How to Become a Paleontologist

A Paleontologist working on a dinosaur fossil.
Paleontologists study past life on earth through fossils. benedek / Getty Images

Paleontology is the investigation of past life on earth, through the study of fossils. Fossils are the remains of once living organisms that have been preserved in the earth's crust. Perhaps the most famous fossils are those of dinosaurs. Paleontology is more than such high profile fossils; it covers the study of all fossils from those of single-celled organisms right through to those of animals with backbones. As a science, it covers a broad field. Therefore a paleontologist really needs to know about physics, chemistry, biology, and geology. A modern paleontologist needs to have a high level of computer skills and be competent in statistical analysis [source: Paleontological Research Institute]. Read here to find how to fulfill your passion for the study of the ancient past.

  1. Get a good foundation in math and science while in high school. These subjects will give you a broad base to start on your college studies.
  2. Get some hands-on experience. Find a dig you could join during your vacation.
  3. Choose a college with a good reputation in the sciences. Study biology, geology or preferably both. It's best to study for a double major. If that's not possible, major in one of the subjects and take as many courses as you can in the second subject. Study at least a year of physics, chemistry and mathematics as part of your bachelor's degree coursework.
  4. Attend a graduate course in paleontology. If you need more experience in academic research, you might consider getting a master's degree before embarking on a doctorate. If you already have a strong interest in a particular area of paleontology, look for a graduate school where the professors are experts in that field.
  5. Get a job in paleontology. Most people employed in the field of paleontology work for universities, teaching geology as well as paleontology. Some work for museums and carry out their own research. There are also some jobs available in government survey work or with oil companies [sources: Paleontological Research Institute, Scholastic].


Paleontologist FAQS

What is the role of a paleontologist?
A paleontologist is tasked with studying the history of evolution of different organisms by examining fossils that are the preserved remains of animals and plants that have long since died.
How long does it take to become a paleontologist?
Paleontologists usually get an undergraduate degree in geology or biology and then a master's or Ph.D. in paleontology. It would take between six and 10 years to become a paleontologist.
Do paleontologists study dinosaurs?
A paleontologist is a scientist who studies fossils of organisms that have been dead for thousands or hundreds of thousands of years. Since this includes animal and plant life, it also includes dinosaurs.
Is paleontology a good career?
Paleontology is a difficult discipline to work in, mainly because there aren't many job prospects. It can be difficult to find a paying job in the field. Many people with paleontology degrees end up doing this as a hobby while working in an environmental firm or oil company.
Who was the first paleontologist ever?
William Smith and Georges Cuvier are considered to be pioneers in the field, after they published their work in the 1800s. They discovered that rock layers of different areas could be compared by matching their fossils.