The Real Poop
Scott inches toward the dinosaur egg, intensely curious but at the same time so afraid he's almost dizzy. He's been crazy about dinosaurs since he was two. Growing up he had dino wallpaper and shelves full of models—the whole nine yards. But he never expected to see an actual egg up close.
Most people would comment on how big it is, but to Scott that's just the most obvious aspect. The fun will be figuring out everything else: what laid the egg, how long ago, and whether the thing inside is still alive.
Just kidding. This is real life, not Jurassic Park. That's actually a good thing though—when you're a paleontologist, the less alive the thing you're studying is, the better.
If you're anything like Scott, you're a real paleontologist at a real museum, and it's your job to figure out some dinosaur mystery. You'll spend hours in a cramped and dirty position, digging painstakingly through countless levels of sedimentary rock, to find one glorious egg. We admire your patience and discipline, as well as your average salary of $60,000 (source).
Paleontologists are professional fossil hunters. Fossils, for the inexplicably uninitiated, are life forms that lived in the past, their likenesses now embedded in rock formations. Besides the odd T-Rex egg, paleontologists mostly turn up hard bone and shell fossils—although other interesting stuff comes up too, like animal footprints preserved in the earth or coprolites (fossilized poop).
Yes, this job involves digging up dinosaur poop. It's a living.
You may be drawn to this job because you, like every other little kid, once had a dinosaur book and you think they're the coolest things ever. But you'd be in for a rude awakening; paleontology is a much slower occupation than you'd think.
Let's say you're the paleontologist who just found a fossil. Now you've got to excavate the rock formation without destroying the fossil, which you probably shouldn't attempt after drinking three cups of espresso. Finally, you get the rock and fossil out, pack the daylights out of it, and transport it to your lab work table. Now you'll determine whether it originated on land or at the bottom of an ancient sea.
In this case, you've unearthed a fossilized animal. Now you need to decide whether that animal is a vertebrate (a backbone-containing animal such as a fish or mammal), or an invertebrate (animal lacking a backbone, like an insect or coral). This may be your thing, but it isn't how all paleontologists roll.
You'll find specialized paleontologists who only study certain types of fossils; they've got multi-syllable job names to match the complexity of their work. Dr. Ellie Sattler was a paleobotanist, which basically means she studied the plant versions of ancient dinosaurs. Regardless of what they're called, though, paleontologists are basically obsessed with organic evolution.
Paleontology can be a jumping-off point for any number of other scientific studies. You might find yourself buddying up with an archaeologist on a site study. While the archaeologist studies human remains and human-made objects, you'll search for animal bones, which will provide a good clue to the residents' diets.
At this point, you might wonder if all this research has any practical applications. Would you believe the answer is yes? Oil, coal, and peat all come from fossilized material. Diatomaceous earth is actually made up of fossilized algae skeletons and is pretty popular in the gardening world (but not so much on the spelling bee circuit).
There are countless modern-world uses for your knowledge of ancient ecosystems—and hopefully none of them will involve you cloning dinosaurs and bringing them back to life.
There are plenty of job opportunities for a skilled paleontologist. You could work as a professor, for example, teaching classes and supervising students' research. But if you think that means you get to just hang out on the quad, guess again. You're also expected to perform your own research and write professional papers. Sorry.
If you work in a private research organization, you might track the evolution of animals and plants. Industry-based paleontologists basically research what their bosses tell them to research. For example, oil companies hire paleontologists who analyze microfossils found in rock chips brought up during oil well drilling work.
In that line of work, though, try not to hit the wrong mark and cause a bunch of old fossil fuel to spill and turn the surrounding sea life into new fossils. Just a tip.
You could also find yourself employed at a museum, where you'll conduct research, maintain fossil exhibits, organize field trips, and run educational programs. Similarly, state and government agency paleontologists perform geological mapping and fossil identification, consulting, and educational services. You aren't going to have to like kids, but you'll definitely have to get used to them.
So this all sounds great, sure, but you may be wondering if there are any downsides to a career in paleontology. For starters, if you can't stand dirt get out of the—uh, dirt. If you do field work, the dirt will get everywhere; under your fingernails, on your clothes, and in your hair. We mean everywhere.
Also, your workday might go deep into the night, and you might sleep in the occasional tent. And let's not forget the hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt you could find yourself in from all the education you'll have to get. It'll definitely cost a lot more than the occasional tent.
So yeah, dinosaurs are cool. But if you want to actually dig them up and put them on display for a living, you've got a lot of work ahead of you. Ideally, it'll pay off before you become a fossil yourself.