So You Want to be a Paleontologist
A Career in Paleontology
The Dinosaur Mailing List receives numerous requests for advice on how to become a paleontologist and which colleges offer programs in paleontology. Rather than have potential paleos write to the list and list members recreate answers with each new inquiry, we hope that what has been assembled here will simplify the process for both requestors and the list. The Dinosaur Mailing List is the source of most of the information given below, with exceptions as noted. All posts have been used with the permission of the respective authors, and some posts may have been abridged or modified from their original form.
We welcome expansion of this site. If anyone would like to contribute information about undergraduate or graduate school paleontology programs, please e-mail list owners Mary Kirkaldy (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Mickey Rowe (email@example.com).
Contents:I. How to prepare for a career in paleontology
I. How to prepare for a career in paleontology
Intrigued by paleontology? Wondering where can you get more information? What courses should you take? While there are a number of publications in the library which will help you, the Dinosaur Mailing List and other associations have guided questioners in the past. A good site for general information on "I Want to be a Paleontologist" can be found at the Paleontological Research Institution's Internet site at (from the following URL click on "Leaflets On Line"): http://www.englib.cornell.edu/pri/ed/fEd.html. Want a more personal view from the experts? Read on.
A. James O. Farlow, Professor of Geology - Indiana/Purdue University, Farlow@IPFW.EDU
So you want to become a paleontologist? Well. If you are planning now, as a high school student, you need to take as many science courses as you can cram into your schedule while you are in high school. I would also recommend taking as much math as you possibly can (I never saw the need for math when I was in high school-boy, do I now. I wish I'd known then what I know now. . . ). A foreign language (French, German, or Spanish, or maybe Chinese) will be very helpful. Developing good writing skills are a must, and it wouldn't hurt to get some art training. (I wish I had. I envy people like Greg Paul and Dan Varner. I do well to draw flies.)
Select a college or university that has a good, solid, program in geology or biology-preferably both. If you major in geology, work as much biology as you can into your schedule, and if biology, do the opposite. Once again, go for as much science and math as you can get into your schedule, and be sure to take at least one foreign language. Introduce yourself to the paleontologist on the faculty, if there is one, and see if s/he has a research program in which you could work as an undergraduate researcher. A lot of places (including where I am) do.
Eventually you will have to decide what area/approach to paleontology interests you most, and that will affect where you go for post-graduate work. You will have to get at least a master's degree, and if you really want to be a professional paleontologist a Ph.D. is a must.
B. Donald R. Prothero, Professor of Geology - Occidental College, firstname.lastname@example.org
First of all, no high-school student should be looking at grad school rankings to decide where to get an undergrad major in paleo. As most of us in academia know, many departments that are highly ranked in graduate studies do so at the expense of their undergrads, so a high-schooler interested in paleo may get little or no guidance at places like these. (My personal bias is that they're better off in a smaller but rigorous college where they get lots of personal attention and small classes, with lots of paleo classes being a bonus--but then I'm at a small liberal arts college where there are no grad students and undergrads get royal treatment).
So the next time you run into a high school student who is seeking advice on where to go to become a paleontologist, tell them what Reid Macdonald told me 30 years ago when I was an eager high-schooler trying to find out this same thing:
1) Get into the academically strongest school your grades will allow;
2) You may find a smaller college which focuses on undergrads to be much better if you want lots of attention from the instructor (although some students thrive in giant classes in the Big U);
3) Pick an undergrad program which will give you a solid background in geology and/or biology; paleo classes are a bonus, because most undergrads will take only one paleo course before they graduate.
4) Pay no attention to the "rankings" like US News, or other glamorous media events like spectacular finds in the NY Times or on Nova--the paleontologists who are focused on teaching undergrads and preparing them for graduate school in paleontology are rarely represented in the media.
5) Once you have finished your junior year in college in geology or biology or both, talk to your paleontologist/mentor about which grad programs are CURRENTLY hot, and what they do best, and what their individual reputations and personalities are like. Any paleontologist who keeps up with the meetings and literature is a much better index to the grad programs than some out-of-touch department chair who is probably not a paleontologist, and who does not keep up with the current status of the profession. (Paleonet - 4/99)
C. Other Resources
Additional helpful discussion and advice on paleontology as a career can be found in the Dinosaur Mailing List archives of February, April and May of 1999. Go to: http://www.cmnh.org/fun/dinosaur-archive and click on the month you want to look at.
(See especially Dr. Christopher Brochu's post on prospects for employment at: http://www.cmnh.org/fun/dinosaur-archive/1999May/msg00050.html)
II. What university should you attend
While the Dinosaur Mailing List does not endorse any college or university as being the best for everyone, we are fortunate to have first-hand information about some excellent paleontology programs.
A. James O. Farlow, Professor of Geology - Indiana/Purdue University at Fort Wayne, Farlow@IPFW.EDU
Conveniently located between two oceans, our campus offers a solid undergraduate program in geology with a resident paleontologist (that would be me) therein. I routinely include undergraduate majors in my research projects, which lately include studies of such things as dinosaur footprints and late Tertiary and Pleistocene mammals.
My Department of Geosciences offers a very nice undergraduate degree in geology, with three paleo courses (introductory paleo, invertebrate paleo, and vertebrate paleo), plus the opportunity to do undergrad research under the supervision of yours truly. In the past, undergrads have worked with me on such topics as the functional significance of tooth shape in tyrannosaurs, description of Pleistocene mammals, and the analysis of footprint shape in dinosaurs and ground birds. Plus, we've recently started collecting and describing a very diverse late Tertiary fossil assemblage from central Indiana, the first of its kind to turn up in the interior of northeastern North America-really cool fossils.
Many of our courses have field trips as part of the course, and we also take two-week trips to such places as the southern Appalachians, the Grand Canyon, and vertebrate localities in the northern Rockies.
I am constantly on the lookout for good students to work with. Should any high school students out there want to know more about our program, please contact me privately.
B. Josh Smith, Graduate Student - University of Pennsylvania , email@example.com
The University of Pennsylvania is an excellent choice for anything related to paleontology, especially if the critters you want to work with are dinosaurs.
As I understand the data, Penn is one of the very few places in the country where you can actually take a degree in paleobiology (offered by the Committee on Paleobiology, joint between Biology and Earth and Environmental Science). You can also take an A.B. in geology or in biology, the two majors that I would recommend.
We have the oldest tradition of paleo education in the New World. Both Leidy and Cope taught here, and though Osborn went to Princeton, he did all of his paleo here with Cope.
We currently have active dinosaur research programs going on in Wyoming, Alberta, Mexico, Massachusetts, China, Argentina and Egypt, and we are currently looking for good undergrads to take to Wyoming this summer (1999) and Argentina next January (2000).
Our faculty contains Peter Dodson (a man with broad dinosaurian interests but with a focus on ceratopsians), Neil Shubin (who mainly works on basal archosaurs -- see the cover story in the May 13, 1999 issue of Nature), Herman Pfefferkorn (Carboniferous paleoecology), Ben LePage (Tertiary paleoecology), and Charles Thayor (invertebrate paleoecology). We also have very strong ties with the people at the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution. Working at the latter are some of our adjunct faculty, Kay Behrensmeyer (taphonomy and paleoecology), Scott Wing (Tertiary plants), Ralph Chapman (morphometrics), and Bill DiMicheal (Paleozoic plants).
In my experience, it is invaluable to have students in the department you study in actively working on Ph.D.s, while you are an undergrad, so I encourage science students to go to places with active graduate schools.
III. Choosing a graduate school
Undergraduates thinking about paleontology as a career will be considering options for graduate school. Again, the library is a good source for information, but we will list here a few on-line resources we think you might find useful.
The Education Committee of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is formulating a comprehensive listing of schools which offer graduate degrees in vertebrate paleontology. Visit their site at: http://www.med.jhu.edu/FAE/weishampel/grad.html
Another resource which has been useful to potential graduate students is the Peterson's Guide to Graduate and Professional Schools. Their web site is http://www.petersons.com/graduate/gsector.html. A keyword search on graduate program descriptions (enter "paleontology" or "biology" or "geology") will produce dozens of schools. Click on a particular school for sections on programs of study, research facilities, financial aid, cost of study, correspondence and information, and faculty and their research.
The U.S. News and World Report ( 3/29/99) listed the top ten graduate schools which offer degrees in paleontology. Those rankings were:
1. University of California - Berkeley
The Dinosaur Mailing List discussed those rankings:
A. Josh Smith, Graduate Student - University of Pennsylvania, firstname.lastname@example.org
I think the most effective thing to do is to look at faculty lists of the major schools across the nation and where their faculty got their degrees. It is a fact that, regardless of what US News says about anything, a few schools put most of the faculty out there.
If you want to do vertebrate paleontology, by far most of the standing faculty at Tier I and Tier II universities got their Ph.D. s at a few select schools, namely (in no particular order): Columbia, Yale, Penn, Chicago, Berkeley, Harvard.
You might notice that all of these schools are Tier I universities themselves and that four of the six are members of the Ivy League. This has a lot to do with the fact that the top, most arrogant schools have historical, serious hiring biases towards schools that they feel are at their level. It also has a lot to do with the fact that the Ivies are represented very strongly (a full 50% of the league) not because they are Ivy as much as because these four schools have been playing the VP game longer than anyone else, and have thus churned out more VP Ph.D. s than anyone else. Chicago and Berkeley, in part because they are not really old universities in the first place, have not had the long standing tradition of Ph.D. milling that the other four have had. Thus, they have done something that is very difficult to do and is quite noteworthy---they have, in the academic world, become players in their own right in a relatively short time. So, even though Michigan, Kansas, and Texas are good schools with good faculty, they just haven't had the time to work up to the rest. Even Chicago, when compared to say Harvard, has put far far fewer of its graduates into high-end teaching and research positions.
If I were a newly minted B.S. and were thinking about a Ph.D. in paleontology, I would look really hard at the job market and look really hard at what faculty are putting people into top jobs (in fact this is what I did do). 'Cause lets face it, it is fine to pursue a Ph.D. for the love of the science, but at the end of six or seven years, it is really nice, in addition to all of that pretty Latin gleaming down at you from its frame, to have managed to land a couple of job short-lists while you are at it. At the graduate level, your advisor is what is important, but if you can manage to combine a top advisor with the unmatched resources and alumni connections of a Tier I school, you will get far more bang for the buck, and you MIGHT actually have a chance of being one of the ca. 100 applicants for a job that gets chosen for an interview.
B. Christopher A. Brochu, Ph.D. - Field Museum of Natural History, email@example.com
Something to bear in mind on this list (U.S. News & World Report list of top 10 paleontology graduate schools) - it ranks all paleontology programs, not vertebrate paleo programs specifically. This is why the Univ. of Cincinnati is on the list; U of C has a dynamite invertebrate paleo program, but the only vertebrate paleontologist in Cincinnati (Glenn Storrs) is at the Museum of Natural History, not the University. (I can't help but brag at the fact that UT-Austin's paleo program is dominated by vertebrate specialists. Not that we don't have EXCELLENT micropaleontologists or invert. paleontologists, but most of us when I was there were working on amniotes. Some of those schools got on the list by virtue of their invertebrate programs, but not UT. Hook 'em!)
And, because the list focused on *geological* subfields, any vert. paleo. programs in biology or zoology departments will not be represented at all, as Don Prothero has noted elsewhere.
I would also argue that the pattern Josh Smith has noted - that jobs are predominantly held by "Tier 1" schools - is changing. One should compare sources of those *with* jobs with sources of those *getting* jobs; i.e., ask around at where people are getting interviews. Some programs not on that list, such as Florida, Brown, and Duke, are sending students forth who are getting on short-lists.
I think the advice someone else gave--that one should look at the journals and see where the worthwhile research is being both funded and published--is very sound. I would also urge undergraduates to go to professional meetings, such as SVP, GSA, or SSB/SSE, and attend the sessions.
C. Josh Smith, Graduate Student - University of Pennsylvania, firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris is correct, it is changing, but it is going at the normal academic pace--glacier speed. Also, on your list above, two of the schools ARE Tier I, and one is Ivy. It is true that I ignored Brown and Duke, which are young programs and largely untested, but also, neither they nor Florida are dinosaur powers RIGHT NOW (students getting short lists is different than students getting jobs). Also, concerning your points about Austin: it IS a Tier I geology department, even if the paleo weren't strong, and it has a long history of doing geology well to sit on. The pattern is changing, but it still holds.
IV. Graduate school programs
This section contains narratives on some top schools and their areas of research.
A. Kevin Padian, Professor, Dept. of Integrative Biology, Curator, Museum of Paleontology - University of California at Berkeley, email@example.com
It does seem to be the time of year to solicit graduate applications. With Tony Barnosky (back after three years' leave at Montana State University), Bill Clemens, and Kevin Padian, our Department of Integrative Biology and Museum of Paleontology at UC Berkeley now have a research program spanning the Late Paleozoic through the Quaternary, with opportunities for advanced study in anatomy, systematics, evolutionary change, climatic change, and many other aspects of paleobiology. Our Museum is one of the largest in the country and has excellent collections of invertebrates and plants as well as vertebrates. Other VPers at UCMP include Principal Museum scientist Mark Goodwin, Museum Scientist Pat Holroyd, Preparator Jane Mason, and retired Principal Museum Scientist Howard Hutchison, along with our graduate students and postdocs, plus the Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies with Professors Tim White and Clark Howell and their students. There is also the opportunity for interactions with a variety of invertebrate paleontologists (Dave Lindberg, Jere Lipps, Carole Hickman) and paleobotanists (Nan Arens, Diane Erwin) and their students to achieve an integrated experience in all aspects of paleontology.
Current field projects of the museum include paleoenvironmental and stratigraphic studies in the later Cenozoic basins of the Rocky Mountain region, research on the Eocene faunas of Wyoming and adjacent areas, studies of the Mesozoic faunas of Ethiopia, and the evolution of Cretaceous and Paleocene vertebrate faunas of the Western Interior, which now includes cooperative research on evolution of the floras and environmental change recorded by stable isotopes.
Visit the website of the Department ( http://ib.berkeley.edu) to learn about the facilities of the department and the newly renovated Valley Life Sciences Building, and to obtain application information. Visit the UCMP website ( http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu) for information about the museum resources and paleontology in general (our website now receives about 1 million hits per week). When you've learned about the programs of the department and museum, you can also find out more specific information about our individual labs and research programs, and our graduate students and postdocs.
For Kevin Padian: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/people/padian/webintro.html (email firstname.lastname@example.org)
For questions about the IB graduate program, contact Marcus Norman (email@example.com). Applications are due December 15. We accept either the Biology or Geology GRE as part of the application. (Vrtpaleo - 11/98)
B. Jonathan R. Wagner, Graduate Student - Texas Tech University, firstname.lastname@example.org
There are two routes for aspiring graduate students in vertebrate paleontology at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas--museum sciences and geology. I do not know much about the museum science program. The program seems to be aimed mostly at "terminal" master's degree students who wish to get jobs in museums. You can work with Dr. Sankar Chatterjee on projects involving the preparation of fossils and other museum-related subjects and take some courses in geology.
The geology path, through the Department of Geosciences, takes advantage of our three faculty paleontologists, Dr. Chatterjee, Dr. Thomas M. Lehman, and Dr. James E. Barrick. Dr. Chatterjee's work is known to many on the dino list, and his current projects mostly (but not wholly) center around the Triassic fauna of the Dockum Group (including the Chinle Formation, and other famous North American Triassic units). In the past, Dr. Chatterjee's students have examined cranial kinesis in Allosaurus, Chinese sauropod dinosaurs, and aspects of the vertebrate fauna of the Dockum Group. Dr. Lehman focuses on the sedimentology, stratigraphy, and vertebrate paleontology of the Late Cretaceous of Trans-Pecos Texas, mostly at exposures in Big Bend National Park. Dr. Lehman's students have studied the turtles and dinosaurs of Big Bend, as well as the sedimentology and stratigraphy of Big Bend and the Dockum Group. Dr. Barrick is a conodont biostratigrapher, and most of his students' projects relate to Paleozoic biostratigraphy. He has supervised student projects on invertebrates, including fusilinids and corals, as well as conodonts. He is also a valuable resource for students studying vertebrates.
The Department offers several classes in vertebrate paleontology, including two seminar courses and a full-blown Mesozoic vertebrates class (with a focus on terrestrial vertebrates). Additionally, the full gamut of sedimentology and stratigraphy courses is offered over any given two years period. There are several short opportunities for field work throughout the year, although you have to pay your own way.
The Department has conferred M.S. or Ph.D. degrees upon several vertebrate paleontology students over the past decade. All of these graduates (as far as I know) have gone on to jobs in museums, teaching, or the petroleum industry. Recently, two of our M.S. recipients have been accepted by prestigious doctoral programs.
Anyone with questions may contact any of the individuals listed above, or the head of the admissions committee, Dr. Calvin G. Barnes (email@example.com). All e-mail addresses are available at the departmental website (http://www.ttu.edu/~geosc/).