Many people think that paleontologists only study dinosaur bones, but there's much more to the field than that. Using fossil evidence, paleontologists explore evolution, ecologies and living things of the past to understand the present and prepare for the future. The average salary is $59,859 a year but can vary widely depending on several different factors.
Paleontology is a diverse field, with a number of sub-disciplines including:
- Human paleontology: the study of prehistoric human and proto-human fossils.
- Ichnology: the study of fossil tracks, trails and footprints.
- Invertebrate paleontology: the study of invertebrate animal fossils such as mollusks and other animals without a skeleton.
- Micropalentology: the study of microscopic fossils.
- Paleobotany: the study of fossil plants, including land plants, algae and fungi.
- Paleoecology: the study of ecology and climate of the past.
- Palynology: the study of living and fossil pollens and spores.
- Taphonomy: the study of the processes of decay and the formation of fossils.
- Vertebrate paleontology: the study of the fossils of vertebrates, from primitive fishes to mammals.
Paleontologists plan, direct and conduct projects in the field. They dig up fossils and collect core samples from the soil and bodies of water and prepare them for transport to the institution where they will be studied. They gather and analyze data. They write reports and papers and may present their findings to colleagues at professional meetings and teaching institutions. Some paleontologists write grants in order to get funding for their projects.
For most jobs in paleontology, you'll need a Ph.D., which typically requires four to seven years of advanced study beyond the bachelor's degree. As an undergraduate, you'll need to gain a strong foundation in chemistry, physics, calculus, statistics and computer science in addition to biology and geology. Field and lab experience are important in preparing for coursework at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Volunteer opportunities exist at museums and with local mineral and fossil clubs, which are often university sponsored.
Most paleontologists are faculty members in the geology departments of colleges and universities. Some are employed by museums. A small number are employed by government agencies and by oil companies. Some work is conducted outdoors, in any kind of weather, and can be physically strenuous. Paleontologists generally spend the majority of their time in office settings, analyzing their findings, writing or teaching. Some work in research laboratories.
Salary and Job Outlook
According to the jobs website PayScale, a paleontologist salary can range from $44,385 to $152,051 per year. Employer and geographic location affect pay, as do experience, skills and position held.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks data and makes projections for most civilian occupations. Paleontologists can be classified in two ways, depending on their sub-discipline. Geoscientists, dedicated to energy, environmental protection, and responsible land and resource management have an expected job growth rate of 14 percent through 2026. That's faster than average compared to other occupations. Archeologists and anthropologists, by contrast, have a projected job growth rate of just 4 percent, which is slower than average.