So, You Want to be a Paleontologist?

With any luck, when this post goes live, I’ll be on my way to Los Angeles for the 73rd annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

I’m a paleontologist. If there was a special ‘I really am a paleontologist’ card, I’d be a card-carrying paleontologist. (We need to make cards. I’ll get on that.)  I have all the credentials – the Ph.D., the publications, the global field experience – that people expect that all paleontologists would have. I even teach paleontology courses at a university

So, naturally, one of the most common questions I get is, ‘How do I become a paleontologist?’ I get this from kids and adults. Often I get it from starry-eyed college freshmen (or high school seniors) who really, really, really want to study dinosaurs like they’ve seen in all the movies.

Once I get past correcting any misconceptions about paleontology (e.g, it’s only about dinosaurs and that it’s just like archaeology), I can get onto answering the question.

It actually makes me sad to get this question, because it involves a lot of uncomfortable and harsh realities. I always preface my answer with the explanation that, though I am a paleontologist with all the requisite qualifications, I was not hired in my current position to do paleontology. I have a job because I’m a geochemist. A major part of my job is to keep a laboratory running that houses a $350,000 mass spectrometer. It’s pretty far away from paleontology.

As it turns out, geochemical analysis of fossils does yield interesting results and can teach us a lot about ancient organisms and their environment. I spent four years as a postdoctoral scholar learning the methods and doing research involving the geochemistry of fossils. In the process, I learned how to do geochemical analysis on all sorts of materials. Being able to do geochemical analyses on things beyond fossils gives me a desirable skill set that got me hired.

And the great news is that I can still do paleontology! But you don’t have to be a paleontologist to do my job.

I was lucky. In my training to be a paleontologist, I developed a secondary, useful and desirable set of skills. I had a good ‘Plan B.’ It was Plan B that got me hired.

Employment opportunities with the word ‘paleontologist’ in the title are rare and hard to get. A lot of people who get Ph.D.s in paleontology can’t find work as paleontologists. They are often hired because of other things they could do.

They all have a good Plan B.

The challenge then, for someone who wants to become a paleontologist, is to develop a good Plan B, and make sure that it’s something that will help you get a job and will still allow you to do paleontology.

For many, a good Plan B is geochemistry. It’s worked for me, at least. There’s a lot of interest in using geochemistry to study climate and environmental change.

But this isn’t the only Plan B available. Many who study paleontology teach courses in human anatomy at medical schools. If you’re interested in anatomy, this might be the way to go.

Another potential Plan B is mechanical engineering. Lots of interesting work on things like bite strength are being done using engineering methods like Finite Elemental Analysis (FEA).

Some people get into paleontology through the arts. The scuplters and painters that show up at professional meetings produce some amazing works! They still often do the museum work and field work that other paleontologists do. They certainly read technical papers all the time. They are paleontologists, too.

There are lots of ways to go to get into paleontology. Paleontology is a wonderful science, loaded with great research and tons of interesting people. But to get there requires planning. It requires the acceptance that the likelihood of getting a job with ‘paleontologist’ in the title is pretty small. It requires taking the time while still in school to develop a skill set that can get you hired and still allow you to do paleontology.

So, get yourself a Plan B. Start now. You’ll be glad you did.

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