What Is Involved in Paleontologist Education?

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

Paleontologist education is a long path that includes math and science studies in high school, biology or geology concentration at the undergraduate level, and specialization in a paleontology-related field at the master's and doctoral levels. Undergraduate and graduate study may take as much as twelve years to complete, making a paleontologist education comparable in time commitment to some medical programs. Those who enter the field must be truly focused with a sincere love of paleontology to reach the professional level.

A paleontologist learns in the classroom and about field techniques.
A paleontologist learns in the classroom and about field techniques.

The start to a good paleontologist education starts early on in high school. At this point, getting as many science and math classes as possible is the best route. Courses such as basic biology, chemistry, life science, algebra and trigonometry all provide a solid foundation, but overall grades are important as well because all paleontologists must have college study to work seriously in the field.

Upon obtaining a high school diploma or graduate equivalency degree (GED), the next step is to enroll in an accredited college or university that offers a Bachelor of Science degree in either geology or biology. The ideal course is to double major in both these subjects, but for many students, it becomes logistically easier to focus on one area or the other. Regardless of whether a person chooses biology, geology or both as a major, hit courses such as physics, chemistry, math through calculus, both invertebrate and vertebrate zoology, evolutionary biology, genetics, minerology, stratigraphy, sendimentary petrology and sedimentary petrology.

With an undergraduate degree in biology or geology, an individual may continue his paleontologist education by enrolling in graduate school. For most positions, particularly any that allow independent paleontology research, the standard degree is the doctorate. The best route for those who do not have much research experience usually is to get a master's degree first, but some people choose to enter a doctoral program immediately. A master's degree in paleontology will take between two and three years to complete, while a doctorate can take four to eight, depending on whether a person enters the doctoral program without a previous master's degree. During this period of study, paleontologists usually focus on a specialty such as microbial paleontology or paleobotany, forming networks with professionals in the field and often doing internships.

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Even though many paleontology concepts and skills are learned in the classroom, a good paleontologist education is not complete without direct, hands-on experience. A person can get this experience at virtually any point in the educational process. Possible routes to explore include making connections with paleontologists at fossil or gem clubs, museums and professional societies.

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