When you hear the term paleontology, you probably think of dinosaurs. Plant-tearing, earth-stomping creatures with strange-shaped heads and spiky plates down their backs. And you’re right. But paleontology spans the entire history of life on this planet. As a paleontology major, epic phrases like “glacial movement,” “mass extinction” “tundra ecosystem,” and “evolutionary theory” will all become a nonchalant part of your everyday vocab. Paleontology draws elements from physics, botany, ecology, chemistry, biology, and geology—and works to explain how all of these fields are intertwined in our planet’s geological past. You’ll study fossils, first and foremost, in order to learn what sorts of organisms used to live on Earth. That includes those of both vertebrates and invertebrates of every size, in addition to the fossils of plants. You’ll learn how fossils form and what makes up their chemistry, and you’ll gain the skills necessary to not only identify fossils but also interpret what they mean for your field. You’ll also study ancient ecosystems and how they formed, evolved, and sometimes disappeared. This major explores both land and sea, from all sorts of layered rocks holding the clues to our planet’s ancient history to thousands of feet under the ocean, where underwater fossils hold their own telling clues. Throughout your paleontology major, you’ll be focusing on how life has evolved from the tiniest single-cell organisms to the complex life forms we are today. You’ll learn how plants and animals have adapted to their environment, what’s happened when adaptation was unsuccessful, and what becomes of plants and animals when they die. Your added paleontological bonus: Every time someone throws out a sentence like, “I wonder how that ever happened,” you’ll be the one to step up with a planet-savvy explanation. As an undergraduate you’ll gain a great deal of basic knowledge of the field of paleontology. But keep in mind that any serious paleontological career usually requires at least a master’s degree and often a PhD. Your undergraduate studies will be just the beginning if this is a field to which you plan to devote your life.
The best preparation for a major in paleontology is a solid selection of courses in sciences and math such as biology, chemistry, and calculus, and a selection of humanities courses, especially history and English. Paleontologists must have good communication skills, so take classes that will make you a better writer, speaker, and reader. And any reading you do on your own on dinosaurs and the Earth’s history will only help you in the college courses ahead!