Written by Joanna Hughes

If the majority of what you know about paleontology comes from watching Jurassic Park, we’ve got news for you: it’s a lot more than just dinosaurs. National Geographic defines paleontology as “the study of the history of life on Earth as based on fossils.” This means the remains of everything from single-celled living things, fungi, and bacteria to plants and animals (and yes, dinosaurs). Read on for a roundup of four things to know about paleontology.

1. It encompasses many subdisciplines

Paleontology encompasses many subdisciplines, including the study of microscopic fossils (micropaleontology); the study of fossil plants (paleobotany); the study of pollen and spores produced by land plants and protists (palynology); the study of invertebrate animal fossils (invertebrate paleontology); the study of prehistoric human and proto-human fossils (human paleontology); the study of the processes of decay, preservation and the formation on fossils (taphonomy); the study of fossil tracks, trails and footprints (ichnology); and the study of the ecology and climate of the past (paleoecology).

Paleontology also draws from other areas. “[It] incorporates knowledge from biology, geology, ecology, anthropology, archaeology, and even computer science to understand the processes that have led to the origination and eventual destruction of the different types of organisms since life arose,” explains the UC Museum of Paleontology.

2. It’s very relevant

You may be wondering what’s the point of studying paleontology when there are so many other, seemingly more pressing, concerns. See, for example, all the times Friends character Ross, a professor in the subject, is mocked in the show for his passion and line of work. However, paleontologist Sarah Werning argues the field is a scientific necessity” that directly links to the modern world.

“Paleontology is the study of the history of life. Because that history is written in the fossil and geological record, paleontology allows us to place living organisms in both evolutionary (life-historical) and geological (earth-historical) context. It is this contextual background that allows us to interpret the significance of characteristics of living organisms, and the significance of biological events occurring today,” she insists.

In a practical context, paleontologists do everything from teaching anatomy at medical schools to playing a vital role in oil discovery.

EnvironmentalScience.org adds, “The revelations they uncover can help us understand the past, so that we don't repeat it. They can also provide context for comparison between the current state of our environment and biodiversity, and those of ancient and turbulent epochs.”

3. It has many career applications

While many paleontologists pursue careers in academia, there are other options as well. Some end up working as geological surveyors, while others work in the commercial sector for oil, coal, and gas companies. Others pursue fulfilling careers as museum curators, geoscientists, and oceanographers.

No matter where or how students of paleontology spend their careers, the field requires research and analytic skills that have significant value in many sectors. If you are interested in paleontology but do not want to pursue a graduate degree, consider interdisciplinary studies and degrees that allow you to combine the hard science and research skills of paleontology with another field or career path.

4. You’ll probably need a PhD

Regardless of the career path you choose to pursue as a paleontologist, if you plan to work within the field your journey will probably include a PhD.

The Paleontological Research Institution explains, “A doctoral degree or PhD is almost always necessary for any serious professional career in paleontology. Many universities offer graduate training in paleontology, at both the Masters and PhD levels. Depending on your specific paleontological interests, specific requirements of individual schools, or personal considerations, you may wish to pursue a MS degree before a PhD or enter a PhD program directly. “

Different university programs shine in different subspecialties of paleontology, largely dependent on faculty member interests. Reading professional journals, such as American Paleontologist, Geology, the Journal of Paleontology, Paleobiology, and Palaios, can help you hone in on your own areas of interest while also identifying leaders in the field.  

Due to competition for positions, you will need more than a PhD; you will also need passion!

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Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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