Paleontologists are the people behind the discovery of some of the most incredible dinosaurs to ever walk the earth. Needless to say, they are not easily deterred by a challenge. Their job, in short, is to dig up evidence of ancient life and use this evidence to reconstruct what life was like when ancient animals walked the earth.
Their work can be immensely enjoyable, but it also takes a lot of patience and practice to become an accomplished paleontologist. Read on for more information about what it’s like to be a paleontologist and what it takes to become one yourself.
Paleontologist Job Duties
Paleontologists may perform a wide variety of duties, including:
- Collecting fossils from the field and analyzing them to determine important factors about a discovery
- Monitoring the progress of excavations, noting any changes in the environment that may affect work conditions
- Analyzing the chemical composition of fossils to determine what type of organism they belong to or what environment they lived in
- Examining the structure of plant and animal remains, which can help identify species and reveal its age and habits
- Cleaning and preparing specimens for study and museum display
- Conducting research in fields such as vertebrate paleontology, invertebrate paleontology, paleobotany, and geochronology
- Translating fossil data into written reports that can be published as scientific literature
-Conferring with experts in related fields such as geology, biology, and anthropology to help solve paleontological mysteries or identify specimens for analysis
Paleontologist Salary & Outlook
The median annual wage for paleontologists is $80,522. Those earning higher wages tend to work in the oil and gas extraction industry, and the top earners are bringing home over $130,000 per year.
The number of jobs for paleontologists is expected to grow faster than average over the next decade. As oil and mineral deposits are depleted, fossil fuels will become scarcer and more expensive. Fossil fuel companies will look to their geologists and paleontologists to find new energy sources that will be less expensive and easier to access.
Paleontologist Job Requirements
Paleontologists must have the following combination of education, training, and certifications to succeed in their role:
Education: A bachelor’s degree is the minimum education requirement for paleontologists. However, earning a master’s degree or doctorate is strongly recommended. While many paleontologists have earned a degree in geology, paleontology has become a sub-field within this field.
Graduate programs in paleontology often require students to take core geology courses. They may also require students to take courses in biology, chemistry, physics, ecology and statistics.
Training: There are several training opportunities for paleontologists, including internships and fieldwork. Most of these internships are related to museum work. Paleontologists can intern at museums or excavations sites to learn the ropes of the profession.
Certifications & Licenses: Certifications and licenses are not required for this job. However, some of them choose to become registered with a professional organization to demonstrate their expertise.
This job generally requires the following skills:
Organizational skills: Paleontologists must be able to keep track of the location of fossils, what they are doing with them, and who is working on them.
Communication skills: Paleontologists must be able to present their findings to a variety of audiences, including academic and lay groups.
Research skills: This job requires strong research skills, as well as the ability to identify and retrieve pertinent information from a variety of sources.
Observation skills: As a paleontologist, you’ll spend a lot of time in the field observing animals or plant life in their natural habitat. This requires sharp observation skills.
Science knowledge: Paleontologists need a broad base of scientific knowledge to identify fossils and interpret what they mean.
Physical stamina: Paleontologists often spend long hours outdoors, which requires physical stamina.
Paleontologist Work Environment
The physical aspects of a paleontologist’s job vary widely. Paleontologists can spend long hours outdoors or in small field offices while excavating fossils or working with other scientists to identify new types of species. This work is usually physically demanding, such as hiking up steep mountainside terrain and trudging through muddy fields looking for fossil tracks and bones.
The career may require that one travel often, visiting different countries and regions around the world where living prehistoric animals once roamed. The areas they must visit are often remote and hard to reach.
Paleontologist Career Advancement
Paleontologists who work for museums or universities can expect to move up quickly as they prove themselves as leaders and mentors. Often, those who have been in the field for a few years will be promoted to a curator or a staff scientist. In some cases, those who have been in the field for 20 years or more will become a professor.
Here are three trends influencing how paleontologists work. Paleontologists will need to stay up-to-date on these developments to keep their skills relevant and maintain a competitive advantage in the workplace.
Online Paleontology Communities
As the popularity of paleontology grows, so does the interest in sharing and learning about new discoveries. Online communities have emerged as a way for amateur and professional paleontologists to connect with one another and share knowledge, tips, and even entire research projects.
Increased Importance of 3D Technology
The development of new technology has made it easier than ever for paleontologists to bring fossils to life and help people see how they lived.
For example, digital tools like photogrammetry and CT scanning can now be used to create digital models of fossils that can be viewed in 3D.
In addition, apps are also helping researchers gain a better understanding of fossils by creating interactive images that allow users to view the inner workings of long-dead creatures.
Big Data and Paleontology
Data-driven paleontology has become increasingly popular as more scientists use algorithms to analyze and understand the mass of data created by scientific studies.
Today, computers can quickly and efficiently search through millions of data points to identify patterns that might otherwise be overlooked by human researchers. For example, the PalaeoDB project uses algorithms to combine paleontological data from thousands of specimens into a single database that can be searched by any researcher anywhere in the world. This type of collaboration is becoming more important as advances in technology allow for more comprehensive studies with larger datasets than ever before.
How to Become a Paleontologist
1. Planning Your Career Path
Most people choose this profession because they have a passion for science and nature; these qualities are essential for success in the field. Paleontology is a field that requires many years of training and experience. If you are considering this career, make sure to select an institution with a well-respected paleontology program.
It’s also important to determine whether you want to work in the field or be an academic. Paleontologists who work in the field typically spend their time in remote locations such as national parks and other natural preserves; this lifestyle is great for those who love adventure and the outdoors.
2. Writing a Resume
The best resumes for paleontologists include a description of their work as well as their education and training. The description should emphasize the research they conducted, discoveries they made, and how those discoveries contributed to the field of paleontology. Applicants are also advised to focus on their ability to use state-of-the art technology like 3D modeling and scanners.
To show your interest in the field, include any publications that you have contributed to, conference presentations, or any other ways that you’ve made an impact on the field. It’s also important to highlight any volunteer work that you’ve done such as working with local museums or contributing to dig sites.
3. Applying for Jobs
Some paleontologists focus on specific types of fossils (like dinosaurs or mammals), and those who study those groups should consider submitting articles to scientific journals and becoming active members of professional organizations related to their area of interest.
It can also be helpful to become involved with local and national societies like the Paleontological Society or the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology; memberships and involvement in these types of organizations can often lead to valuable networking opportunities and will make you more recognizable in the field.
4. Ace the Interview
A paleontologist interview typically covers three main topics related to your experience: fieldwork, education, and teaching. If you’ve done fieldwork, the interviewer will likely ask you about past projects and what it was like to work in this type of setting. If you’re not experienced in fieldwork yet, they may ask you how interested you are in doing it.
If you’re applying for a faculty position, the interviewer will most likely want to know where you see yourself within five years. Do you want to be writing papers and conducting research? Teaching classes? Both? They will also want to know if they can expect to see your name on publications, books, and articles.
When preparing for your interview, research the company and its interests. Identify key individuals involved with its efforts, and prepare questions about their work or this specific study area. When answering questions, talk about what made you want to pursue paleontology as a career. If there are any special projects or tasks that are part of the position’s responsibilities, be sure to explain how well-qualified you are to take them on.