Overview of Paleobiology Degree Programs
Undergraduate degrees in paleobiology usually come in two forms: minors in paleobiology or concentrations in paleobiology within a geology or earth sciences major. The degree typically includes courses in geology, biology, chemistry, and math or physics. Students often gain hands-on experience with fossils. Detailed information on coursework, program requirements, and potential employment is available below.
Admission Requirements for Paleobiology Programs
A high school diploma or GED is, of course, a requirement for any undergraduate program, and transcripts will be required along with your application. Some schools may consider your high school success in subjects related to a paleobiology program, such as biology, chemistry, and geology. Depending on the college, the following may be required as part of the application process: letters of recommendation, essays, resumes of extracurricular involvement, and SAT/ACT test results.
Coursework in paleobiology covers topics in biology, chemistry, earth sciences, math, and physics. Several of these courses may offer hands-on experience through laboratory and field work.
This introductory course, required for most paleobiology degrees, introduces students to the earth and major geologic events. The class covers earthquakes, volcanic activity, plate tectonics, and mountain formation. It exposes students to the forces behind landscape creation, including erosion, glaciers, streams and groundwater, and oceans and waves. This course often includes a lab component that exposes students to rocks and minerals and the use of topographic maps.
The ocean covers two-thirds of Earth's surface, and is home to a great number of plant and animal species. A course in oceanography introduces students to concepts of plate tectonics, ocean currents, the chemical makeup of seawater, and ocean sediments. It also covers biological topics like nutrient cycles and oceanic life. A paleobiologist can use this information to recreate how an ancient ocean and its inhabitants may have developed.
A course in primate evolution covers the development of ancient primates into their modern counterparts. Students learn about the fossil record for primates using examples from around the world. They study the individual fossils as well as learning about their geological context (location and depth in sediment layers) and learn how to use this information to date and identify fossils. These skills are essential to the work of a paleobiologist.
This course introduces students to the workings of plant and animal cells. Cells are the building blocks of all life, and knowing how they work allows us to better understand nutrient cycles, life cycles, and species diversity. This knowledge is essential to understanding how plants and animals work in the current environment as well as studying how they may have worked in the past.
Most of us learned about dinosaurs when we were little; paleobiologists study dinosaurs and other forms of prehistoric life, including plants and single-celled organisms. A course in prehistoric environments introduces students to these topics, covering the millions of years of species development before the historical period. Students will learn about prehistoric life and nutrient cycles, as well as about how fossils got preserved and how they are unearthed.
How to Choose a Paleobiology Degree Program
In order to choose a degree program, students should decide whether they want to major or minor in the subject. Some schools only offer minors in paleobiology, while others offer majors in the subject. Students should also look for programs that offer fieldwork experience at excavation or biological research sites. Fieldwork is an important component of most careers in paleobiology, and experience with it may be high on future employers' lists of requirements. It's important to note that many paleobiology careers require graduate degrees, so students should consider a degree program's record of placing students in graduate programs.
Career Options With a Paleobiology Degree
Paleobiologists research prehistoric life, extrapolating details about plants and animals from the fossil record. They work for governments, private companies, and academic institutions, and either work in the field (excavating fossils), in a lab, or both. Salary and job data specific to the job of a paleobiologist is difficult to come by, but they fall under the job category of geoscientist. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a geoscientist was just over $89,700 in 2016, and job growth is expected to be 14% between 2016 and 2026. Some other career options for those with a degree in paleobiology are listed below.