Although paleontology is usually defined as a geoscience, it is a highly interdisciplinary field, combining geology, biology and archeology in studying fossil remains. Paleontologists can be described as rockhounds or applied evolutionary biologists, but in either case they spend a good deal of time in the field collecting samples and in the lab analyzing them. Nearly all paleontologists are college educated, but no professional license is required to practice paleontology. A permit from a state or federal agency may be required to work in or remove fossils from some areas.
Most paleontologists have an academic background in geology, archeology or ecology. According to the Paleontological Research Institution, a double-major in geology and biology is ideal preparation for a career in paleontology, but either major is fine as long as you get a good background in the other. Courses in math and statistics are also very useful for paleontologists. Those interested in academic positions or pursuing independent research often continue in school to earn a master's degree or a doctorate.
Vertebrate paleontologists try to locate and identify bones or skeletal remains, such as the skeletons of mammoths or dinosaurs. Invertebrate paleontologists study fossils of animals without backbones; micropaleontologists study fossilized microorganisms such as bacteria; paleobotanists study plant fossils; and biostratigraphers study the distribution of fossils in geological formations to improve our understanding of dating fossils and the evolutionary process.
Paleontologists spend time in the field and in the lab. Working in the field means traveling to a location to search for fossils. If promising fossils or bones are found, paleontologists take photographs, record stratigraphic data and prepare for excavations. Fossils and bones are examined in the lab with microscopes and are identified by cross-referencing and by performing chemical tests. As with most academics, paleontologists publish their research in scientific journals and present results to colleagues at conferences.
If you are fossil hunting on your own property or private property with the permission of the owner, no permit is required. Fossil hunting on public land, however, typically requires a permit from a federal or state agency. On the federal level, both the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management offer research permits to qualified professional paleontologists. You can get a research permit for state-owned land through your state natural resources department or state historian.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: OOH -- Geoscientists
- The Paleontology Portal: Careers
- Paleontological Research Institution: I Want To Be A Paleontologist !
- National Park Service: Paleontology in the National Park Service
- Bureau of Land Management: Paleontological Resource Use Permits
- History Colorado: Archaeology and Paleontology Law & Permits
Clayton Browne has been writing professionally since 1994. He has written and edited everything from science fiction to semiconductor patents to dissertations in linguistics, having worked for Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Steck-Vaughn and The Psychological Corp. Browne has a Master of Science in linguistic anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.