Paleontologists study the fossils of ancient life-forms, including human life, found in sedimentary rocks on or within the Earth’s crust. Paleontological analyses range from the description of large, easily visible features to biochemical analysis of incompletely fossilized tissue. The observations are used to infer relationships between past and present groups of organisms (taxonomy), to investigate the origins of life, and to investigate the ecology of the past (paleoecology) from which implications for the sustainability of life under present ecological conditions can be drawn. Paleontology is usually considered a subspecialty of the larger field of geology.
Paleontologist Career History
During Europe’s Renaissance, the artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci, among others, established that fossils were the natural remains of organic creatures, and in the middle of the 17th century, Nicolaus Steno of Denmark wrote a treatise proposing that sedimentary rocks were laid down in layers, with the oldest at the bottom. The physical description of fossils was permissible as long as it did not lead to dissonant conclusions regarding the age of the Earth. As an example, the early 17th century saw the naming and characterization of the trilobites, an extinct but very large group of marine arthropods once abundant everywhere in the seas and, as a group, of far greater longevity than the dinosaurs. When fossil evidence was used to advance a history of the Earth that contradicted a literal reading of the Bible, however, the penalties were severe.
The Age of Enlightenment in Europe sped up religion’s waning grip on the interpretation of science, and paleontology as a scientific discipline may be considered to have started in the early 1800s. In the young republic of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, then vice president, in 1797 published one of the first papers on American fossil vertebrates; he also named a gigantic ground sloth that once roamed over much of the United States Megalonyx jeffersonii. At this time there was considerable congress between natural historians in Europe, Great Britain, and the United States, each eager to learn of the other’s latest findings and theories. The 19th century was also the age of the quintessential “gentleman explorer,” whose travels overlapped in time with government-sponsored exploring expeditions to all parts of the globe. The number of specimens returned from these expeditions led to the founding of many of the great natural history museums. In the middle of this activity, Charles Darwin boarded the Beagle for a multiyear voyage of exploration and natural observation, resulting in his writing On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, a major contribution to the blossoming of paleontology.
Contemporary paleontology is modeled on an understanding of life-forms as related in extended family trees, some of very ancient origin. In detailing ancestral and modern lineage, paleontologists want to know the precise physical, chemical, and nutritional environment that supported life and what changes in this environment forced some creatures into extinction while allowing others to thrive.
Paleontologist Career Description
Paleontologists broadly classify themselves according to the life-form studied. Palynologists study tiny to submicroscopic life-forms, such as pollen or plankton. Microfossils may be of plant or animal origin and are extremely abundant. Paleobotanists study macroscopic fossil plants.
In the animal kingdom, vertebrate paleontologists study animals with a backbone, among them the classes of fishes, birds, reptiles, and mammals. Each area of specialization requires extensive knowledge of the anatomy, ecology, and habits of modern representatives of the class. Invertebrate paleontologists study animals without a backbone, such as the classes of insects, sponges, corals, and trilobites. Invertebrate paleontologists are especially useful to the oil industry, for fossil plankton taken from drilling cores are an indication of the age of the rocks and of the formations in which oil reservoirs are likely to be concentrated. The mining and minerals industry also hires stratigraphers and petrographers, who study the distribution and content of rock layers to identify subsurface mineral deposits. These scientists helped to discover rare quarries of limestone in Indiana and other areas. This limestone, composed of the skeletal remains of tiny fossilized creatures, has provided impressive amounts of building material. However, the mining and minerals industry has few positions for paleontologists.
When conducting paleontological research, scientists’ analyses begin with careful measurement and anatomical description of fossils, accompanied, if possible, by drawings showing what the three-dimensional creatures may have looked like in life. The fossils then are dated and placed in a physical context. Dating may entail both laboratory analyses and comparisons with fossil beds of known age or a comparison with stratigraphic layers of rock in different formations around the world. In the third step, the fossils and the formations in which they occurred are used to construct a history of Earth on either a small, local scale or a large scale. Large-scale events that can be reconstructed from fossil evidence include the uplift, tilting, and erosion of mountain ranges, the rise and subsidence of seas, and movements of land masses over geological time. In the fourth step, fossils are used as evidence of life to fill in missing links in the fossil record, to revise taxonomic classifications, and to construct the biology of descent of living organisms.
Museum curators are linked to the fourth phase of paleontological analysis, for virtually all contemporary geology curators are evolutionists. Museum curators typically hold a doctorate and have done considerable independent research; these positions are highly competitive. Geology curators must raise grant funding to support themselves and a work crew in the field, and some have teaching responsibilities in joint programs of study with universities as well. Collection managers in geology usually have a minimum of a master’s degree; some have doctorates. Geology collection managers study, catalogue, and maintain the museum’s collection, ship specimens to external researchers for study, and sometimes participate in fieldwork. Ordinarily there is one collection manager for the geology holdings, but occasionally there is more than one. In that case, the duties may be divided among vertebrate mammals, invertebrate mammals, fossil amphibians and reptiles, fossil birds, and fossil plants. Collection managers are generalists and work as colleagues with curators.
Some paleontologists work as college teachers. To teach at this level, they must have a doctorate or be a candidate for a doctorate. Their primary educational responsibilities are divided between teaching undergraduate courses in earth science and advanced seminars in paleontology. In addition to in-class duties, they must also prepare lessons and curriculum, prepare tests, meet with students during office hours, and attend department meetings. They also conduct personal research, focusing on any area of the field that interests them.
Although the preponderance of paleontological research is carried out on land, marine fossil beds are of great interest. The cost of mounting an expedition to extract samples of sedimentary rock from the deep-sea floor usually means that the sponsoring institution must procure sizable support from industry or the government. Some paleontologists work in the oil industry to develop offshore wells; a few find employment with oceanographic institutes.
Paleontologist Career Requirements
Supplement your high school’s college prep program with additional courses in the sciences and mathematics, including advanced classes in biology, chemistry, algebra, and trigonometry. Paleontologists rely a great deal on computer programs and databases, so take courses in computers and programming. You will be preparing your findings for publication and presentation, so take English and speech classes. Foreign language classes will also be valuable, as you may be conducting research in other countries.
Paleontology is a subspecialty of geology or, less commonly, of botany, zoology, or physical anthropology. In college, you will major in geology or biology. The college curriculum for a geology major includes mathematics through calculus, chemistry, physics, and life sciences, with additional seminars in the specialty area and in the history of science.
Because paleontology is a specialty area encountered only briefly during the undergraduate curriculum, you should anticipate graduate training. In fact, most scientists in the field find that a doctorate is necessary simply to have time to gain the substantial knowledge base and independent research skills necessary in their field.
You should be inquisitive, with a natural curiosity about the world and its history. A desire to read and study is also important, as you will be spending many years in school. It is important to have a respect for other cultures, as you may be working closely with professionals from other countries. Good organizational skills will help you in your work with fossils and museum collections. People skills are also very important, as you’ll be relying on personal contacts in your pursuit of work and funding.
Exploring Paleontologist Career
An estimated 55,000 amateur rock hounds belong to organized clubs in the United States, and an untold additional number with no formal group membership also delight in fossil hunting in areas open to the public. You should locate and join one of these clubs and/or take fossil-hunting expeditions and visits to museums on your own. Local museums with a strong geology component frequently conduct field trips that are open to the public.
The Midwest and Great Plains states are especially rich in fossil beds, owing to the inland sea that once overlay these areas and whose sediments protected the skeletal remains of creatures from predation or being moved about. Professional geology societies publish brochures on fossil hunting and the kinds of fossils available in different locales. State geological societies, often housed on the main campus of state universities, are excellent sources of information. Earthwatch Institute is an organization that involves people with various environmental projects, including the mammoth graveyard fossil excavation site of Hot Springs, South Dakota.
Most paleontologists work in colleges and universities as faculty of paleontology and geology programs. They also find work in museums and with government research projects. The petroleum industry was once a great source of jobs for paleontologists, but these jobs, though still available, are fewer in number. Some paleontologists are self-employed, offering their expertise as consultants.
As an undergraduate, you may be able to work as an intern or volunteer in the geology department of a local museum. You may also be able to participate in fieldwork as a paying member of an expedition. Such an arrangement is usually worked out personally with the expedition leader. These entry-level positions may lead to admission to graduate programs and even to employment after advanced degrees are earned. The American Geological Institute and the Geological Society of America offer some internship and scholarship opportunities.
You will rely mostly on personal contacts when seeking a job after receiving a graduate degree. Networking with others in paleontology, especially your college professors, can allow you to meet those who can direct you to job openings and research opportunities.
Advancement depends on where the paleontologist is employed. Universities and museums follow a typical assistant, associate, and senior (or full) professorial or curatorial track, with the requirements for advancement very similar: research and publishing, education, and service to the institution. Advancement in museum work may also depend on the acquisition of a doctorate. Advancement in state and federal surveys requires research and publishing. In federal employment and in industry, mechanisms for advancement are likely to be spelled out by the employer. Government-sponsored research and term positions are the least stable avenues of work, because of their temporary nature and dependence on a source of funding that may not be renewed.
Many paleontologists remain active in the field beyond the date of formal retirement, procuring independent research funds to support their activities or developing an unpaid association with a neighboring university to gain access to collections and laboratory facilities. The low-tech nature of geological fieldwork allows basic field studies to be conducted fairly inexpensively. Others become consultants to geoscientific firms.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, all geoscientists, including paleontologists, earned a median annual salary of $71,640 in 2005. The lowest paid 10 percent earned $39,420 and the highest paid 10 percent earned $135,290 or more, annually. A salary survey by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found the average yearly income in 2003-04 for all full-time university teachers was $66,475. It also reports that professors by rank averaged the following salaries: full professors, $88,591; associate professors, $63,063; assistant professors, $52,788; and instructors, $38,501. In a 200506 survey, the AAUP found that the average salaries for full-time university teachers remained about the same as the salaries reported in 2003-04. A salary survey for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists found that geoscientists working in the petroleum industry with three to five years of experience averaged annual earnings of $81,300 in 2005. Salaries increase with a person’s years of experience and level of education. Those with 10 to 14 years experience and holding master’s degrees averaged $112,800. Those with Ph.D.s and many years of experience had annual earnings of $215,000 or more.
In 2003, starting annual salaries for graduates with bachelor’s degrees in geology and related sciences were $32,828, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Those who graduated with a master’s degree averaged $47,981, and graduates with a doctoral degree averaged $61,050.
Once these highly trained scientists have entered the field, they usually receive excellent benefits packages and ample vacation time and sick leave. In addition, paleontologists who travel to various locations for their research have their travel and accommodations paid for and receive travel stipends from their employer or funding source.
The day-to-day activities of a paleontologist vary but, in the course of a year, usually involve some mix of field-work, laboratory analysis, library research, and grant writing or teaching. In industry, a paleontologist’s duties may be defined by the project the company has developed. In academia and in museum work, a paleontologist may be able to define a personal course of research but may have less time for that research because of teaching or administrative responsibilities.
Paleontological study is international in scope and impressive in the sweep of time it commands. Because the fossil-bearing strata of interest to paleontologists occur in widely separated localities, U.S. paleontologists may undertake extensive correspondence or joint field-work with colleagues throughout the world. In addition, paleontology is a living science, with new plant and animal species extracted from the rocks every year and corresponding new biological relationships waiting to be explored. The depth and breadth of paleontological study and its ever clearer relationship to contemporary ecological concerns make it an attractive profession for those interested in a larger view of life.
Paleontologist Career Outlook
More paleontologists graduate each year than there are available positions, and consequently many paleontologists are unemployed or underemployed. Educational opportunities are also diminishing: With decreasing enrollment in all of the physical sciences and increasing pressure to contain costs, colleges and universities are eliminating entire science departments, including geology. Federal and state surveys absorb a small number of new graduates with baccalaureate or master’s degrees but cannot accommodate all those seeking work. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment opportunities for all geoscientists, including paleontologists, are expected to experience little growth or grow more slowly than the average through 2014.
Economics is a determining factor in employment outside of university settings as well. An increasing percentage of the oil used in the United States is imported. As the energy sector moves overseas, fewer jobs are available in the domestic fossil fuels industry. Despite this prediction, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists predicts that a large number of retiring geoscientists will create a need for 200 to 400 new geoscientists (including paleontologists) in the industry each year.
To increase the likelihood of employment, students will find it helpful to pursue high academic standards, including, if possible, independent research and publication during the advanced degree years, cross-training in a related field, such as zoology or botany, and planning a broad-based career that combines knowledge of government activities, industry experience, and teaching and research.
For More Information:
- American Geosciences Institute
- Geological Society of America (GSA)
- Paleontological Research Institution
- The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology