Paleontologists study fossils to research life on Earth. Paleontologists study all manners of fossilized remains of organisms, including those of plants, animals, bacteria and even single-celled living beings, according to the Paleontological Research Institution. Paleontologists are classified as geoscientists, or scientists who study the physical aspects of the Earth, including its composition and structure. Other types of geoscientists include mineralogists, hydrologists and seismologists, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Paleontology combines aspects of multiple sciences, including physics, chemistry, biology and geology, according to the Paleontological Research Institution. Specialties within the field give aspiring paleontologists numerous options for selecting an area of focus. They can focus their research on vertebrates, invertebrates, or various plants. Other paleontologists opt to specialize in areas other than a specific class of organism, such as the development of ancient ecosystems. Paleontologists in any specialty frequently work in the field, traveling to various locales to perform explorations and research.
Colleges and universities are the chief employer of paleontologists in the United States, according to the Paleontological Research Institution. Paleontologists teach in these higher-education programs, while also using them as their base to conduct research, collaborating with colleagues, peers at other institutions and graduate students. Similarly, some paleontologists work at museums, where they manage collections, occasionally curate exhibitions and oversee educational activities. They also conduct research for the benefit of the museum, working with fossils in the museum's possession or doing research in the field.
Although universities and museums are the primary employers of paleontologists, other industries also offer job possibilities. Paleontologists work with governmental entities, providing survey work, such as geological mapping. Some also work with energy companies, particularly oil companies, using their expertise to help examine areas where petroleum or other energy sources might be available, and providing modeling for possible exploration.
Qualifications and Pay
A doctoral degree, which can take up to eight years to complete, is a critical component of a long and successful career in paleontology, especially in the academic realm, according to the Paleontological Research Institution. However, paleontologists also can work in their field with a bachelor's degree or master's degree. Geoscientists, including paleontologists, earned a median annual wage of $84,470 in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The top 10 percent earned $170,510.