Paleontology may be one of the coolest careers to break into, but it’s far from the easiest.
As Smithsonian Magazine and National Geographic writer Brian Switek laments, while some people develop other interests, quite a few “would-be” paleontologists simply didn’t know where to start.
Luckily, Robert T. Bakker, author of “The Dinosaur Heresies,” “Raptor Red,” and “The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs,” and curator of paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Matthew T. Mossbrucker, director and curator of the Morrison Natural History Museum, and discoverer of the first baby Stegosaurus fossils, shed some light on how to get your start as a paleontologist during a recent Reddit AMA.
First, there are a few myths and misconceptions that need dispelling. The first is that paleontologists spend all their time digging for dinosaurs.
According to the University of California Museum of Paleontology website, “Paleontology is a rich field, imbued with a long and interesting past and an even more intriguing and hopeful future. Many people think paleontology is the study of fossils. In fact, paleontology is much more.”
Paleontology is divided into various sub-disciplines including the study of microscopic fossils, fossil plants, invertebrate animal fossils, vertebrate fossils, and prehistoric human and proto-human fossils.
And as Bakker and Mossbrucker explain, there are many jobs you can hold within the paleontology field.
Bakker says most vertebrate paleontologists make a living teaching geology or anatomy. “A few lucky ones” get full time jobs working in a museum. Fossils are also a hot commodity right now, since scientists can use them to teach basic science literacy, so fossil-sleuth could be a lucrative route.
Generally, though, the pay isn’t as much as you might hope.
“Doc [Bakker] always told me to ‘marry money,'” Mossbrucker jokes. “Seriously though, this is a calling. Most of us live a monastic lifestyle, while some took his sage advice.”
After all this, if pursuing a career in paleontology is still your calling, Bakker and Mossbrucker have a couple tips before you pursue the required higher education:
1. The best way to begin a career in dinosaurology is to start young. Bakker suggests studying living animals at a zoo or in your own backyard, filming them, and then using photo prints to sketch in the bones.
“Find the nearest display of fossils — whether at the natural history museum, science center, or state/national park — and visit,” Mossbrucker suggests. “While visiting, take a guided tour. Ask questions. Then, slow down, put the phone away and bask in the glory of the old dead things. Read the labels. (Seriously, nobody reads the labels…) and soak it all in.”
2. The next step is to volunteer, preferably in a program at your nearest natural history museum with a paleontology department. This will provide a chance to experience various aspects of what paleontology is all about and explore undergraduate programs.
“Get involved with your local museum and get your hands dirty,” Mossbrucker says.
“In museums where I work — one huge, two small — volunteers are essential,” Bakker says. “They find most of the specimens and do most of the tour-guide duties. In exceptional cases, volunteers are so good that we move heaven and earth to get a salary for them. And succeed.”
“This life is a calling and I’m grateful for every moment of it,” Mossbrucker says of his job as a paleontologist. “I’m surrounded by interesting objects, curious people, and a constant stream of weirdness.”
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