Vertebrate Paleontologist & Morphologist
University of Chicago, Postdoctoral Researcher
How to become a paleontologist!
I attempted to expand much of this advice to cover paleontology at other universities or even advanced degrees in other fields, though I will admit this advice is sometimes tailored to students at UChicago interested in paleontology. That is what I know most about, after all!
This page is also just one person's take on how to work on your career in paleo – ask around, get multiple opinions. Everyone's perspectives and experiences are different, and you might find additional opportunities and factors to consider.
If you have additional questions or think there is something else that could be added, feel free to contact me!
How do you get into a research lab?
How do you figure out what you want to study as a potential 1) undergrad thesis or 2) grad school?
How do I figure out where to go?
How do I apply to grad school?
What are grad school interviews like?
What about international students?
Paleontology is a very interdisciplinary field, as such, courses and research are split between two main majors: Geophysical Sciences and Biological Sciences. Depending on which areas of research you are interested in, you can major in one or the other or both. Many courses are cross-listed between majors and many faculty interact with both as well.
At UChicago, courses and faculty in Geophysical Sciences tend to cover topics like stratigraphy, geochemistry, paleoenvironments, and major macroevolutionary patterns. Biological Sciences tend to have more courses in anatomy and vertebrate paleontology. Both majors have additional cross-listed classes covering topics like phylogenetics, conservation paleobiology, and invertebrate paleontology. Other universities may have their paleontology faculty centralized in a single department (biology or geology), so check the department pages of the school you're interested in to see which major you might need.
At the bottom, UChicago degree requirements and courses are listed for Biological Sciences and for Geophysical Sciences relating to paleontology, as of the 2019-2020 course catalog (link to up-to-date catalog). This is not a permanently complete list – it keeps changing, so just double check on the official schedule too. Each university should have their course catalog available on their website, so check around to see what sort of courses are offered. When in doubt, email a professor asking whether their course is offered that year – sometimes they teach it every other year or skip a round for a sabbatical, so it might take some planning ahead to fit in all the courses you want.
If you are concerned about pre-reqs, send an email to the professor before the course, explaining your background and interest in the course and ask if you will be fine or if you would be at a serious disadvantage. Sometimes, like in the case of more anatomy-based courses, the pre-reqs are more to establish the course as an upper-level elective, but molecular bio won't help you pass anatomy, so the professor might be okay with you taking the course. (For either major, just get your fundamentals out of the way asap, anyway.)
Disclaimer – while most of this information will stay roughly the same, a few nuances of the majors will change over the years, so discuss your interests with the senior advisor for your given major and consult the most recent course catalog to make sure you stay on top of the most recent info.
The other thing to think about while you're going through your college career as a budding paleontologist is research.
How do you get into a research lab? Look up professors or grad students who do work that interests you. Here's a few links to peruse regarding paleontology researchers at UChicago and the Field Museum:
https://oba.bsd.uchicago.edu/ - Dept. of Organismal Biology and Anatomy
https://evbio.uchicago.edu/ - Committee on Evolutionary Biology (includes Field Museum researchers)
https://geosci.uchicago.edu/ - Geophysical Sciences
Send them an email saying you're interested in their work and asking to discuss how you can get involved in their lab. That's it, really. Everyone is excited when someone expresses interest in their research, so they'll definitely want to talk with you. (And if not, they probably won't be fun to work with anyway; find someone else or you'll be miserable.)
Keep your email relatively short and sweet – you're just briefly introducing yourself and starting a conversation. Cover the basics – What year you're in, major, a sentence or two about what drew you to their research and what you want out of working for them. Are you trying to learn a technique that interests you, are you particularly interested in the group of animals they're studying, are you trying to figure out what you're interested in and want to explore different research options, are you aiming to do a senior thesis at some point, etc. All are valid and all are accepted, this just helps the professor sort out how to incorporate you to their lab and start the right conversations. You don't have to have a concrete research plan or any experience with the lab's techniques, just introduce yourself and try to set up a meeting to continue the discussion.
It's okay if you try one lab and you feel it's not the right fit for you. Go try another one. This happens all the time and professors won't (shouldn't) hold it against you. This is your time to work on sorting out what's right for you and your interests in the long-run.
You can often also learn to prepare fossils (cleaning rock off of the bones) either at a fossil lab at a university or a local museum. If you're at UChicago, the Sereno Fossil Lab accepts volunteers working on vertebrate fossils a minimum of three hours per week, based on available space. You can contact Prof. Paul Sereno (dinosaur[at]uchicago[dot]edu) and his lab manager Tyler Keillor (tkeillor[at]uchicago[dot]edu) to see if there is space. The Field Museum also accepts and trains volunteers to prep vertebrate fossils in their labs too. You can contact Akiko Shinya or Connie Van Beek if you're interested in working there. Fossil prep is a tedious task, but very rewarding when you finished cleaning off a bone. There is a bit of a learning curve, and it's not for everyone, but worth trying if you have the time. Prof. David Jablonski (djablons[at]uchicago[dot]edu) would also be a great person to contact if you're interested in invertebrate paleontology lab work at the University.
How do you figure out what you want to study as a potential 1) undergrad thesis or 2) grad school research trajectory? This is a bit of a trick itself – take a variety of classes and think about what you enjoyed studying and what you never want to see again. Try working in a couple different labs, either at this university or spend some time over the summer doing NSF REUs, internships, or fellowships at other universities. Don't forget we also have the Field Museum a short distance from here – there's some awesome paleo research going on over there too!
Evolutionary Morphology (EvMorph) seminars are also a great free, local way to get to know people in the field, some from the Chicago area and some are flown in from other universities. These seminars are Thursday evenings at 7:30pm CT in Hinds 176 (biweekly at 4:00pm on Zoom in the COVID era), and UChicago affiliates can sign up for the EvMorph listhost (evmorph[at]lists[dot]uchicago[dot]edu) If you are not affiliated with the university, email Prof. David Jablonski (djablon[at]uchicago[dot]edu) to ask if you can be added. At the beginning of the quarter, they send out the schedule for the quarter. Each week you could also sign up to meet the speaker and talk one-on-one with them about their research and your interests, and for a couple bucks pre-COVID era, you could also join the dinner at Siam Thai each evening before the talk.
UChicago affiliates can also subscribe to paleo[at]lists[dot]uchicago[dot]edu to receive information about other talks and events either on campus or at the Field Museum. There is a weekly seminar at noon at the Field Museum in Montgomery Ward Hall (just inside the west entrance) that hosts a variety of speakers as well. The more opportunities you have to see 'what's up' in the world of paleo or related fields, the better idea you'll have of the things you like or not like, and what you might be interested in studying in the future.
UChicago PaleoClub hosts talks by a variety of evolutionary biologists (professors, staff, grad students, and undergrads), gives tours of the Field Museum, and aims to have an annual invert paleo field trip, so you can subscribe to their listhost as well: paleontologyclub[at]lists[dot]uchicago[dot]edu. And if you want to try your hand at presenting something that you've been working on or find interesting, get some low-pressure experience doing a presentation, feel free to contact the board, they're always happy to schedule you in. Grad students have practiced their thesis defense talks, and undergrads have presented their research from REUs or other experiences. We also aim to email out any internships we hear about that may be relevant for those interested in paleontology, so consider subscribing for the list to be kept in the loop.
Try and go to a conference if you have time (and, yes, a bit of money). You get a lot of exposure to a huge variety of paleontological research in a very short period of time. It may be a bit overwhelming at first, but there's a lot of cool stuff and awesome people out there. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, Geological Society of America (also Paleontological Society), North American Paleontological Convention, International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology, and the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology are a few good ones to check out. They do cost money, so you might have to budget accordingly and/or look for funding opportunities (they exist!), but it's definitely worth the investment. These conferences are also great ways to meet potential grad school advisers and colleagues and see what their programs and personalities are like (both are important for your sanity). If you can present at a conference your fourth year or a gap year, that is also a really good experience. You don't need to have a brilliant Nature-worthy discovery, a poster with preliminary data and preliminary conclusions is perfectly fine. For Midwest locals PaleoFest at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, IL is also a great way to meet people who give great talks and it's more local than some of the other conferences.
Most conferences also have ways for students to apply for travel grants or waive registration/hotel fees, so keep an eye out for those as well. If you're presenting research from a lab, it is also worth checking with your professor and see if they can pay for or at least subsidize for your attendance. The Dean's Fund or other sources of undergrad funding would help with that too. Applying for little bits of money is good practice for future apps, you can put the awarded money on your CV, and it shows that you understand the importance of getting your own funding.
A few years ago, graduate students at UChicago and UMich started organizing the Great Lakes Student Paleoconference, an informal student paleoconference for the Great Lakes region, held the Veteran's Day weekend in November. Since then, it's expanded to include students from several universities in the area. Students come together for a weekend and give talks about their research to other students. It is supposed to be a relaxed, low-stakes environment, and it's free, just get yourself there and back. UChicago has a pretty good contingent each year with plenty of car-pooling options – what's a better way to meet fellow Midwest researchers than a road trip? You still get that experience of seeing other research and, if you choose, presenting your own.
Just a few things to think about if you're considering grad school.
What's grad school like? In general, grad school is composed of a few courses to help broaden your knowledge and your techniques and some level of thesis to deepen a specific area of your knowledge, either masters or doctoral.
For a biology PhD at UChicago, students enroll in a PhD program, but also earn a "free" masters as they pass candidacy. This format is becoming fairly common in PhD programs at many universities. The first two years are spent taking classes and doing lab rotations to try and help narrow your focus and figure out who's lab you'd actually want to do your PhD in. If you qualify, you are highly encouraged to apply for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) at the beginning of your second year, which is a very prestigious fellowship that gives you three years of funding and access to the NSF scientific network. We also have a written preliminary exam the summer before your second year. A prelim committee will give you a question related to the specific area you study and you have one week to write a literature review on that topic, showing you can delve into the literature and synthesize the ideas in a cohesive and thoughtful manner. (Different departments and universities do this exam in different ways, so that could be a topic worth bringing up with current grad students.)
During your second year, you will figure out your primary adviser and ask others to be part of your committee. These people should be able to contribute some expertise relevant to the topics you're interested in. Perhaps one person does a method you need, one person works with organisms you study, someone else stands back and asks "what's the point of all this?" The composition of your thesis committee is up to you, and each grad student has different needs, so that's an important thing to think about, even when choosing schools and interviewing.
At the end of your second year, you will give a public (usually advertised in the dept) presentation of your thesis proposal. After non-committee members ask their questions, they will get kicked out and your committee will continue asking questions to make sure you thoroughly understand the material and the methods, and are comfortable with you proceeding with your work. Then you spend more time doing research. You are also required to TA twice as part of your doctorate. This requirement varies depending on department and university as well. You are expected to schedule committee meetings to catch your professors up with your progress and make sure you're on track to graduate on time. Then, when you are ready, you give another public seminar on what you've found in your thesis work. Oftentimes, your actual thesis defense ends up to cover very a different trajectory of work than you proposed, depending on results of experiments. This difference is quite normal, so don't be concerned if it happens. The public asks their questions, the committee privately asks theirs, then they agree that you pass or pass with revisions, and tada, you made it!
A master's degree is usually 1-3 years and a PhD is 5-7ish years, but both have a similar sort of process. In terms of guaranteed funding support, masters tend to require you to pay and PhDs tend to have funding and pay you a stipend. Again, consult with the places you're interested in, it varies from place to place. And professors may even have advice about acquiring funding to do a masters.
How do I figure out where to go? Asking and googling. Professors, post-docs, and grad students here know a ton of people in their field – email and/or meet up with a few of them, get their thoughts on places that might interest you. They might also know who is advertising for grad students, so they are definitely a great resource. Believe it or not, Twitter has also become a great way to network, learn random cool facts, and find some of the people looking for grad students. Websites of the aforementioned conferences usually have a page of suggestions with schools to consider for grad school or open positions. Grad school is not like med school, in that you can apply to 5-10 places and have a good chance of getting a decent selection of acceptances if you invest the time.
Gap year? Let's face it, working your way through four years of undergrad can be stressful and tiring. But if you want to become a paleontologist, do you have to go straight into grad school, another stressful, tiring commitment? No! Feel free to take time off between undergrad and grad school. You can do research in a lab, you can travel, unwind a little. I'd probably suggest trying to do something related to paleo during that break, go to a conference, apply for the NSF GRFP, just to keep yourself in the loop and not too rusty. This is a good time to do a bit of soul searching too – are you ready to commit to grad school or are you able to find the job you want without advanced degrees? I'm not trying to dissuade you from grad school, and it is perfectly acceptable to leave grad school if you decide you don't like it, just think about what you want out of grad school and why this path seems right for you. These thoughts are good to include in your personal statements and professors will likely ask that during interviews, so having a decent answer will come in handy.
Masters or Doctoral degree? After your bachelor's, you can apply for either masters programs of doctoral programs. How do you choose? It depends on where you feel you are in your career. If you have absolutely no clue regarding what you want to focus on for your PhD, or want to gain more research experience in an area you haven't worked in very much, a masters would be a good place to start. This degree is a good way to take classes and gain research experience with a small thesis (usually 1-3 years), and can establish he foundation of what you want to study as a PhD student. Nowadays, it is also common for programs to consolidate the PhD and masters, such that you enroll in a PhD program, but receive both degrees by the time you're done. PhDs are longer (usually 5-7ish years, depending on the school), and involve a more extensive thesis project. Also think about the kinds of careers you're interested in – if a masters is good enough, then maybe you don't have to commit to a whole PhD.
How do I apply to grad school? Applying to grad school (MS or PhD) is a bit different than applying for undergrad, it's a much more personal process. The faculty are the admissions committee, so it is very important to establish some sort of connection with them before you apply. Several months before applications are due (late Nov – mid Jan), send them an intro email, briefly introducing yourself, and saying you're interested in the lab/program for graduate school. Ask if they are taking students – sometimes they don't have funding for more students, they have too many already and couldn't give another student the proper attention, or they're going on sabbatical that year and won't take students that cycle. If you had your heart set on working with only that one professor and they are not taking more students, then that might help reduce applications you have to do.
Many of those aforementioned conferences are held over the summer or before applications are due. It might be worth asking if they're going and see if you could meet up to talk about grad school with them over a coffee. This way, they now have a face and a personality to go with the name that's been emailing them, and it's a nice thing for them to have as they begin reviewing a whole stack of applications.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the NSF GRFP is due in October, before grad school apps. It requires a research proposal and a personal statement. You do not have to commit to the project for grad school, you just have to show that you can think like a scientist and clearly articulate the importance and feasibility of the study as a potential thesis. This fellowship would give you three years of funding for grad school (professors are very appreciative – grad students can be expensive to support if they have limited funds), but it is also an excellent icebreaker if you need one. Either in your first intro email or in a reply, you can mention that you're working on an app for the GRFP and would be interested in their feedback on your app. If they are willing to help, you can tailor the app to better fit their lab, and you've already begun the discussion regarding thesis topics and why the school would be a good fit – all things that go into your grad school apps the following month and things that will come up during interviews Jan-Feb. You also get a better chance at winning the fellowship as an undergrad vs. a grad student – many schools encourage their grad students to apply, so the competition is much more intense. You can only apply once in your pre-grad school time (undergrad/gap year) and once in grad school (ideally at the beginning of your second year), so it's worth the practice.
GRE??? Many universities are beginning to drop the general GRE exam requirement, at least for domestic students, so check on that as you apply, if that's a concern (at $200, it's no trifling concern!). Sometimes you might also see a GRE bio subject test as optional… in my personal opinion, it wasn't worth it. These exams are ridiculously expensive, and it's 200 multiple-choice questions on molecular/cell bio, physio, and ecology/evolution – very little of that was related to what I had actually studied in undergrad as one interested in paleo. I spent my third and fourth year doing paleo and anatomy classes, so the other subjects were buried deep in distance memory, and with everything going on, I didn't have much time to study. Again, my personal story, but many paleo programs don't require it, so don't worry about it.
Take the exam a few months before you apply, to make sure it gets processed in time. At the end of the test it will offer to send the scores to four schools for free – whether they're a definite four or four possibilities, might as well take advantage of free score reports. (Otherwise, they're $25 each.)
Application waivers! Unfortunately, applying to grad school can be expensive. Many schools do offer application waivers for grad school, so seek those out on their application websites and apply for them when possible. If you can't find anything, email the graduate education administrator (or person with equivalent title) in the department you're interested in to see if there is a waiver you can apply for. Why spend more than you have to?
What are grad school interviews like? If you get selected for a school's grad student recruitment weekend, congrats! This is the time to visit the school (pre-COVID), see what the campus is like (virtual tour?), what the various professors are like, what the students/potential future friends are like, etc. You're scoping them out as much as they're scoping you out. If you get along great with the current students, lose track of time coming up with various questions and projects with a couple professors, and have a good gut feeling about the place, sounds like a solid place. If you get a weird vibe from the students, or they say the program is not really supportive of the students, or you can't really picture yourself fitting in, maybe reconsider. Don't disregard your gut feeling. You are going to be spending the next several years at the school with these people – you might as well find a place you can see yourself being happy and supported. Sure, maybe a professor does things you're interested in, is a Nobel laureate (ok, maybe not in paleo), and/or has published dozens of Science and Nature papers, but if they're a jerk or their students are miserable, it's not worth you going there and suffering too.
Think about potential committee members as you're interviewing too. Does it seem like the department has a few professors that would be able to provide useful feedback to help you through your thesis, or is there only one person there who you'd want to engage with? Also, in the worst case scenario, the professor you initially choose as your adviser seemed fine during interview weekend, but the more you two worked together, the more you realize that was a bad match. Is there another person in the department you could also see yourself working for if you need to switch labs? Or maybe you're doing a lab rotation with someone you didn't intend on working for long-term, but you find their work very interesting – is there flexibility to commit to a different lab? Again, grad school is all about you and what you need to develop into a successful scientist, not about the professors.
You also don't need to have your whole thesis planned out for interviews. Again, just be able to show that you can think like a scientist and discuss ideas intelligently. You can express that you don't know things and ask questions of students and professors – they love interest in their work. Don't feel you need to have memorized the ten most recent papers they wrote. It's worth checking out their website and getting a gist of what sorts of things they do, but I'd say it's almost better not knowing everything, and just ask "I saw you work on this stuff and thought it was really interesting… can you tell me more?" (Genuine interest though.) Above, all… relax. They're just curious to learn about you, they know its stressful, and they want you to succeed and find the right fit.
Aside from the official interviews, there are usually a few tours to check out various facilities or local attractions and social events to meet people in a more casual environment over food and drink. Remember, this is also the time to figure out if you could live in that particular location with those particular people for a few years – could you tolerate a rural location with little night life, or do you need a bustling city? How about the weather, how much do you hate winter or too much sun? Grad school can be stressful enough, try to minimize these sorts of additional stress factors if you can.
The UChicago grad school dress code is relatively casual: typically interview day, I'd recommend business casual, and days with tours or social events, you can be more casual. It's usually not necessary to get fully suited up like in business or medical school interview settings, but you can if you want. Contact a current student in the program you're interviewing for to double check the dress code. Bring good walking shoes, because you typically do a lot of walking during interview weekends. Check the weather before you pack, bring appropriate clothing. If you've got a pair of sweet earrings made of snake vertebrae, go ahead and wear them! You're going to be surrounded by a bunch of nerds who love that sort of stuff! If you don't have that, don't feel pressured to get them – my point is just be yourself, present your genuine personality, and have fun.
What about international students? UChicago does consider international students for admission, but it is a bit trickier. Because international students aren't US citizens or permanent residents, they can't apply for NSF or NIH grad students grants, so funding is a bit more complicated. The professor, department or division tends to have to secure funding by other means, so there are likely going to be fewer spots available to international students compared to domestic. That doesn't mean give up entirely, just talk with the universities you're interested in to get a realistic sense of openings available for your program of interest and work with professors on your applications to give yourself the best shot. Some grants and fellowships are available that don't require US citizenship or permanent residency, and you can check them out here.
What do I do with a degree in paleontology? An often asked question by paleo enthusiasts thinking about committing to a paleo career, and especially by family and friends who are concerned about the lucrativeness of such a field. Classical paleontology (galivanting around the world, digging up and describing new species) is admittedly a pretty competitive field, but as paleontology has become more interdisciplinary, options have expanded.
There are a couple options if you want to be a professor. You can aim for an R1 institution, which are careers heavily focused on research and require you to teach a little. Depending on funding, you'd likely have a bigger lab with a number of post-docs, grad students and undergrads. Usually paleo labs are harder to fund, so these labs likely are not as large as cancer bio labs or genetics lab, for example. Tenure-track positions are usually heavily influenced by publications from your lab, so it's good to have several people working on several projects at once.
On the other hand, you could work for a liberal arts college. This job would put more emphasis on teaching courses to undergrads, but still expect some research. Your lab would likely be smaller, and more undergrad-heavy, especially if there is no grad program at the college.
Many vertebrate paleontologists have also worked as medical anatomy instructors and do paleontology research when they're not teaching. Medical schools are always needing human anatomy instructors and who better to teach human anatomy than those who've studied the evolution of the vertebrate body plan and can help explain why humans experience certain pathologies more than others or why the body is structured in a way that doesn't make sense to an engineer?
You can also work in museums as curators or collections managers, depending on your background or interests. Curators conduct research on the museum's specimens and do fieldwork to collect more specimens and expand their collections. They can also work with the exhibits department and put together exhibits on their specimens and help communicate their science. Collections managers are needed to, well, manage the collections. It's not as easy as put it in a box in a drawer and be done with it. There are hundreds-thousands of specimens to keep organized – millions if you're in the insect department. Collections managers are managing loan requests from other researchers, updating taxonomies of their specimens as research expands, keeping track of volunteers, and making sure the specimens are kept in the best condition as possible for as long as possible. Specimens degrade over time, but new methods to better preserve or better repair specimens are always coming out, so paying attention to the latest research on maintaining natural history collections is also important.
If you're less into doing research and more into communicating research and outreach, you can work in the education/outreach department of museums or work as a science writer or communicator. As you may have noticed, some scientists are better at explaining their work to non-scientists than others, and media can be rather appalling in terms of twisting results into sensationalized clickbait. Scientists neck-deep in research projects may not have the proper time to communicate their science well, so they need people to act as the bridge to the interested public.
In terms of non-academic careers, I'll admit my knowledge is a bit weaker. The oil industry loves those with geology degrees – and they have good money. With either degree, you could go into mitigation paleontology to make sure people are digging where they're supposed to dig and check out construction sites to make sure there are no fossils in the area. If there is a fossil, you can then bring in a team and dig it up, then the construction can continue. (Unless it's a mammoth graveyard, then the company better find a different place for their building.) You could work for the government, the National Park Service or the Bureau of Land Management to take care of the lands that contain fossils and manage permits for conducting fieldwork. A PhD also gives you plenty of transferrable skills: you've become a project manager, a data analyst, a collaborator, etc. so you can definitely broaden your job pool if you decide you wanted to head that direction after your degree.