (typically for mapping or other applied geological functions)
• Oil, gas and mining companies
Paleontologist Job Opportunities
Paleontologist Jobs - Canada
Paleontologist Jobs - United States
Becoming a Paleontologist: Getting Field Experience
Gaining first-hand field experience in paleontology is a great way to apply the knowledge gained in the classroom, and is an important element of paleontological training.
During your undergraduate years it is important to be proactive and speak with your geology and paleontology professors to see if they can point you in the direction of volunteer or paid fieldwork and research opportunities. These opportunities are not only great for gaining knowledge and experience in the field (which can be incredibly valuable for your resume) they are also a great way to network with professionals in the field of paleontology.
Paleontologist Salary: How Much Do Paleontologists Earn?
The salary level of paleontologists can vary depending on factors such as their level of education, their level of experience, where they work, their specific job responsibilities, and many others.
Paleontologist Salary Alberta: According to the 2011 Alberta Wage and Salary Survey, Albertans in the Geologists, Geochemists and Geophysicists occupational group, which includes Paleontologists, earned on average from $40.80 to $60.85 an hour, with a mean wage of $50.48 per hour.
Paleontologist Salary Canada: According to Service Canada, the average salary for workers in the Geologists, Geochemists and Geophysicists occupational group is $66,900 per year.
Paleontologist Salary United States: According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary of workers in the Geoscientists occupational group is $82,500 per year. The lowest 10 percent in this occupational group earned less than $43,820 per year, and the top 10 percent earned more than $160,910 per year.
Areas of Focus for Careers in Paleontology
There are many fields within the area of paleontology that aspiring paleontologists can choose to focus on for their career depending on their skills and interests. These areas include:
Vertebrate Paleontology: The study of fossils of animals with backbones
Invertebrate Paleontology: The study of fossils of animals without backbones
Micropaleontology: The study of fossils of single-celled organisms
Paleobotany: The study of plant fossils
Taphonomy: The study of how fossils form and are preserved
Biostratigraphy: The study of the vertical distribution of fossils in rocks
Paleoecology: The study of ancient ecosystems and how they developed
Careers Similar to Paleontologist
Listed below are careers in our database that are similar in nature to that of Paleontologist, as they may involve many of the same skills, competencies and responsibilities.
References: How to Become a Paleontologist
Please use the references below to find more information on the various aspects of a career as a paleontologist.
Alberta Learning and Information Service website: alis.alberta.ca
Paleontological Research Institution website: www.museumoftheearth.org
Service Canada website: www.servicecanada.gc.ca
United States Bureau of Labor Statistics website: www.bls.gov
Scholarships for Becoming a Paleontologist
Scholarships listed for majors that apply to becoming a Paleontologist can be found on our All Scholarships by Major page.
Success Tip: Be sure to apply for any scholarships that you even barely qualify for, as there are millions of dollars of scholarships that go unused every year due to a lack of applicants!
Becoming a Paleontologist: Applicable Majors
Studying one of the university majors listed below is an excellent starting point to becoming a paleontologist. Click on the links to find out what else you can do with these majors!