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How Do I Become a Paleontologist?

Some paleontology jobs are available to those with a bachelor's degree, but most require advanced study.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 July 2014
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The paleontologist contributes to understanding of the world in the distant past, by evaluating primarily animal/plant fossils. Given the importance of this study, it’s easy to assume that people can simply go to a university and get a paleontology degree, but most colleges don’t have this degree. Instead, people study in fields like zoology, geology or biology to become a paleontologist. Those interested in this field may help themselves by starting studies as early as high school.

In the high school setting, the student who wants to become a paleontologist should plan to get very strong grades in all math and science courses. These backbone classes are essential for studying at the college level. When possible, taking advanced placement (AP) course in the sciences and in calculus is recommended, since these will shave off some of the first year college requirements and allow students to study at a more advanced level.

It’s not a bad idea in high school or college to talk to some paleontologists about the career and what it entails. The best resources for this are usually natural history museums or colleges. Particularly at museums, a paleontologist might be willing to have a student helper for a few days, weeks or months. This can help people determine if they really want to become a paleontologist.

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With that goal in mind, the student will progress to college, and again will probably not major in paleontology but will state one of the majors mentioned above. To determine which major is most appealing, students should reflect upon what they might like to do when they become a paleontologist. If interest is in animal fossils, studies in zoology or biology are probably more appropriate, for instance. In all college programs at all study levels, students should look for a program that will offer classes in paleontology as part of their major.

In college, there may be opportunities to do actual field work with professors or others. People might participate in digs or other work. These programs may be offered during summer months, accommodating student schedules. Any available internships are well worth exploring for the person who wants to become a paleontologist, and participation may be useful in applying to graduate school.

Some paleontology jobs are open to people with an undergraduate degree, but many more are available to those who pursue studies at the master’s or doctorate level. Most people who become a paleontologist have a master’s degree at the very least, and more of them may possess a PhD. The work available with only a bachelor’s degree is probably as assistant to paleontologists who have higher degrees. It’s recommended people plan on going to graduate school if they want a more active role in this profession. Once school is completed, people will have likely established some degree of reputation through publishing or by making contacts in the field, and they can begin this work in a variety of ways.

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