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So You Want to Be a Paleontologist?

Of all the people who have said they wanted to be paleontologists someday, how many have actually realized their dream? Probably very few. Some people develop other interests or find a career that they feel better suits them, but of the pool of "would-be" paleontologists there are quite a few who s...

A preparator at work in the fossil lab at the National Museum of Natural History. From Flickr user szlea.


Of all the people who have said they wanted to be paleontologists someday, how many have actually realized their dream? Probably very few. Some people develop other interests or find a career that they feel better suits them, but of the pool of "would-be" paleontologists there are quite a few who simply did not know how to start making progress towards that goal.

When I was getting ready to go to college, I had a dream of becoming a paleontologist. Given that I lived in New Jersey, however, my parents and guidance counselor assured me that there were no paleontology programs at the nearby universities. If I wanted to learn about dinosaurs I would have to go out west, and that was something I could not afford to do.

Much to my frustration I later learned that there were paleontology programs within my reach. If only I had known about them sooner! I imagine that I am not the only one who has been frustrated in this way, but what can aspiring paleontologists do to get on the right track?

Fortunately, some professional paleontologists have shared their advice on their personal blogs. Late last year, paleontologist Jeffrey Martz ran a whole series of posts on "Advice for Aspiring Researchers in Vertebrate Paleontology." The posts covered the topics " Do you really want to be a researcher?" " Find Your Specialty," " Look Carefully, Don't Be Afriad to Reinvent the Wheel, Find Your Future Projects," " Find Your Community" and " You Are Not Writing To Yourself." These posts really put professional paleontology in perspective and are must-read entries for anyone considering a career as a vertebrate paleontologist.

If you are already in college (or will start classes soon), keep in mind that not all the relevant courses will be explicitly marked "Paleontology". Many courses in physical anthropology departments, like ones about the structure of the human skeleton, can be invaluable to budding paleontologists. Make sure you look through a college's course catalog to see what is offered and, if you don't see a major you like, talk to an advisor to see if you can create your own course of study. I didn't know this was possible when I first entered college, but I really wish that I did!

Perhaps some of you are like me, however, in that you presently don't have the ability to go back to school or pursue an academic career right now. That does not mean you have to be disengaged from the paleontological community. One of the best ways to educate yourself on your own time is by keeping up with new research, and paleontologists Andy Farke and Dave Hone have shared tips for good ways to get a hold of papers. Technical papers might be tough to get through at first, but reading them is one of the best ways to teach yourself about paleontology.

As with many other academic careers, though, there are more paleontologists than there are jobs. Even if you can complete your training and get a Ph.D. in paleontology, it might be (and probably will be) very difficult to find steady work. This is why you can't just want to be a paleontologist; you really have to feel the need to be a paleontologist. It is the sort of career that has many challenges that can only be overcome by those truly passionate about it.

Even if you can't make paleontology a career, there are other ways to stay involved. Go to conferences, keep up with journals, and ask if there are any volunteer positions at your local museums. If you spend enough time educating yourself, you may even be able to publish papers. Not everyone can be a professional paleontologist, but there are many ways to participate in the field.
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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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