Approximately 3,000 paleontologists are employed in the United States. Most paleontologists work in colleges and universities as faculty of paleontology and geology programs. They also find work in museums, with government research projects, and in the petroleum industry. Some paleontologists are self-employed, offering their expertise as consultants.
As an undergraduate, you may be able to work as an intern or volunteer in the geology department of a local museum. You may also be able to participate in fieldwork as a paying member of an expedition. Such an arrangement is usually worked out personally with the expedition leader. These entry-level positions may lead to admission to graduate programs and even to employment after advanced degrees are earned. The American Geosciences Institute and the Geological Society of America offer some internship and scholarship opportunities.
You will rely mostly on personal contacts when seeking a job after receiving a graduate degree. Networking with others in paleontology, especially your college professors, can allow you to meet those who can direct you to job openings and research opportunities.
Advancement depends on where the paleontologist is employed. Universities and museums follow a typical assistant, associate, and senior (or full) professorial or curatorial track, with the requirements for advancement very similar: research and publishing, education, and service to the institution. Advancement in museum work may also depend on the acquisition of a doctorate. Advancement in state and federal surveys requires research and publishing. In federal employment and in industry, mechanisms for advancement are likely to be spelled out by the employer. Government-sponsored research and term positions are the least stable avenues of work, because of their temporary nature and dependence on a source of funding that may not be renewed.
Many paleontologists remain active in the field beyond the date of formal retirement, procuring independent research funds to support their activities or developing an unpaid association with a neighboring university to gain access to collections and laboratory facilities. The low-tech nature of geological fieldwork allows basic field studies to be conducted fairly inexpensively. Others become consultants to geoscientific firms.
Tips for Entry
Join The Palaeontological Association, https://www.palass.org, which is a registered charity that promotes the study of paleontology through publications, meetings, awards, and research.
Seek out a paleontologist at a nearby museum, college, or university. These individuals may offer volunteer work or can suggest places to find fossils.
Join a mineral or gem club. Some clubs require members to be 18, but student clubs might be available in your town.
Begin exploring fossils on your own by visiting museums and national parks. The Paleontology Portal (http://www.paleoportal.org) provides resources for high school students interested in fossils.