How to become a palaeontologist
Do you dream of one day digging up a dinosaur, feel a thrill at the thought of unearthing a fossil that hasn't been seen for millions of years or just love learning about prehistoric life?
Dr Susie Maidment shares her experiences of what it's like to be a dinosaur researcher, the time she met Sir David Attenborough, how she got into this career and advice for budding palaeontologists.
What does your job as a palaeontologist involve?
My job has two parts: half the time I'm a researcher and the other half I'm a curator.
My research involves studying dinosaurs to better understand how they lived their lives. To do this I study specimens in museum collections, go out to try to find new specimens and study the rocks in which the specimens are found. Then there's quite a lot of data analysis that takes place when I get back home from the fieldwork or museum collection visit.
As a curator I look after the Museum's dinosaur collection and assist other researchers who want to come and study the material and learn more about the animals in the collection. I also help to make our collection digitally accessible - putting specimens on a big database to make it publically available so that people can see what's in our collection and learn more about it.
What do palaeontologists do other than study dinosaurs?
Palaeontologists actually study all fossilised past life. That can include everything from corals and shellfish to fishes and mammals. It's not just animals either, palaeontologists also study ancient plants. They use the information they uncover not only to learn about the lives of the animals, but to understand what the Earth was like in the past.
I think palaeontology has probably never been more important than it is today. That's because in the modern world we know that there are patterns of biodiversity distribution - the way that life is distributed on the surface of the Earth - but we don't know why those patterns exist. And because we don't know why those patterns exist, we don't know how they will change - in response to a warming Earth, for example.
One way we can test our ideas is to look back at a time in the past when conditions were different - during the Jurassic there was no ice at the poles, for example - and see how biodiversity was distributed then. This can help us make predictions about how it might change in the future.
What made you want to be a palaeontologist?
So this is a true story, although it doesn't sound like one.
When I was seven, my grandpa asked me, 'What are you going to be when you grow up?'
I was wavering at the time between scientist and princess. He strongly supported the scientist idea and asked me, 'What sort of scientist?' At the time I didn't realise there were different sorts of scientists, but I really liked dinosaurs.
He said, 'Why don't you be a dinosaur scientist?'
I thought, 'Okay, that sounds fine. I'll do that.' And I did. It made all my career interviews at school very simple.
What subjects do you need to study to become a palaeontologist?
You need to study science subjects. Maths isn't essential, but it has become increasingly important as a tool for palaeontology. A solid background in maths is generally useful for any science career.
I particularly liked biology and chemistry, and I also really enjoyed geography, particularly physical geography - studying rocks and the natural environment, and how environments and landscapes evolve. I took A-Levels in these three subjects.
Do you need a degree to become a palaeontologist?
A PhD is essential if you want to be a researcher. To get onto a PhD programme you need a really good undergraduate degree.
People tend to get into vertebrate palaeontology either from a geological background or a more zoological background. Before my PhD I did an MSci, which is a four-year degree, in geological sciences. Several of my colleagues have degrees in zoology. A science undergraduate degree is crucial, and preferably one of those.
The vast majority of curators have a PhD too. At a minimum they'll usually have an MSc as well as their undergraduate degree. The MSc will be in either Museum Studies or a discipline related to their subject area, such as geology or palaeontology.
What work experience would you recommend for aspiring palaeontologists?
If you can, volunteer at a local Museum. I spent the summer I was 17 working at Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre on the Jurassic Coast.
To be a palaeontologist you have to really love the outdoors and enjoy being outside a lot, particularly if you want to study geology as an undergraduate degree. Doing something like the Duke of Edinburgh's Award can give you a really useful set of skills that you will need as a geology undergraduate.
Are there any clubs or societies that young people can join or go to if they want to take their interest in palaeontology further?
The Geologists' Association in the UK is a really good place for amateurs as well as professional earth scientists. They run Rockwatch, a club for children and young people up to the age of 18 who are interested in rock, fossils, minerals and the geology of landscapes. The Palaeontological Association is aimed at adults, but it provides some resources related to careers in palaeontoIogy.
What advice would you give anyone considering this career?
You really need to focus on getting good academic qualifications.
When choosing your degree course, rather than going straight for a palaeontology degree, I would recommend choosing something that will give you a broader skillset, like geology. It's better to narrow down your speciality later, rather than risk limiting your options for your future career.
Top tips for budding palaeontologists
1. Study science subjects at school. Maths and geography are also very useful.
2. Get hands-on experience - volunteer at a local Museum or heritage centre with a fossil collection.
3. Make sure you enjoy being outdoors. It is a good idea to get involved in something like the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme as it will equip you with skills you need during geological or palaeontological fieldwork.
4. Go to university to get a Bachelor's degree in a science subject - preferably with a focus on geology, zoology or biology.
5. Don't specialise in palaeontology too soon - keep your options open until Masters or PhD level to ensure you have the widest opportunities for your future career.
Palaeontology is a tough career to get into, but following the advice above will give you a good start. And remember: even if you don't choose it as a paid job, amateur palaeontologists also make really important contributions to the field.
What's the best thing about being a palaeontologist?
I love fieldwork. I absolutely love studying rocks and looking for fossils. I'm grateful for the opportunity to get outside and do that. I also love teaching in the field - I love educating other people about rocks, fossils and how the natural environment forms.
What's the worst thing about being a palaeontologist?
There's nothing… there are no bad or boring days!
What has been your most memorable or enjoyable moment?
Oh goodness, that's hard. A really memorable moment for me is when the Museum unveiled Sophie the Stegosaurus.
I'd been working on the specimen on-and-off since 2005, so I was very happy when the Museum was able to acquire it in 2013. I continued to work on it behind the scenes for a year before it was put on display and published several papers on it.
Seeing the specimen mounted in all its glory and having Sir David Attenborough unveil it to the public was fantastic. Prof Paul Barrett introduced me to him as the world authority on stegosaurs, which was pretty amazing.
What's the most exciting thing you've found or researched?
In 2015 my colleague and I discovered dinosaur blood and blood cells. It's the highest impact stuff that I've done so far.
We didn't set out looking for blood. It was a completely chance discovery. We put some fossils under a scanning electron microscope and were very surprised by what we found.
What is a day in the life of a palaeontologist like?
It's very varied. I rarely spend much time at my desk. I often have interesting visitors who come to study the dinosaur collection, who I spend time helping. I'm involved in exhibitions and I do lots of public engagement, giving talks both in the Museum and externally. And I research quite a wide diversity of things.
As a researcher you're almost self-employed. You really get to do what you want, within reason. You can decide you're interested in something and, as long as you could publish a paper on it or it might get you some funding, you can pursue it.
I’ve just returned from fieldwork and you can follow what that was like on Twitter #MissionJurassic.
Otherwise a day of research ideally involves concentrating on one thing for the whole day. That might be writing a paper, analysing a dataset computationally, or sitting in the collection and describing some fossils.
Could you tell us what you’ve been doing today?
I try to split my week up so I have two days of curation and two of research. The fifth day I focus on public engagement. Today I've been doing curation.
I started the morning by reviewing a manuscript for a journal that I'm an associate editor of - I have to read the paper and decide whether to recommend that it is sent out for further review or not.
My first visitor arrived at 9.30, so I showed him the specimens he was interested in. Then I spent some time on emails before I met with the Museum's exhibition loans officer in the collection. We identified a number of specimens to loan to two museums for their exhibitions and measured them, took photos and stuff like that.
Then my second visitor of the day arrived. I spent quite a bit of time showing him around the collections and then we had lunch together. This afternoon I'm being interviewed for a couple of articles.
After that I need to go down to the Imaging and Analysis Centre to collect an elephant bird egg, which is currently in the CT scanner. We're scanning it for an external researcher and I have to bring it back to the collection. I'm also taking down some dinosaur specimens to be 3D scanned. I'll probably finish my day by reviewing another paper.
Where do you go on fieldwork?
It varies. I have visited the Morrison Formation in the USA multiple times, because this is a focus of my research.
I've been in Wyoming this summer with a big crew of people who have a wide variety of palaeontology backgrounds. We'll be able to use our mix of expertise to understand the whole environment, not just the dinosaurs.
There's a new fossil site in Morocco that I'm really excited about. I'd love to go out there and find new dinosaurs, cement a long-term collaboration with Moroccan sedimentologists and palaeontologists, and hopefully see Moroccan dinosaur material staying in Morocco rather than being traded on the commercial market.
I also do fieldwork in the UK. That tends to be on the coast because that's where the rocks are exposed.
Is there much to find in the UK?
There is plenty to find. The reason that we don't find more is because it's covered in trees and houses. If it wasn't for that, we'd find as many dinosaurs in southern England as we do in Wyoming.
Some final words of encouragement from Susie:
If you really want to become a palaeontologist, go for it. There are no guarantees that you'll get to do it, but if you don't try you definitely won't be able to do it. Don't be put off when people tell you it's impossible, because some of us do manage to make it. It's hard, but not impossible. You should keep plugging away at it.