When thinking about paleontologists, do images like these come to mind?

A split-screen of the gates opening to Jurassic World and Jurassic Park.

A scene from Jurassic park where three paleontologists look at dinosaurs moving through a jungle.

But...paleontologists study much more than just dinosaurs!

They study past life on Earth based on fossils — the remains or traces of ancient life preserved in rocks — of all kinds of organisms such as plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and single-celled organisms.

If you have a passion for all things prehistoric, how about a career as a paleontologist?

Investigating Chicago Pd GIF by Wolf Entertainment

Why do paleontologists study fossils?

Paleontologists study fossils to learn more about extinct and living organisms, for example:

  • an organism's life and environment — How long ago did it live? How long did it live for? In what climatic conditions did it live?

  • the behavior of an organism — Did it live alone or in groups?

  • how an organism lived — What did it eat? Where did it take shelter?

  • the evolution of an organism — How did the organism evolve over a period of time? Is it related to any living organism(s) today?

 Fossil GIF. Someone breaks open a rock to find remains of an organism inside.

So...do paleontologists mainly study fossils?

A folded paper fortune teller game revealing the answers Yes, No, and Maybe

Yes and No!

Paleontology is a broad discipline. There are several areas of study that a paleontologist can choose from. Some examples are:

  • Paleoecology — the study of ancient ecosystems and their development over time

  • Paleoclimatology the study of ancient climates

  • Micropaleontology the study of very small fossils

  • Vertebrate paleontology — the study of fossils of animals with backbones

  • Invertebrate paleontology — the study of fossils of animals without backbones

  • Paleobotany —the study of plant fossils

Quiz

True or False: Paleontologists contribute to current climate change research.

How do I become a paleontologist?

To become a paleontologist:

  • Take as many math and science classes in high school.

  • Graduate high school with good overall grades.

  • Pursue an undergraduate degree in geology or biology or do a double-major.

  • Pursue an advanced degree focusing on paleontology-related courses (Master's or PhD).

  • You could pursue a Master's degree before a PhD or do a PhD program directly after undergrad. This would depend on the program requirements and personal preferences.

Where do paleontologists work?

Paleontologists mainly work in colleges and universities as instructors and researchers in different departments based on their area of study. Other employment opportunities include:

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Museums

  • care for collections

  • consult on exhibits

  • lead field excursions

  • conduct own research

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Government Agencies

  • conduct regional mapping

  • protect fossils on public lands

  • educate the public

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Self-employment

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Energy Companies

  • fossil identification

  • other projects

How much do paleontologists earn?

Flaticon Icon Average salary in the United States ranges between $57,547 and $132, 834.

Flaticon Icon Average salary in Canada ranges between $70,433 and $123,894 (CAD).

Is this the right career for you?

Flaticon Icon You'll love it if...

  • you enjoy learning about fossils and past life

  • you enjoy math and science

  • you like learning about and connecting ideas from different fields

  • you like doing research and writing

Flaticon Icon Look for another career if...

  • you want to focus on one or few disciplines

  • you're not fond of math and/or science

  • you'd rather find a career in more futuristic professions

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This Byte has been authored by

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Alisha N

Instructional Designer