A paleontologist studies fossils while recording the history of life on earth. These fossils can be as large as dinosaur bones or as tiny as bacteria. They can be billions of years old or only a few thousand years old. Paleontologists have even discovered human bones from ancient civilizations. The steps to getting a paleontology degree begin in high school and carry on through college. By knowing these steps you can better prepare for a career in this exciting field.
High School Classes
If you have your sights set on a future degree in paleontology you will want to take as many AP classes in sociology and biology as are available. Colleges look favorably on students who take AP classes in their area of study. You can even go above and beyond and find specialized online high school elective courses in paleontology. CampusNorth Inc and the Royal Tyrrell Museum offer online paleontology courses for high school students. (see reference 1) Ask your academic advisor if courses like these can be added as electives to your class schedule.
The Community College Pre-Major
A pre-major from a community college is a great way to ease into a field of study before jumping headfirst into a 4-year degree program. If there is a certain area of the country you would like to work in as a paleontologist it would be advantageous for you to pick a college in that region. The Pacific Northwest is one of many hot spots for paleontology and Spokane Community College offers a pre-major in earth sciences. According to the college’s website the earth science pre-major leads students towards obtaining degrees in paleontology. It includes courses in physical geology, environmental geology, historical geology and Pacific Northwest geology. The pre-major is advertised as a good goal if students want to pursue a career in paleontology. (see reference 2)
Choose the Right 4-Year College
Whether you have pre-major coursework in the bag or you are starting fresh at a 4-year college, you will want to select a campus that can lead to graduate work. Not many colleges offer paleontology degrees. If you don't select one of the few colleges that offers the degree you can instead attend a university that offers a bachelor’s degree in earth sciences. The B.A. in earth sciences at Boston University requires students to complete 15 department-approved courses and successfully complete a summer field course. The college’s website states that this degree will provide students with a broad educational background that can lead them to specialized graduate programs like their doctorate in earth sciences with a focus on paleontology. (see reference 3)
Pursuing the Ph.D.
The University of Kansas is one of the few institutes that offers a Ph.D. in paleontology without requiring students to get a Ph.D. in earth sciences with a focus in the field of study. And as expected, placement is very competitive. The university is connected to a number of world famous research centers and museums for the study of paleontology. The Natural History Museum and Blodiversity Research Center offers Ph.D. students a platform of research with more than half a million invertebrate fossils and 150,000 vertebrate fossils. Aspiring Ph.D. candidates must contact the university for application information. (see reference 4) It is also advantageous to research who the faculty are in the department, familiarize yourself with their work, and reach out to them expressing interest in having one or more mentor your Ph.D. and dissertation.
- Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images