Get Your Degree – What College Should You Go To?

It's that time of year when many high school seniors are in the midst of college applications. A college degree in a relevant field is virtually required for a formal career in paleontology (although many, many individuals without college degrees have contributed to the science in major ways, of course!). But, there are a wide array of choices out there. How is an aspiring paleontologist to choose?

First, why does a degree matter? At its simplest level, it provides a strip of paper that employers or graduate schools will want to see. More broadly, it provides a set of experiences to broaden your horizons and deepen your knowledge of a particular set of subjects. Along this line, it's up to you to make the most of the experience.

Secondly, no universities (to my knowledge) offer an undergraduate (B.Sc. or B.A.) degree specifically in paleontology. That may sound disappointing, but that's not actually a bad thing. You can get a good experience with paleontology in a geology or biology department, building up relevant knowledge and skills. And, if your career plans change, you may have a broader spectrum of options available if your training is more diversified.

When picking a college, you need to do some homework. Oddly enough, just because a place has paleontologists on staff doesn't mean that it is a good place to study paleontology. The paleontologists may be focused on mentoring grad students, or may not have opportunities for undergrads, or (in some cases) just aren't really good mentors for students. It is best to browse the school's website and talk to current or recent students to find out the real situation. Find out how undergraduates get involved in research, volunteer, or fieldwork opportunities. If there is no paleontologist on staff, don't despair! A good college experience in a related field such as geology or biology can be just as meaningful (if not more, in some cases). Internship opportunities through GeoCorps, the NSF REU, and others can provide experiences that might not be available on your particular campus.

By now you are probably thinking, "OK, just give me a list of colleges to apply to!" Alas, that is not meant to be. Every situation is different, and every student is different. Some schools have great reputations on the college rankings, but aren't necessarily good places to get a background in paleontology. Other schools are unheard of by many people, yet have managed to foster many successful paleontologists. Either way, it's up to you as a student to make the most of your opportunities. Seek out research opportunities, internships, and the kinds of classes that will contribute to your career. Seek out the people (both classmates and professors) who will help you out along the way, too! Just as importantly, although this is not the only thing, work hard. You will almost certainly have to make some personal sacrifices in terms of time and outside interests in order to do well. Keep your eye on the long-term goal, when you're turning down that offer to go out and party on the night before a big exam, or deciding to bow out of that late-night gaming tournament. Fairly or unfairly, good grades really do matter.

I should also mention that there is no one way to "do" college. Some people take a few years off between high school and college, perhaps to work, or for family reasons, or for military service. Some people get their start at a community college, many of which provide excellent foundations in the sciences. Paleontologists come into the field via many paths.

No matter what path you take or where you end up, good luck!

--Andy Farke is curator at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California

Image: Tyrannosaurus skull from Osborn 1912
Posted: 12/27/2015 12:00:00 AM by host | with 0 comments
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