What is a Paleontology Degree?

Dinosaurs. That’s what typically comes to mind when people hear the term paleontology. The field, though, is concerned with so much more than the earth-stomping lizards that roamed our planet for more than 165 million years. It is the study of the history of life on Earth. It draws elements from physics, botany, ecology, chemistry, biology, and geology and explores how these fields are intertwined in the Earth’s geological past.

First and foremost, paleontologists and students of paleontology study fossils – the remains of plants, animals, and other living things that have been replaced by rock material or whose impressions have been preserved in rock. They use fossil remains to understand how ancient ecosystems formed, evolved, and sometimes disappeared. They become familiar with phrases like ‘glacial movement,’ ‘mass extinction,’ ‘tundra ecosystem,’ and ‘evolutionary theory.’ In short, they focus on how life has evolved from the tiniest single-celled organism to the complex life forms we are today.

Program Options

Paleontology may be offered as a concentration / subfield within the geology, biology, geography, anthropology, or archaeology major. This is especially true at the bachelor’s level.

Bachelor’s Degree in Paleontology – Four Year Duration
The bachelor’s program in paleontology provides a broad base of knowledge in the areas of biology, geology, and ecology. Students apply this knowledge to various disciplines of paleontology to understand the processes that have led to the origination and eventual destruction of the different types of organisms since life arose.

The paleontology sub-disciplines include:

  • Micropaleontology – the study of generally microscopic fossils, regardless of the group to which they belong
  • Paleobotany – the study of plant fossils; traditionally includes the study of fossil algae and fungi in addition to land plants
  • Palynology – the study of pollen and spores, both living and fossil, produced by land plants and protists (a protist is a single-celled organism that is not an animal, plant, or fungus)
  • Invertebrate Paleontology – the study of invertebrate fossils, fossils of animals without backbones such as mollusks, echinoderms, and others
  • Vertebrate Paleontology – the study of vertebrate fossils, fossils of animals with a vertebral column (backbone) including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals
  • Human Paleontology (Paleoanthropology) – the study of prehistoric human and proto-human fossils
  • Taphonomy – the study of the processes of decay, preservation, and the formation of fossils in general
  • Ichnology – the study of fossil tracks, trails, and footprints
  • Paleoecology – the study of the ecology and climate of the past, as revealed both by fossils and by other methods

These are the kinds of courses that comprise the undergrad paleontology curriculum:

  • Introduction to Cell Biology – an introduction to cell structure and function, the molecules and structures that comprise prokaryotic (without a membrane-bound nucleus) and eukaryotic (with a membrane-bound nucleus) cells, the mechanisms by which energy is harvested and used by cells; how cells reproduce, and how information is stored and used within a cell via the processes of DNA replication, transcription, and translation
  • Introduction to Biological Diversity – overview of evolutionary principles and classification, the history of life, and the key adaptations of prokaryotes, protists, fungi, plants, and animals
  • Organic Chemistry – the study of basic molecular structure and reactivity of organic compounds, emphasizing alkanes, alkenes, alkyl halides, alcohols, and some aromatics
  • Planet Earth – introduction to the origin and evolution of the Earth and the solar system; introduction to plate tectonics and the rock cycle; simple energy balances and interactions between radiation and the atmosphere, land, ocean, ice masses, and the global water cycle; evolution of life, biogeography, and global climate over geologic time; the carbon cycle; human interaction with Earth; mineral and energy resources
  • Calculus for the Life Sciences – the derivative as a rate of change; differentiation of elementary, trigonometric, exponential, and logarithmic functions; the fundamental theorem of calculus
  • Introduction to Applied Statistics – data collection and presentation, descriptive statistics, probability distributions, hypothesis testing, correlation and regression analysis
  • Molecular Genetics and Heredity – the chromosomal and molecular basis for the transmission and function of genes; the construction of genetic and physical maps of genes and genomes; strategies for the isolation of specific genes
  • Principles of Ecology – the scientific study of interactions between organisms and their environment at various levels: individuals, populations, communities, and ecosystems
  • Mechanisms of Evolution – the major features of the evolutionary process, including the fossil record, basic population genetics, variation, natural selection, adaptation, and speciation (how a new kind of plant or animal species is created)
  • Stratigraphy and Sedimentation – origin of sedimentary materials; sedimentary processes; sedimentary structures, textures, and flows; properties and classification of clastic and non-clastic rocks (a clastic rock is composed of broken pieces of older rocks); rock formation, composition, and fossil content in non-marine, coastal, and marine settings; principles of stratigraphy (rock layers and layering)
  • Introduction to Invertebrate Paleontology – systematics of important groups of invertebrate fossils
  • Geologic Structures – orientations, measurement description, and analysis of folds, faults, and fabrics in rocks; basic concepts of strain and stress in rock deformation
  • Geology Field School – geological field studies with emphasis on properties of sedimentary rocks, paleontology, stratigraphy, Quaternary geology (the quaternary period began 2.6 million years ago and extends to the present day), structural mapping, and Cordilleran tectonics (a cordillera is an extensive chain of mountains or mountain ranges); the fundamentals of recording and interpreting field data
  • Comparative Anatomy of the Vertebrates – a comparative survey of form and function in vertebrate animals; patterns of evolution and adaptation
  • Survey of Invertebrates – the functional anatomy and life cycles of the major invertebrates

Master’s Degree in Paleontology – Two to Three Year Duration
Doctoral Degree in Paleontology – Four to Six Year Duration
Combined Master’s and Doctoral Degree in Paleontology – Six to Eight Year Duration
Most jobs in the field of paleontology require a master’s or doctoral degree. Some graduate schools offer a combined master’s / Ph.D. All programs at the graduate level have a strong emphasis on field-based research in both modern and ancient settings. Research conducted spans diverse subject areas such as:

  • Paleobiology – the study of the biology of fossil organisms
  • Paleoecology – the study of primitive or prehistoric ecology and climate
  • Taphonomy – the study of how organisms decay and become fossilized or preserved in the archaeological record
  • Biostratigraphy – the study of the relative ages of rocks using fossils
  • Biogeography – the study of the geographic distribution of plants, animals, and other forms of life
  • Phylogenetics – the study of the relationships of an organism to other organisms based on evolutionary similarities and differences

Regardless of its specific focus, research undertaken by graduate students is founded on key paleontological questions such as:

  • How do organisms respond to environmental changes and adapt to different environments?
  • How is biological diversity distributed across space and time?
  • How are paleontologic resources best used and conserved for scientific study?
  • How do modern processes drive fossil formation and preservation in different environments?

Degrees Similar to Paleontology

Students of anthropology study the evolutionary history of people, how they interact, how they adapt to various environments, how they communicate and socialize with one another, and how their bodies and cultures have changed over time. The field attempts to answer big questions on many of the fundamentals of human culture, from gender to political systems to violence, religion, race, and economics.

The focus of archaeology degree programs is the study of how people lived in the past. Students of this social science learn about the culture and evolution of extinct civilizations. They attend lectures and work in labs and on research projects. They get a sense of archaeology degree jobs by conducting excavations to recover artifacts like tools, clothing, decorations, and ancient ruins.

Students of geography study the Earth’s surface; its climate, soil, and water; and the relationship between people and the land. Some typical courses in a geography program are cartography, climatology, geology, political geography, statistics, and spatial analysis.

Geology, also known as geoscience and Earth science, is the study of the Earth. Students of the discipline learn about the processes that act upon the Earth, such as floods, landslides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions; the materials of which the Earth is made, such as water, oil, metals, and rocks; and the history, evolution, and past climates of the Earth.

Museum Studies
Students who complete a ‘museology’ or museum studies degree program acquire the skills needed to conserve, preserve, organize, and exhibit artwork, artifacts, and other objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest. They learn about the four basic types of museums – art, history, science, and nature – and how to manage their collections.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Attention to detail
  • Collaboration / teamwork
  • Computer literacy
  • Field skills / comfortable working outdoors
  • Math skills
  • Methodical approach to work
  • Patience
  • Physical stamina
  • Project management
  • Report writing
  • Research, data collection, management, and analysis
  • Verbal and written communication

What Can You Do with a Paleontology Degree?

Most paleontologists are faculty members in the geology departments of colleges and universities. Other common employers include museums, government agencies, and oil companies.

Here is a snapshot of the paleontology career landscape:

  • Professor / Teacher
  • Research Specialist – conducts field work and follow-up lab analysis
  • Museum Curator – acquires new additions, manages collections, consults on new claims of finds, and gives presentations to visitors
  • Prospector – locates oil reservoirs for an oil company
  • Park Ranger – works for state or national parks with a high concentration of fossils
  • On-Call Paleontologist / Paleontology Principal Investigator – may work with a museum or private industry; analyzes and searches museum / agency records, reviews geological maps, conducts research, prepares reports and documents; supports paleontology monitors in the field
  • Science Journalist – works as a researcher / writer for professional journals and science related media /publications
  • Paleontological Field Technician – provides support for field projects in the areas of excavation, construction monitoring, surveys, fossil salvages, etc.; collects and records paleontological data; assists with lab preparations
  • Paleontology Lab Manager – works with an environmental or consulting company which serves industries involved with highway construction, construction of oil and gas pipelines, utilities (power, cable, and phone lines), drilling for oil and natural gas, mining, etc; ensures companies follow the laws governing the collection and preservation of fossils; collects and prepares fossils
  • Paleontological Resource Monitor – may also be called a cultural resource monitor or specialty environmental monitor; monitors construction sites / crews to ensure compliance to environmental policies
  • Forensic Taphonomist – identifies, interprets and documents events and processes, such as burial in sediment, transportation, and decomposition, that affect a corpse; collects samples from the scene and conducts laboratory examinations; potential employers include crime labs, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), science labs, and university anthropology departments


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