What is a Paleontologist?

By Jordan Fabel •  Updated: September 9, 2021  •  8 min read  •  Science
Approved Course is reader-supported. If you buy through links on our site, we may earn a small commission.

The short answer to the question, ‘What is a paleontologist?’ is simply someone who studies plants and animals’ fossils. Paleontologists discover details about past creatures and plants with data from fossilized bones, even including those gone extinct.

Of course, the short answer is just a start. There’s a much more in-depth answer to the question, ‘What is a paleontologist?’ Let’s look at this career path, what it involves, and how you can become a paleontologist.

What is a Paleontologist

Job Duties of a Paleontologist

As a paleontologist, you will be a scientist studying fossils. You will contribute to researching the archeological, historical, and sociological impacts. Most paleontologists will study a specific type of fossil, which impacts their job duties. However, many will have common duties, including:

There are many other duties a paleontologist may perform. It will depend on where they work and the type of employer they work for.

Steps to Become a Paleontologist

1. Get the Right Education

If you want to become a paleontologist, you will need to earn a doctoral degree. This will allow you to work as a researcher or professor in this field. In addition, a Ph.D. offers many opportunities with specialized education.

Going down this career path starts in high school. First, you will need to keep your GPA up and score well on the SAT or ACT. This will allow you to get into a good college, leading to a top doctorate program. Using a test prep course for the SAT or ACT can certainly help.

Getting a bachelor’s degree in history, biology, chemistry, or geology is a good start. You will also want to complete coursework in paleontology and conduct research, if possible. Completing fieldwork, writing a thesis or dissertation, and teaching may also be necessary.

You will need a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Then, you will be able to enter a Ph.D. program.

2. Complete Fieldwork

Most paleontologists will complete their training through fieldwork and research. Some writing may also be necessary. If you plan to go into education, you will need to get experience by being a graduate assistant or a teaching assistant.

Paleontologists looking to work in research or a museum will need to gain experience as research assistants or fieldwork. Some of this experience will be gained through your master’s and doctoral degree programs.

Those paleontologists working in oil, mining, or gas industries will gain experience from an educational position. You might also be able to consult with private agencies or the government.

3. Join the Paleontological Association and Society

You don’t have to join any society or association. However, it can be very helpful to your career to join the Paleontological Association and the Paleontological Society. Both are non-profit organizations offering resources for paleontologists.

You will gain access to industry research journals, seminars, continued education, meetings, conferences, and more.

4. Publish Research

Paleontologists looking to move up in their field will want to publish research. This is the best way to advance your career. In addition, publishing your research in peer-reviewed journals can help you gain notoriety in your field.

Specialized Areas of Study in Paleontology

There are many different fields within paleontology. You will likely want to specialize in one of the following:

You may work in a variety of environments depending on the specialty you choose.

Common Skills for Paleontologists

If you want to become a paleontologist, there are specific skills you likely need to have. Some of the necessary skills include:

Critical Thinking – As a paleontologist, you must think through where fossils came from and study them. The ability to question things and think through them is vital to this career.

Communication Skills -You will need to report your findings through writing and oral presentations. With good communications skills, you can properly present your findings in peer-reviewed journals.

Interpersonal Skills – You will also work with a team in most cases. This also means you will need to communicate with them and work together as a team. Therefore, interpersonal skills are necessary for this career.

Leadership Skills – You may also need leadership skills if you become an educator or lead a team of researchers. Commonly, you will help set goals and ensure tasks are handled properly by those on your team.

Research Skills – It’s also important to have good research skills. As a paleontologist, you will need to be able to review and analyze published literature. You will also need to analyze other forms of information as a part of your job.

There are many other skills in science, history, and math that you will need. These skills can be taught and developed through education and hands-on experience.

Common Job Titles For Paleontologists

While some paleontologists will work as actual paleontologists, many take on other job titles, including:

There are many options for this career path. For example, you may start as an assistant curator or a junior researcher and work your way up over time. Then, with more experience, you can advance your salary and your position.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Paleontologist

How much can a paleontologist make each year?

The average salary for a paleontologist is around $60K per year. This type of career can include working for gas and oil companies, museums, and educational institutes.

What type of work environment is common for a paleontologist?

You can work in one of many industries so that the work environment may vary. For example, working for higher education will put you in a classroom, while working for a research institute will likely put you in a lab more often.

You can also work for a museum, a government agency, or a private business. Some paleontologists will spend time traveling to dig sites, while others will spend more time in a lab. If you teach, you will spend time in an office environment and classroom.

Most paleontologists will work indoors and outdoors. It’s common to spend time in a laboratory, office, or at a dig site. Travel is also a big part of the job.

Is paleontology a growing field?

Yes, the career of a paleontologist is expected to grow by 6% over the next ten years. It’s growing just a little faster than the average of all occupations.

What are the most common degree types for paleontologists?

Most paleontologists will get a degree in geology or anthropology. They will also hold a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. The top paleontologists will hold a Doctorate in Paleontology. About 9.4% have doctorate degrees, while 36.8% have master’s degrees. Another 47.1% of paleontologists have a bachelor’s degree. Thus, only a small percentage have less education than a bachelor’s degree.

Most commonly, without a master’s degree, you can’t truly work as a paleontologist. In addition, it’s necessary to get an advanced degree to work for most employers in a role above researcher or assistant.

Which industries do paleontologists work for most often?

The largest percentage of paleontologists work for the oil and gas industry. Engineering services is another rather large employer of paleontologists. Management, scientific, and technical consulting services also employ these workers.

What are some of the related careers to paleontology?

There are many careers related to paleontology. For example, you can become a museum employee, television researcher, stratigrapher, science journalist, or even a professor. These careers and many others in science may fit those studying paleontology.

Finding the right career isn’t easy. However, those fascinated with science and history might fit in well with this career. As a paleontologist, you get to study historic things that once lived on the earth. It can be a fascinating career for the right person.

You will need a high degree of education to really make it in this field, however. So make sure you’re willing to get the necessary education before going down this career path.

Jordan Fabel

Jordan Fabel

Covering different 'paths' that people's lives can take. Creative, foster parent, ticket dismissal, you get the idea. Exploring the requirements, certifications, exams, and obviously, approved courses along each path. I, personally, am the high school dropout son of two teacher parents. So how did I get here? That story is coming soon!