What Subjects Do I Need to Study to Become a Palaeontologist?

Parents and Guardians Enquire About Palaeontology

Many children have a fascination for fossils and extinct creatures. Some children, girls as well as boys, become obsessive about dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. They love finding out facts about these creatures and learning all about them, as a result, they begin to show an interest in studying science subjects at school. Many parents and guardians are keen to encourage this interest and our teaching team are often asked what school subjects students should take in order for them to pursue a career in palaeontology?

A Wide-Ranging Scientific Subject

Palaeontology or as Americans would say “paleontology”, is the study of ancient life. This term covers a very wide range of disciplines and areas of academic interest and there are a huge number of career paths the students can follow. Palaeontology itself is a bit of an “umbrella term”, it covers a number of related areas of research such as palaeoanthropology, the study of human evolution, palaeobotany, the study of plants and such like. Then there are areas such as palaeoenvironmental studies (research into past environments), not to mention related disciplines such as geology and genetics. A number of universities offer degree and post-graduate courses in aspects of palaeontology, but what advice is there for parents wanting to encourage their ten-year-old daughter or their thirteen year-old son when it comes to choosing study options that might help them with a future job studying dinosaurs and other fossilised remains?

Education By a Simple Principle

The first thing we always say is to consider the enormous range of skills required to help display fossils in a museum. Parents and guardians can easily relate to this as they would have visited such institutions with their families. There are of course, the vertebrate and invertebrate palaeontologists, but these individuals are supported by research assistants, skilled preparators, curators and other staff to help excavate, prepare, clean and ultimately display the fossil finds in an informative way.

In addition, there are all the staff required to run a successful museum. The administration team, fund-raisers, management staff as well as marketing, public relations and human resources specialists.

By explaining this, parents and guardians can begin to see that there are a whole range of career options available for those people who want to develop a youthful interest into the basis for a long-term, rewarding career.

The Skill Set Required for Palaeontology

If pressed further, the next question asked by eager mums and dads is which subjects should their child study in school if they want to become a palaeontologist? The first point to make, is that an academic background is not necessarily needed to become a scientist, many amateur fossil collectors with little formal training have made very important contributions and discoveries in this branch of the sciences. However, to become a career palaeontologist there are some essential requirements when one considers full-time, formal education. A grasp of mathematics is very important and if you are going to become a scientist, then being able to study science subjects in school is absolutely vital. However, a broad, well-rounded education is also helpful.

Surprising Qualities Required

Whilst recommending an emphasis on the sciences, it is also useful to point out that other qualities are important too. For example, many palaeontologist work closely with computer programmers and modelers to help understand how long extinct creatures once moved and behaved. A colleague of ours works closely with a photographer to help map fossil locations in the field and to then record and catalogue individual fossil bones. A surveyor more practiced in handling a theodolite might be surprised at how closely a fossil excavation resembles a construction site, especially in the early stages of mapping and recording the extent of the excavation area.

A Role for the Arts?

As well as emphasising the importance of studying science and mathematics, we take care to recognise the important roles that others who may lack a scientific background can play when it comes to studying fossils and dinosaurs in particular. Mary Anning, the pioneering fossil collector and one of the founders of the modern science of palaeontology had no formal training, but she taught herself to record her observations systematically. In addition, she also illustrated her fossil discoveries, producing finely-detailed pencil drawings of fossils, viewed from several angles. In this age of the digital camera, being able to draw with care may not be quite so important but scientists advise if you really want to get to know a fossil, sketching it can be a great way to really observe it and to understand its nuances and anatomical characteristics. Again, if you consider the dinosaur fossil displays in museums, these exhibits are very often supported with skillfully created backgrounds and information boards. There is most certainly a role for artists and designers when it comes to palaeontology.

Making Dinosaur Models

Many museums attempt to give their visitors and idea of what the prehistoric animal might have looked like when it was alive. This desire to recreate extinct creatures has led to the development of an entire industry specialising in making replicas of museum specimens, some of these creatures are even animatronic and move.

Concluding Thoughts

The best advice is to study what you genuinely enjoy. If your child loves drawing dinosaurs, then this is fine, it might not lead to a career, but the child will grow up with an understanding of scale, perspective, colouration and with excellent observation skills. If your son or daughter likes reading about dinosaurs, then this is fine too. They may not become palaeontologists but they will develop a quest for knowledge and a love of books. Perhaps the greatest gifts teachers can bestow upon their students is to provide them with an environment where their own particular talents can be nurtured and to help them grow up whilst retaining an enquiring, inquisitive mind.