How do you become a paleontologist?

Jen here –

The idea to write this post spurred from conversations with colleagues (thanks, David!). A commonly asked question is ‘What do I need to do to become a paleontologist’? or ‘How did you become a paleontologist?’. Rather than write up a post on my experiences as an individual, I sent around a survey to collect data from as many paleontologists as I could. I requested information (via Twitter) from individuals that are professional paleontologists, meaning they are in some regard paid for the knowledge and expertise as it relates to paleontology. I ended up with 125 responses, including my own. I’ll provide the initial questions as headers with the data or comments represented below it.

TLDR: The responses provides evidence that there is not a single way of navigating your educational and professional life to becoming a paleontologist. It is by no means a linear path for all of us, but in many cases a twisting, winding road.

Did you always want to be a paleontologist?

Responses from the question of ‘Did you always want to be a paleontologist?’ Total responders = 125.

Along my own paleontological journey I have asked friends, mentors, and colleagues how they have found paleontology. It is most often not a clear path. The options to select for this question included: (1) always; (2) discovered along my educational journey and; (3) much later in life.

50.4% of responders (n=125) said they had always wanted to be a paleontologist. This was unsurprising to me as many people I have met actually collected fossils from a young age. 43.2% of responders said that paleontology was not their original educational goal but that’s where they ended up. This indicates that although may responders knew their career path early in life, just as many did not.

What level of education have you received?

Results to the question of ‘What level of education have you received?’ Total responders = 125.

The options to select for this question include: high school, some undergraduate, undergraduate degree, some graduate level work, masters, PhD, or an ‘other’ box where people could write in their answer.

The majority of responders (56.8%) hold a Ph.D., followed by 26.4% holding an MS degree. The remainder includes ‘some undergraduate’, ‘undergraduate degree’, and ‘some graduate level work’. An important takeaway from this plot, that many people often forget, is that anyone with questions about the natural world can be a scientist. People with a variety of backgrounds hold careers or jobs as paleontologists. Additional degrees and fancy diplomas are not what define paleontologists, or scientists in general.

Did you start at a community college or return to one?

Response results for the question of ‘Did you start at a community college or return to one?’ Total responders = 122.
Other countries do not have a community college option or similar educational structure, paleontologists outside of the US were included in the ‘NA’ category. Largely, responders did not attend a community college as part of their educational path (71.3%), but 24.6% of responders did attend a community college. This category includes paleontologists that went back to restart their educational journey, those who took summer courses, those that took community college credits in high school, and those who attended a community college to begin their undergraduate degree. In general, there is still stigma in the academic community about the value of community colleges. These data show otherwise: Community colleges are wildly under-appreciated institutes that are often the catalyst for sparking an interest in STEM fields, including paleontology.

What was your undergraduate degree focused on?

Responses to the question, ‘What was your undergraduate degree focused on?’ Total responders = 123.

Responders had the option of selecting multiple options or writing in their own. The options included: biology, geology, earth science, chemistry, environmental science, or paleontology. This question was intended to reflect a major or focus of the graduation but the results may include other specialties as well.

Clearly shown from this diagram is that over 50% of users studied biology, geology, or a combination of both. Which rings true with my experiences and anecdotal evidence I have gathered over the years. This diagram clearly indicates that although more than 50% of paleontologists studied the aforementioned subjects, these are simply not the only routes to entering the field of paleontology.

A word cloud with everything that had been listed on the response forms. Large words indicate more occurrences of the word.

Did you do research as an undergraduate or high school student?

Responses to the question, ‘Did you do research as an undergraduate student?’ Total responders = 125.

Research is an integral part of higher education and often can provide the learner with information on their path forward. Not everyone has the opportunities or time to pursue research during undergraduate programs. Especially when paid positions are not always readily available.

The results of this survey question show that the large majority of responders (85.6%) did conduct research as an undergraduate or high school student. This indicates that research at an early stage is common among professional paleontologists, but not necessary.

If you said yes to the above question on research, was this research related to paleontology?

If you did conduct research as an undergraduate or high school student , was it directly related to paleontology? Total responders = 108.

Undergraduate or high school research can come in many forms. I was interested in determining if everyone that had conducting research early in their academic career was in a paleo-related lab group or not. This plot had a lower total response than the previous question, at 108 responders. 81.5% of responders said that the research they conducted was directly related to paleontology whereas 18.5% replied that their research was not directly related to paleontology.

This indicates that conducting paleontological research at an early stage in your career is not vital to becoming a paleontologist, but many professional paleontologists were exposed to paleontological research at an early stage in their career.

Where are you currently employed as a paleontologist?

Where are you currently employed as a paleontologist? Total responders = 121.
The three largest portions of the pie chart include those in academia, specifically faculty members and students working toward their graduate degree. The next highest value corresponds to people working in the museum sector – either education or research related roles.

Not everything could appear on the pie chart so here is what was included with response amount in parenthesis:

    Faculty member (39); Graduate school (28); Museum staff (research or education; 17); Postdoctoral researcher (8); Research specialist/scientist (5);Paleontological resource mitigation consulting (4); Museum staff & high school educator (3); Museum staff (research or education) & Faculty member (3); Museum staff (research or education) & National Parks (2); Graduate school & Museum staff (research or education; 2); Non-profit (2); Government (1); Higher education staff (1); Biology education staff (1); Cultural Resource Management: Field and lab technician (1); National Parks (1); High school educator (1); Graduate school & Museum staff (research or education) & National Parks (1); Freelance paleontologist, author, science communicator (1).

If you discovered paleontology later, what was your original career path?

If you discovered paleontology later, what was your original career path? Total responders = 18. Word size corresponds to the frequency at which words appeared in the responses.
In the first question of this survey, many people responded that paleontology was something that came to them later in their lives. I was interested in what these people’s original career paths were. Many had different original aims in terms of field of study. I would also like to include a few quotes to showcase how variable career paths can be.

“Minored in geology while getting a BA in Spanish, paleontology was my favorite class in my minor. Worked in sales, but the science of the products I worked with reminded me of my childhood love of science leading to my return to school for a bachelor’s degree in Geology.”

“Geology undergrad, then police officer for >30 years, then Geoscience MSc (masters degree), now PhD”

“I started taking graphic design classes at the local community college at 27 and took historical geology as a general education requirement. That introduced me to the idea of being a paleontologist.”

What experiences outside of formal education helped you maintain interest in paleontology?

Total responders to this question were 115 individuals, with a lot of overlap among responses.  I’ve sprinkle some quotes throughout to bring light to several specific examples. Something that struck me is that many people included aspects of their research, but many more included information on informal learning settings such as public lectures, museums, fossil collecting, and joining clubs and groups in the area. Many responders indicated that they were volunteers at museums, and some had even mentioned this experience had provided them an avenue into their current positions. Others had led summer camps to engage young scientists in paleontology, and this helped them stay excited about fossils.

“There was an older fellow around town who was an amateur fossil hunter and knew a lot about the local history, archaeological, and paleontological record of the area. He’d take my dad and I out to fossil and archaeological sites. Also, definitely fossil activities at museums! I was always the kid chipping away at rocks. “

Other responses included aspects of various media: books, TV shows and series, documentaries, and internet resources. People of influence that came up by name include: Neil Shubin (with specific mention of Your Inner Fish), Stephen Jay Gould, David Attenborough, and Ned Colbert. Topics mentioned included: geology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology.

“Lots of museum visits, as well as books on dinosaurs, paleontology, and evolution. I also got involved doing fossil preparation for a commercial paleontology company which allowed me to experience the non-academic side of the field.“

Another major theme involved communication. Respondents indicated they would reach out  to paleontologists, members of the USGS, museum staff, and educators with their questions. To me, this indicates that communication helped these now-paleontologists foster passion and commitment to a subject or topic. Taking the time to respond to questions from those interested in the field can really change lives. The paleontology community on Twitter was mentioned as a way to find like-minded people and get a peek into their science lives. Another responder explained that their interest was maintained by the supportive and friendly community they had found in paleontology. Much of this indicates that maintaining interest in a topic relates to strong connections made with others through communication and shared interests.

“I have watched many paleontology documentaries and love visiting natural history museums. Those two mainly are what shaped my interest in paleontology. I later volunteered at a paleontology research center, in which I was able to get my foot in the door.”

“I volunteered at the San Diego Natural History Museum while I attended school at University of California San Diego. Books are also very helpful, especially if you want to maintain a sense of familiarity with topics that you’re not directly interfacing with (example: I worked mainly with invertebrate specimens, so I had to feed my hunger for vertebrate work with lots of mammal/dinosaur texts). Social media is a huge source for feeding my general curiosity. Follow as many paleontologists as you can and reach out!”

“Museum visits, reading, and the classic -David Attenborough. Having said that, I have never been nuts for dinosaurs, or so very interested in palaeontology growing up. It wasn’t until college (Geology A-Level) that I discovered how much more there is to Palaeontology, and its applications in different industries. I loved being outdoors and I wanted to travel, and palaeontology is great for that -there is fieldwork travelling season, and then there’s conference travelling season.”

What advice do you have for students interested in becoming a paleontologist?

This was an open answer question that had 114 responses. I did my best to synthesize them. There was considerable overlap so I’ve attempted to summarize a few key aspects. I’ll also include lots of quotes throughout this section. Some may be abbreviated from their original version.

Reach for the stars. And take math.

First, there were a lot of actions that I could easily pick out: explore, read, get involved, collaborate, communicate, learn, get experience, volunteer, engage, share, be flexible, apply for everything, ask questions, network, go to class, and find a supportive mentor. Other skills and subjects that were mentioned include: data science, programming, and 3D modeling.

Network and start gathering research experiences early! Don’t be shy to just cold call/email researchers (and follow up if you don’t get a response after a while). The worst they can say is no! Also, it’s great to make friends and talk to researchers outside your field, particularly biologists and ecologists. You’ll learn a lot just by being around them, naturally develop your communication skills, and might even find that it can lead to awesome collaborations! It’s also so important to protect your hobbies outside of school.

Networking, collaboration, and communication are another three answers that came up often. This could be in regards to attending conferences, engaging others on Twitter, or asking questions about jobs/research/etc. Responders indicated that science is not an isolated endeavor but is more enjoyable when you can collaborate with others that share your interests on the material or questions. Others noted about how their supportive mentors and supervisors helped them pursue their passions. Often mentors outside your department or exact field can really help you grow and see past any difficulties that may be occurring.

Don’t drop the humanities. Being good at maths is great, but learn to write properly and construct an argument. The most important skill any scientist can have is the ability to write concisely and well.

Find a mentor who supports you. I had several professors along the way try to talk me out of a career in paleontology, but it only took one professor to spark my interest and kept me interested by mentoring me through independent studies and undergraduate research. I should mention that this professor was not in my own department, but went out of her way to help me!

Be flexible – many responders indicated that their path had been altered along the way and being flexible allowed them more freedom and the ability to shift focus. Someone event went from studying dinosaurs to crinoids! That’s a huge shift but remember that the organism you study is not just because they are super cool but because they allow you to ask specific questions that you are interested in answering. It is also okay to change your mind. You should not stay in a program or field that you are uncomfortable in or that you are no longer passionate about.

Always keep your goal in mind. It’s not always an easy journey but the subject and its community are just wonderful. And also stay educated on related topics like geology, ecology, or evolution. Even if you won’t find a job in paleontology, you are likely also qualified for several other jobs. Keep on rockin’.

Share your passion and seek out colleagues and mentors. Science is not done alone. Your ideas will improve as you talk with people in and outside your field of interest. When I think about my journey I think most about the people that guided my path with their suggestions and encouragement.

There were a few other terms that came up regularly in responses: enthusiasm, perseverance, persistence, patience, and dedication. There is no correct path into paleontology and many paths are challenging. There were several responders that suggested they would not recommend you/young scientists go into the field of paleontology and that the field is highly competitive, and that you need to be aware of this before entering it. This is not limited to paleontology.

Every experience in life is relevant to helping you pursue a career in paleontology. As a high school student, I had a part-time job cleaning toilets, typing news articles, and developing film at my local newspaper. It wasn’t glamorous, and it wasn’t science, but I learned people skills, teamwork, and how to stick to a deadline as part of this–all skills that I use now. Also, learn how to communicate. This is just as important if not more important than proficiency with science. An effective paleontologist, no matter what they do (field collector, preparator, educator, researcher, student) needs to be able to communicate effectively in multiple media. Practice writing, and practice writing a lot. Good writing takes work.

If you are interested in becoming a paleontologist, these folks left their information so you could check them out line to see what they are investigating or doing at this time.

These paleontologists have left their handles so you can follow them on Twitter/Facebook/social media. A lot of these scientists also have their personal websites linked in their profile if you want to learn more about what they do and the research they’re involved with. Feel free to reach out to them if you have questions about being or becoming a paleontologist!

@clowery806, @Petra_S_Dekens, @pminton3, @AndrejSpiridon4, @slothgirlmel, @Dave_Hone, @spissatella, @jfabrombacher, @alsadekov, @boydpaleo, @Emiliagnathus, @CGoisMarques, @Dracoverde, @andyfarke, @KevinMaxMadalen, @ranjeevepa, @palaeojoe, @DMos150, @ladynaturalist, @DeadGators, @NHM_FossilFish, @DrNeurosaurus, @swarmofthought, @HollyEmilyT, @CrocBlob, @delta18O, @_gondwannabe_, @Dhiegocs, @mg_powell, @foradamifera, @coolacanth, @PaleoFeathers, @ActinoLove, @palaeojamesrule, @paleoparadox, @cosplayforscience, @Dianasaura, @Warriorfeather, @DrDanaEhret, @PolishPaleo, @reptile_f, @Thuat_Squared Twitter and Instagram, Lee Hall Twitter and Instagram, @Paleowin, @joshuarlively, @brittandbone, @sarahlsheffield, @Formorphology, @paleozoek, Nathan Van Vranken Facebook, Peter Falkingham @peterfalkingham and http://peterfalkingham.com, Kristina Barclay @barnaclebarclay and kristinabarclay.wordpress.com, David F. Wright @Davey_F_Wright and https://daveyfwright.wordpress.com/, Kaustubh Thirumalai @holy_kau and www.kaustubh.info, @ashleymorhardt www.paleoneurology.com www.pasttime.org, James Lamsdell www.jameslamsdell.com and @FossilDetective, @Dean_R_Lomax and www.deanrlomax.co.uk, Will Gearty @willgearty and https://wgearty.people.stanford.edu/, Kallie Moore @fossil_librarian and www.youtube.com/eons, Steven R. Clawson, Mitigation Paleontologist LinkedIn, Michelle Tabencki www.boneclones.com, Roger Burkhalter Sam Noble Museum, Archosaur musings

3 thoughts on “How do you become a paleontologist?

  1. Solmaz Izadighalati May 14, 2019 / 9:12 am

    Dear Professors,
    I really appreciate you for your interesting article with the following title:
    “How do you become a paleontologist?”
    Yours very sincerely,
    Sara.

  2. Brian Rouse May 14, 2019 / 4:15 pm

    I am just an enthusiast. Loved paleontology from 8 years old.
    I didn’t get the education.
    At 72, still s big fan.
    From Brian.

    • jenebauer May 15, 2019 / 8:47 am

      Thank you for sharing, Brian! Enthusiasts and amateur paleontologists are a huge driving force behind research and many of us have been active members of local clubs since we got into paleontology. It’s hard to find more supportive people!

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