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STEM Career Spotlight: Paleontologist

By Clare Schinzel

These days, science is considered the research field of the future. Developing medical cures, unique technology, and discovering new findings are all essential parts of the advancement of society. However, science isn’t all about the future. Paleontology is the study of plant and animal fossils that are up to billions of years old. It combines geology, chemistry, biology, archaeology, and anthropology into one field dedicated to studying the past.

Due to the variety of sciences used in paleontology, obtaining a degree and a profitable career can be incredibly difficult. Because of this, the path to paleontology starts in high school. Developing a foundation in mathematics and science should be a student’s primary goal in high school. Chemistry, biology, and environmental science along with high-level statistics courses will help prepare promising students for the more challenging classes required in college.

After high school, admission into an undergraduate program is vital in forging a career path. Students should follow the undergraduate program recommended by the geology department at their school. These programs will have a focus on life sciences and geology. Supplementary classes will include paleobotany, evolution, and invertebrate and vertebrate paleontology. All these courses will help a student further develop and specialize in environmental science to help educate themselves for their future career.

Just as official courses are essential, real lab experience is a must for paleontologists-in-training. Volunteer opportunities are often available in museums and colleges. They can usually suggest areas to collect fossils or even recommend fossil-collecting clubs for further study.

After obtaining a traditional four-year degree, a Ph.D. in paleontology isn’t required. However, considering the number of applicants for paleontology careers, it has become necessary. Depending on how much experience a student has had in their undergraduate program, pursuing a master’s degree before a Ph.D. could be easier and provide a deeper understanding of the field. A master’s degree takes from two to three years to complete while a Ph.D. takes from four to six. Time, commitment, and financial stress will be huge factors in the decision to pick either path.

Unfortunately, despite the many years of studying that goes into it, paleontology isn’t a career in high demand or a high-paying job. It can be incredibly difficult to enter the field, so having a high GPA and good recommendation letters are a must. Once a student obtains a paleontology job, the average salary is around $83,650. Although, even with all of this work, most major discoveries in paleontology haven’t been by professionals. Bill DiMichele, the president of the Paleontological Society, describes how amateurs in the paleontology field are often responsible for major discoveries. For them, paleontology is a passion rather than a profession.

Whether a student pursues a professional career or not, a passion for the sciences and mathematics is required. As with any career, passion trumps salary in this world of academic prestige.

Works Cited

Hendry, Lisa. “How to Become a Palaeontologist.”,

“How Much Does a Paleontologist Make? Average Salary, Skills Needed and FAQs |”,


“How to Become a Paleontologist.” HowStuffWorks, 27 Apr. 2011,

“I Want to Be a Paleontologist! A Guide for Students.” Paleontological Research Institution,

Kowarski, Ilana. “What Paleontology Is and How to Work in This Field.” US News & World

Report, U.S. News & World Report, 2020,



Leitch, Chris. “How to Become a Palaeontologist (Career Path).”,

“Paleontologist.” American Geosciences Institute, 19 Nov. 2016,


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