Hi! My name is Ebony and I am in the eighth grade, soon to be in high school! I want to be a paleontologist when I grow up. What I want to know is what types of paleontologists are there and what kind work outside; excavating. Not to mention, what is a day like for you all? I know each of you have different areas of expertise, but it might help me figure out what kind I want to be. I find paleontology very interesting- especially when it comes to organisms from long ago! Do most work in classrooms teaching others, or in labs? Which do you consider more fun? What areas do I need to go into in high school to prepare for college? What training and work is needed to become a paleontologist? And what is the main characteristic you would say I would need to become a great paleontologist? Oh, and one more thing- is paleontology a lot like archaeology or forensic science?

It's great that you're interested in palaeontology. Lots of questions there, so I'll take them more or less in order.

Most palaeontologists seem to define themselves mainly by the organisms they work on. There are palaeobotanists, invertebrate palaeontologists and vertebrate palaeontologists, and within the vertebrate world (my own part of the field) there are "dinosaur people", "mammal people" and so forth. I'd say there's potential to get involved in fieldwork in almost every branch of palaeontology, although the type of fieldwork can vary. Looking for fossil vertebrates can involve a lot of walking around and trying to spot fragments of bone eroding out of the rock; looking for invertebrates tends to be more a matter of choosing the right rock layer and then digging systematically.

When I'm not in the field, most of my days are spent sitting in front of a computer writing or proofreading manuscripts, reading papers, and of course keeping up with e-mail and finding time for things like Ask a Biologist. I work at a research institute rather than a university, so I don't do any classroom teaching, but I do advise graduate students and of course I spend some time in the collections room of my institute looking at fossils. Sometimes I'll also travel to other collections to study their specimens, or go to conferences to present my research. I've done a bit of teaching in the past, and I do miss it sometimes. I think whether a person prefers teaching or research, or likes a bit of both, is mostly a matter of temperament.

At the high school level, you'll definitely want to take some biology. If your school happens to offer a geology course, this would also be very useful. In general, I'd advise taking lots of math and science. Most palaeontologists will study either biology or geology in university before going on to earn a PhD, but biology and geology programmes (at least in North America - this is less true in some other parts of the world) normally require basic courses in other sciences as well.

In my opinion there are lots of different ways to be a great palaeontologist, and the best thing is to identify and cultivate your own strengths. Some great palaeontologists are storehouses of knowledge, some are creative thinkers, some are good at applying statistics or computer modelling techniques to data from the fossil record, and so on. If I had to pick one key characteristic, I guess it would be enthusiasm for the field.

Archaeology is rather different from palaeontology, since scientists studying the human past can look at artefacts and sometimes even written records as well as preserved bones. The basic idea of trying to reconstruct the past from evidence buried in the ground is common to both fields, though. Similarly, palaeontology probably doesn't have too many techniques in common with forensic science, but sometimes uses analogous kinds of reasoning (trying to figure out which predator left bite marks on a fossil bone can feel a bit like solving a murder mystery!).

I sit in front of a computer most of the time, but I do go to museum collections to take measurements from and make observations of specimens. I tend to concentrate my museum visits to a week at a time and I go back to my computer and analyse the data I'd collected. I've never done field work.

Aside from field work and description of new fossils, which seems to be the mainstream image of palaeontologists, there are a lot of lab- or computer-based methods/studies that palaeontologists can make careers out of. For instance, there are a lot of incredible palaeontologists past and present that have exclusively worked on mathematical models of evolution using palaeontological data. Or wet-lab based studies on developmental embryology or molecular biology has founded the basis for a whole field called evolutionary developmental biology (or evo-devo) which more and more respectable palaeontologists are specialising in. Another field in palaeontology is biomechanics and functional morphology, where fossils are anlysed using simple 2D or sophisticated 3D biomechanical models to investigate the relationship between form and function and their (co-)evolution.

So you can be a palaeontologist in a number of different ways. Mathematical modelling of evolution obviously demands a good understanding of maths, statistics, computing among other things, while evo-devo requires a good set of skills in the wet-lab as well as computing and a good understanding of statistics. Biomechanics also requires an understanding of maths, mechanics (maybe engineering principals), computing (and imaging/graphics), but also statistics. And all of these disciplines can be placed within a phylogenetic framework which would definitely require some computing and maths/statistics.

So it is quite obvious that maths is really important in many disciplines of palaeontology, and I'd urge you to take maths seriously in high-school. It's much easier to understand statistics, biomechanics, phylogenetics, evolutionary models, etc, if you have a basic understanding of high-school level maths. Biology, chemistry, and physics would also be pretty useful, but maths>physics>chemisty>biology would be my ranking of importance. This is because biology runs on chemical principals, while chemistry is dictated by the laws of physics, and physics can be explained by maths. But that's just my opinion.

I would rate maths as less important and biology as more important myself, but that's just my opinion! Geology is also an important subject if you're interested in field work, as you need to be able to identify and map the rocks that the fossils are found in to be able to reconstruct their environment and date finds.

I studied zoology and then palaeontology, and I now work in a museum. Museums are another great way of being able to work with fossil material, and there are 3 main career routes: curation, research, and learning/education. Although in smaller regional museums curators usually end up doing a bit of all three! Some museums also provide the opportunity for doing fieldwork and collecting specimens.

Just another route to consider. Palaeontology is in some ways a narrow field, because there aren't all that many people working in it, but it's also amazingly broad, because there are so many things to study, and so many different ways to be a palaeontologist! Good luck!

I'd probably agree to some extent with Manabu that maths is very important (perhaps not the most important, but up there at the top), but I'd pretty strongly disagree with Physics and Chemistry coming above biology.  Sure, there are areas where both are more important than Biology (e.g. abiogenesis, detailed physiology, core biomechanics), however, Palaeontology is the study of ancient life, and a good biology course will teach you the aspects of physics and chemistry that you will use.

That's not to say that physics and chemistry are unimportant!  On the contrary, they would be my next priority after Biology and Maths.

And as Rachel said, Geology can be particularly useful.


On reflection, and this kind of reiterates what the other biologists have said here; as long as you take lots of science and maths subjects and do well, you will find a way into palaeontology. The priority doesn't really matter, because whichever subject you like best will lead you to an area of palaeontology which best suits whatever skillset you build up.

hmm...I did not expect to stir up such a debate on importance of subjects but all I meant was to say that at high-school- (secondary-) level education, one should focus on core subjects like maths and fundamental science subjects like physics and chemistry before specialised subjects like geology or biology. You can choose whatever specialist subject to major in University or an equivalent higher-level education, but I think it is important to have basic fundamental training of core science subjects while younger. OK - so maybe someone might disagree again and say, geology and biology are also fundamental to science but what I mean is that geological or biological phenomena could be explained by physics and chemistry but the opposite is not entirely true.

I see where you're coming from Manabu, and I personally agree (more or less).
But! Many palaeontology degrees in the UK (e.g. Bristol BSc/MSci, Portsmouth) require biology at A-level, but do not require physics or chemistry (though the UCL palaeobiology BSc/MSci takes any 2 from maths, physics, chemistry, and biology).

I agree that there's some truth in Manabu's hierarchy of the sciences. But while you need parts of physics to understand parts of chemistry, and parts of physics and/or chemistry to understand parts of biology, I don't think it follows that physics and chemistry are somehow more "fundamental" than biology when you consider each science as a whole. One can learn a lot of useful biology, from the principle of natural selection to the anatomy, behaviour and taxonomic positions of particular organisms, without really worrying about physics and chemistry at all. And conversely, a lot of physics and chemistry is totally irrelevant to biology.

This isn't to say that physics and chemistry aren't useful to a budding palaeontologist at the high school level - far from it - but I don't see a reason to prioritise them quite as much as Manubu seems to be suggesting. Fortunately, there's probably room (at least in North American high schools) for a student to squeeze in most if not all of the subjects we've been discussing.