A Career in Paleontology
Updated: Jul 18, 2022
It’s a job we have all dreamed of at some point. Whether we thought Dinosaurs looked cool when we were 5 or it’s a lifelong passion, being a paleontologist is not a job that many would dread Mondays for. Considering the amount of money an average, experienced paleontologist can make is around $150,000-$200,000 (£125,000-£167,000) annually, It can also afford you a pretty comfortable life outside of work too! To become a paleontologist and make this fantasy into a reality, it can actually be pretty simple.
This isn’t for the faint hearted though. Simple doesn't necessarily mean easy, as the work it takes to become a fully qualified paleontologist is vast and hard. Some may even believe it's too much for them and give up on that dream. If we’re getting personal, that’s certainly something I went through. If you want to be a paleontologist and have no idea where to start, or even whether or not you can start, this post will take you through every step you should take and how many paths will be in front of you. Being a paleontologist isn't easy, but it certainly is rewarding and an excellent career.
This particular one is quite personal to me, so prepare for a good piece of advise/motivational rant about our lives in general at the end...
I would like to caution this by saying that I am not a professional career advisor, but this should at least get the juices flowing so you can explore other options that you may discover.
So, how to do you get a job as a paleontologist? Let's explore
First things first, you need a passion. This is true for anything in life, but is especially true if you want to become a paleontologist. A passion will lead to you putting in the hours in your own free time. Putting in the hours in your own free time leads to you learning. Passion and learning leads to information retention. Lots of information retention leads (eventually) to your expertise. Finding this information in 2021 couldn’t be easier with the wonders of the internet. Read up on your subject, gather knowledge and maybe even start forming your own educated opinions on published findings. Youtube, podcasts and blogs like this are a great place to start, then you can start moving onto the ‘big kid’ stuff, like scientific papers on google scholar (bare in mind that scientific papers use a lot of jargon and assume you already have a very solid knowledge foundation). Just be careful where you're reading stuff, we all know about the crazies that come with such an abundance of information.
You can even start exploring in field by looking for fossils and checking out geological formations. We have a full comprehensive guide on fossil hunting in the field here.
Once you have all of this information in your arsenal, you are far more well equipped to deal with making a start in a paleontological career, since your learning curve won’t be as steep. The greatest paleontologists throughout history began all of this as a hobby, all of which you can read about here.
Evaluate Your Starting Point
Next, you need to evaluate where you are starting off from. If you are a school student who wants to get a good head start, talk to your school career advisor and get them to help you find the best subjects to choose in order to be a paleontologist (biology, chemistry and geography are good places to start) then you can look at colleges/universities that specialise in Earth sciences and what they require from you to make a start. A similar plan will apply to those starting a little later in life.
It’s dangerously easy to fall into the trap of thinking ‘I already have a job, I don’t have a degree and I’m already past it’, I know because I felt like this at the ripe old age of just 21. I worked many jobs doing the bare minimum and labelling myself as ‘lazy’, simply because I was uninspired and unwilling to put effort into something that I didn’t want to do. I went around in this cycle because I foolishly convinced myself very early on that being a paleontologist was a silly little kid’s dream and I should get a ‘normal’ job like everyone else. I didn’t even have any relevant A levels (a type of UK qualification you can get between ages 16-18 that is normally needed for a university degree application) when I started my degree in geology at 23, however, I had enough passion and knowledge to impress a professor enough to take me on (which is why the previous point is important). Another one of my lecturers was a stay at home wife turned divorcee who decided it wasn’t too late to fulfil her dreams and began her degree in her late 40s. Another fellow student of mine was in his 70s and a retired RAF pilot. You get the point. If you are looking to have a career in paleontology, things may need re-working depending on where you are in life, but there are options available for all ages and stages, even degrees that can be attained through evening classes. It’ll be hard, but so worth it.
So what degree to choose in order to become a paleontologist? Well you have a few options depending on the university/college but it will be whatever is deemed relevant to the science and what sort of modules are covered. Degrees such as biology, zoology and geology are probably the top 3 that I can think of (with geology being at the top as paleontology is considered a type of geology). You have nothing to lose or commit to by simply going to an open evening at the college and asking the people there, they’ll be more than happy to advise.
It’ll be this degree that takes your knowledge in paleontology from hobbyist level to beginner professional level and if they include field trips you’ll get experiences that you’ll never forget! These will also open doors for internships and other great opportunities of research. Once completed, you will then be able to use this to get yourself onto a PhD course. Normally you will need a master’s degree before this point, but some universities might be willing to look past this if you have enough knowledge and experience.
Once there, you will have achieved the title of doctor! Now you are considered a fully qualified, professional paleontologist. From here you can conduct research in whatever your speciality is with a university or museum, perhaps even acting as a consultant for oil companies etc.
But how much does a paleontologist earn? Well, as a fully qualified paleontologist, you will then be earning anywhere between $40,000 all the way up to $150,000 annually. This is roughly £33,000-£125,000 a year in the UK.
Thinking Outside the Box...
In total, from the start of your degree to being awarded a PhD, it can take anywhere from 6-12 years.
Now, to be fair, that’s a long time. Just because you don’t have the title of doctor though, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a job in this line of work. Many enthusiasts have created careers outside the typical academic route. Some have jobs working at museums helping with research, some work in education, TV presenting, private companies, you name it. Many have even built businesses around paleontology. All it takes is thinking outside the box a little.
If paleontology doesn’t sound like something you want to make a career from and you instead want to focus on something else as a job, this final piece of advice may apply no matter what you want to do.
Find something that pays the bills that isn’t work. It may be a job, but it shouldn’t be work. There are 168 hours in a week, we spend on average 56 hours sleeping and for a full time job, we spend 40 hours a week doing whatever it is we do. That leaves us 72 hours in the week not working. We all have lives, we see people, we do other things, we might be raising kids or pursuing other endeavours, so it rarely leaves us with enough time to do what we love for extended periods of time. By the time we get home from work we’re often too tired and settle down for the day anyway, which means that work fills up what feels like just over 70% of our weeks and therefore our lives. Why on earth would anyone be willing to choose to be unhappy for what feels like 70% of our lives? It sounds silly when you put it like that, but most people do! How many people do you hear saying they can’t wait for the weekend or that they hate Mondays? It’s insanity that people are choosing that for the rest of their lives!
Now, I am a realist. I know that you have to pay bills and you don’t always get your dream job straight away, so you need to work what might be a crap job for now (remember this is coming from a guy who’s worked in retail, warehouses and even shovelled literal human faeces just to be able to pay rent). What I’m saying is, why settle for it? I can’t tell you how defeated and deflated I felt when I convinced myself I would never work in paleontology. But we live in an age where anyone can truly be anything.
It’s naïve to think it’s not more difficult for some than others, but it is most certainly not impossible. So whatever it is that makes you happy, don’t you want to be doing that for 70% of your life? Don’t you want to look forward to Mondays? You owe yourself the hard work it takes to have a fulfilling career, so work around your current life to get there. I’m sure if you really think hard about it, you’ll realise how possible it is and once you hit that point, you’ll never look back, only forward.