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Get Your Degree -- Geology or Biology?

Very few academic programs specifically grant degrees in paleontology; instead, most are housed in geology or biology departments (or related fields, such as anatomy). This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily--broader training opens up more career possibilities down the line. However, if you’re a student looking towards the next step, you’ll still need to decide on the general discipline for your training in paleontology.

Unfortunately, there is no really easy answer on the geology vs. biology conundrum. Each has its own quirks, benefits, and pitfalls that you’ll have to consider.

First, what are your interests? If the thought of dissecting squishy things doesn’t thrill you, a biology department is a bad choice. If you think radiometric dating techniques are the bee’s knees, geology is pretty logical. Your previous training can play a factor too--but not perhaps as big as you think. I did my undergraduate work in a geology department, and switched to anatomy for my Ph.D. with little frustration. You may have to take an extra course or two (e.g., a geology field class if you did undergraduate work in biology), but that isn’t the worst thing in the world. Different departments offer different kinds of research opportunities, and this will affect the trajectory of your graduate career (and beyond).

Fossil ground sloth claws, from Caspar 1799

Secondly, remember that very few careers will be 100% paleontology research and fieldwork, 100% of the time. Many paleontologist in the field practice under a different title. Some are instructors at the high school, undergraduate, or graduate level. Others are lab and field technicians, or museum professionals, or administrators. Your career goals at the beginning of your training may change drastically by the end. For instance, I always assumed that I would be teaching anatomy at a medical school, but here I am as a museum curator who also teaches and mentors high school students as part of my position. Some paleontologists work for years to complete a graduate degree, and then leave the field altogether to utilize their training in another setting. The bottom line is that you need to plan for flexibility. This goes beyond teaching, too. Graduate training in biology might set you up for a career in conservation biology, or a technical editor for a biomedical publisher. Work in geology could open up opportunities in the energy industry, or groundwater management, or something else altogether. Keep an eye on the job market--but also be aware that it could be very different within a few years. This applies to positions in academia and outside academia alike!

The most exciting--and most scary--thing is that your academic career is ultimately your responsibility. Look for a field that excites you, and a department that offers plenty of opportunities to build up a variety of skills. There are many ways to be a paleontologist!
Posted: 8/27/2015 12:00:00 AM by host | with 0 comments
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