Palaeontologists study fossils to develop knowledge of ancient life forms and their environments. Palaeontology can also reveal how the environment and climate have changed over time. Palaeontologists are involved in research, education, managing museum collections, and the exploration of oil, coal and gas.
As a Palaeontologist, you will study fossils in order to develop knowledge of ancient life forms, including their anatomy, physiology, evolution, and the ecosystems that they would have been part of.
You'll be able to help establish which plants and animals lived in particular areas. The types of fossils found can reveal if the area used to be a desert, forest, river bed or ocean floor, for example. This gives us information about climate and environmental change.
You can also use fossils to establish the type and age of the rocks that contain them. This information helps in the exploration of oil, coal and gas because certain rock layers are more likely than others to contain deposits of these resources.
Fossils are usually preserved in layers of sedimentary rocks. You'll be able to identify them based on their shape, size and the material they are made from.
While fieldwork to find fossils is very important, you'll spend most of your time in laboratory work. This involves preparing specimens, doing experiments and analysing the results, working with other scientists and writing up results in scientific papers and reports.
As a Palaeontologist, you will usually have very specialist knowledge of one particular area of the science. You will also often have expertise in a related area, such as oceanography, anatomy or evolution.
You might be an expert on:
- vertebrate palaeontology, for example, fish, reptiles, dinosaurs, birds and mammals
- invertebrate palaeontology, such as sponges, corals and molluscs
- micropalaeontology - small, single-celled or multi-celled organisms
- palaeobotany - larger, multi-celled fossil plants
In a museum, you could work as a Palaeontological Curator. In this role you would probably divide your time between activities such as:
- checking the physical condition of the fossils
- cleaning and repairing fossils ready for display
- searching for new fossils, including negotiating to add them to the collection
- answering enquiries from other academics
- organising public events, exhibitions and talks
- working with volunteers
- applying for funding
As an Academic Palaeontologist, maybe in a university, you will spend time on your own area of research. You'll also give lectures, mark essays and support PhD students.
Being able to read, write and speak Welsh may be an advantage when you’re looking for work in Wales.
Personal Qualities and Skills
To become a Palaeontologist, you'll need:
- an interest in ancient life forms and ecosystems
- laboratory skills, for example, using techniques like radiometric dating to establish how old fossils are
- patience to be involved in a research project over a long period of time
- communication skills to work with other Scientists, write reports of your findings or give talks and lectures to the public in a museum
- computer skills for tasks such as research work or updating museum collection databases
- willingness to do fieldwork, including in remote areas
Pay and Opportunities
The pay rates given below are approximate.
- Starting: £29,500 - £33,000
- With experience: £36,000 - £43,000
- Senior Palaeontologists earn £44,500
Hours of work
Palaeontologists usually work 35-39 hours a week, Monday to Friday.
Where could I work?
Most employment is with universities, museums and consulting organisations. There are opportunities in the four broad categories of palaeontology:
- micropalaeontology offers the greatest number of commercial job opportunities, for example, in the energy, oil and gas industries
- invertebrate palaeontology offers most academic job opportunities, mainly in universities (although there are still not many vacancies)
- vertebrate palaeontology offers only limited academic job opportunities, mainly in museums
- Palaeobotany is a small area of employment. Most is in academic departments allied to botanical training programmes, with a few commercial opportunities.
Where are vacancies advertised?
Vacancies are advertised on the Natural History Museum website; in science magazines such as New Scientist (which also posts jobs on its website); on specialist online recruitment sites (academic, scientific and for the energy, oil and gas industries); and in national newspapers.
Social media websites, such as LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook, are a great way to network, find vacancies and get in contact with possible employers. Make sure that your profile presents you in a professional manner that will appeal to potential employers.
Take a look at our General Information Article
Entry Routes and Training
Usual entry is through a degree in a relevant subject such as geology, earth science or a biological science. Many Palaeobotanists, for example, have a background in botany rather than geology. Generally, biological science is as useful as geology because palaeontology sits between life and earth sciences.
When looking at a geology/earth science or biological science degree course, you should check to make sure the course includes topics relevant to palaeontology.
A small number of specialist degrees are available, for example, in palaeontology, palaeobiology, and geology with palaeobiology.
You will then usually need a postgraduate qualification (either a MSc or PhD) in palaeontology.
Most Palaeontologists in the oil, coal and gas industries have a MSc.
Museum-based research Palaeontologists and University Lecturers almost always have PhDs. In museums, Palaeontological Curators have at least a degree. Many will also have a MSc or PhD.
Entrants to museum work have usually first gained skills and knowledge through voluntary work experience. Apart from museums, there are lots of groups that can help you learn about the geology of your local area and take part in organised fossil-hunting trips.
A great way to get into this career is through an internship. Take a look at our information article '
You might have training on-the-job in particular lab techniques or specialist equipment. Palaeontologists also go to conferences, seminars and workshops to develop their knowledge.
Previous experience gained in laboratory work during relevant work placements, or in relevant scientific fieldwork would be really useful for this career.
In universities, Palaeontologists can progress to become Senior Lecturers and Professors.
In industry, progression could be to a supervisory or management position.
Most entrants have a first degree in geology/earth science or a biological science, followed by a postgraduate qualification in palaeontology.
For entry to a degree in geology, the usual minimum requirement is:
- 2/3 A levels, including at least one science subject, maths or geology
- GCSEs at grade C/4 and above in your A level subjects
- a further 2/3 GCSEs at grade C/4 and above, often to include English and maths
Alternatives to A levels include:
- BTEC level 3 qualifications
- the International Baccalaureate Diploma
To enter a biological science degree, the usual minimum requirement is:
- 2/3 A levels where biology is usually essential and you might need at least one other science subject
- GCSEs at grade C/4 and above in your A level subjects
- a further 2/3 GCSEs at grade C/4 and above where either English or maths, or both, can be specified
Some universities ask for chemistry if you don't have this at A level.
Equivalent qualifications can be acceptable. Please check college/university websites carefully.
Some universities accept the Welsh Baccalaureate as equivalent to 1 A level.
It is illegal for any organisation to set age limits for entry to employment, education or training, unless they can show there is a real need to have these limits.
Some entrants have skills and knowledge gained in laboratory work during relevant work placements, or in relevant scientific fieldwork.
If you don't have the qualifications needed to enter a relevant degree course, you might be able to start one after completing an Access course (for example, Access to Science). You don't usually need any qualifications to start an Access course, although you should check individual course details.
A foundation year before the start of a science degree is available at some universities and higher education colleges for students who don't have the science A levels usually needed for entry to the course.
Birkbeck, University of London offers degree and postgraduate courses in geology, earth sciences and planetary sciences on a flexible basis: part-time (evenings) or by distance learning.
A number of other universities offer part-time degrees in geology/Earth science.
The Open University offers degrees in Earth Science and Natural Sciences, by distance learning.
Funding for postgraduate study and research is available, through universities, from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
Publisher: Reed Business Information Ltd
Open University (OU)
Tel: 0845 3006090
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
Address: Polaris House, North Star Avenue, Swindon SN2 1UH
Tel: 01793 413200
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
Address: Polaris House, North Star Avenue, Swindon SN2 1EU
Tel: 01793 411500
Address: Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BG
Tel: 020 7434 9944
Palaeontological Association (PalAss)
Natural History Museum
Address: Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD
Tel: 020 7942 5000
Address: Rockwatch at the GA, Burlington House, Piccadilly London W1J 0DU
Tel: 020 7734 5398
UK Fossils Network