There are no Paleontology undergraduate degrees. A B.S. in Paleontology is exactly that – BS, or bullshit.
Ok, calm down, we don't mean you can't go study paleontology as an undergraduate – it's just that there's no easy "paleontology major."
See, paleontology is an incredibly broad and interdisciplinary field. We cover the study of life from its beginnings until now, an incredible swath of time and lifeforms. We are, as they say, a bit of a know it all!
We have to be know-it-alls, really - if you are digging up a dinosaur, you need to know how to find that dinosaur what type of rock to look for, you need to understand the rock well enough to know what happened to that dinosaur, you need to be able to identify the bones, you need to be able to safely excavate them and then use chemicals to preserve them, and you need to be able to do the writing and the math it requires to study and describe them. That's a lot of skills!
With that many skills it's not surprising that paleontologists can end up in all sorts of departments as a result. Between the two of them, Meaghan and Amy have both taught in Anthropology, Biology, Geology, Science Education and Information Science - paleontology truly crosses disciplines.
If you are starting your career in paleontology and looking at an undergraduate degree, the above sentences might be a little bit overwhelming. If there is no undergraduate paleontology degree, how can you figure out what school to go to in order to become a paleontologists?
Well you're in luck, because that's what this blog post is about – this blog post is for you, someone looking to go to an undergraduate serving university and get a degree that will help them become a paleontologist.
Evaluating a School For Paleontology Prowess
While there may not be any paleontology undergraduate degrees there are certainly places that have more paleontology classes than others. So the thing to look for is how many paleontology classes does this entire school have?
To find that information your first step should be, like it is in so many aspects of our lives…to Google it.
Google the school name and "paleontology" or "paleontologist." This will often pop up with a professor's lab page – a website where professors describe the research they and their students do. But not all research groups will show up, either because the paleontologist at that school doesn't have an operational website or because that school doesn't have an operational paleontologist!
The next step is to go to the school's Course Catalog.
The course catalog is a Bible that holds all of the courses that are currently taught at a university. Blessed be the course catalog.
Some course catalogs are searchable by content word, others need a rosetta stone and a ton of patience to navigate. For the former, enter "paleontology." For the latter, you're going to want to look for any course title that sounds paleontology related. We recommend you start your search by looking at the course titles of certain departments: geology, anthropology, and biology. These are the departments that are most likely to have paleontology classes.
Here are a list of possible course titles for paleontology specific courses that are actually meant to teach you paleontology:
· paleontology (duh)
· paleobiology (paleontology but in a biology department)
· paleobotany (plants!)
· paleopedology/paleosols (this is of soils, but it counts)
· Ichnofossils/Ichnology (this is of trace fossils like burrows, etc)
If any of these classes have the following words in front of them that just means that they are more specialized versions of those courses: Mesozoic, Marine, quantitative, mammalian, invertebrates, vertebrate, human, Cenozoic, trace fossil, plant, etc. If you see these keywords it usually means that there is a highly specialized paleontologist who really wants to spend a whole term blathering on about their specialty.
Heads up: classes in college are often "cross-listed." A cross-listed class is just a single class that more than one department is claiming credit for – a sort of like a hyphenated last name. For example, Central Washington University has GEO 371 Paleobiology and BIOL 371 Paleobiology. That is the exact same class. You can only take it once, it's just that you could take it for geology or biology credit.
Similarly you might see the same course title repeated at a 400 and 500 level, i.e. 452 Paleontology and 552 Paleontology. This usually means that it is cross listed between undergraduate and graduate students, not that it is two different classes. If it is two different classes the last number will be different e.g. 452 Paleontology and 553 Paleontology. Yes, this is a stupid and confusing system which is why we are putting it here so that you know what it means.
As a second heads up, sometimes there are classes that sound like they cover paleontology, but they do so in a way that might not be very interesting to you. They are usually taught at a very low level and it is taught for one of two purposes: either to try and recruit students to take that major, or as a very general overview that is a requirement for all members of that major.
The most common one that we have seen is something like Dinosaurs, Dinosaur Biology, Introduction to Dinosaurs. It's almost always taught at a lower level, usually has a huge classroom size and is often (but not always) taught by someone who is not a paleontologist.
Another class that does cover paleontology but is usually meant as a very generalized overview for non-paleontologists is whatever that geology department is calling Historical Geology. That could be Earth's Evolution, History of the Earth, Earth's History… You get the point.
None of these things mean that these are a bad class to take, it just means that if you are already very enthusiastic about dinosaurs this class is probably going to bore the shit out of you. And since this whole blog post is specifically about getting an education that will help you go into paleontology it is worth pointing out that these two classes don't count because most colleges have them, whether or not they have a paleontologist or lots of paleontology classes.
Making A Composite Paleontology Degree
So let's say that you find a university that offers a ton of paleontology classes – that means three or more in a single department, excluding the two we just mentioned. This likely means that they have at least one paleontologist at the school. Because we are interdisciplinary we can be sneaky and sometimes hard to find, so this can be a good clue. And the reason that's important is because once you go to the school that paleontologist can help make sure you take the courses you need to in order to be successful post-graduation.
But having multiple paleontology classes also usually means that this is a bigger university. That might mean that it is not a good fit for you considering things like cost, class sizes, location, etc. Meaghan switched schools three times in her undergraduate degree to find the right fit for her - so when we say that the fit of the school is important we really mean it!
The problem if you go to a smaller school is not that you will have less exposure to paleontology, it's that you might not have somebody who can tell you exactly what classes to take in order to be successful. But that is also what this blog post is for! It doesn't really matter what you major in – and if you are an over achiever you might even choose to double or triple major in the things that interest you. But regardless of what you major in, here are the courses we suggest you take to make sure your paleontology education is well-rounded even if it doesn't have the word paleontology on your degree or your transcripts,
This covers the type of rocks that usually have fossils in them! And while you don't have to be a great geologist to be a paleontologist, having a good introduction to this specific type of geology can be tremendously helpful if you want to do field paleontology. Please note that this class often has prerequisites so you will have to take those too!
Even if you study soils or trace fossils, evolution is a fundamental underpinning of everything that a paleontologist studies. Try and find an upper division version of this class to take if you can, as that will go into much greater detail than an introductory class.
Oh yes we know, math doesn't sound fun! But statistics is a little bit different. Statistics is important in the sense that it gives you an idea of probability and bias - how selection bias plays into fossilization for example is a really key principle. Calculus, on the other hand, sucks and is basically pointless for paleontologist but you will almost definitely have to take it anyways… sorry.
Did you know that many fossils have bones? I bet you did and it would probably be useful for you to be able to identify them! Osteology classes are often offered in biology or archaeology/anthropology departments. If you can't find one specifically called that you might look at something called comparative anatomy or Zooarchaeology. These will very frequently cover animal anatomy and help you learn how to identify bone pieces.
Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
Did you know that fossils occur in space and time and you will have to map them if you go into the field? Mapping is a lot easier if you can use the computer software that most paleontologists use for mapping! Taking a GIS class is very helpful because you will always have to be doing things like recording coordinates making maps navigating places etc.
Python or R coding
Meaghan might be a little bit biased on this one, but it is good to take a class in these just to discover if you like it or not. If you do like it… congratulations you have just entered the most hireable version of paleontology! If you don't like it, that's okay – you will probably still have to use it at some point down the line but you won't have to focus on it.
Mineralogy is a weird class that covers geology and chemistry. It will help you a lot with identifying rocks, and it will give you a little bit of laboratory skills that can cross apply to field paleontology and fossil preparation. We've put the word introductory here because most of geology departments have more than one of these classes and you really just need the basics - unless you find it exciting and interesting in which case great, keep shining you crazy beautiful insane mind.
That's it! With these classes you have created a composite paleontology degree! If you get to throw an Invertebrate Paleontology and a Paleobotany class on top of these things that's fantastic but remember that it's not fundamental, so just because a school doesn't offer those courses doesn't mean you won't be successful.