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Qualifications

Here's the good news: You can do lots of the stuff professional paleontologists do without a college degree and years of experience. You can dig and chip away at rocks to your heart's content (assuming, of course, you're not trespassing on somebody's land or poaching on another paleontologist's territory). You can take notes on your findings, research the time period that likely produced the fossils you want, and hypothesize yourself silly. You can do all this without even a high school diploma (although you'll clearly need one if you want to enjoy any sort of professional success).

What qualities will help you pull this off? First, you'll need a pretty active imagination, along with a sense of curiosity that annoys adults but will benefit you as a paleontologist. You'll also need plenty of patience and discipline, as the fossils you're hunting don't always materialize upon demand.

Now let's get to the education part. You'll need a specific knowledge base to cut the mustard as a paleontologist. First, take a boatload of AP math and science courses in high school. If possible, get conversant with foreign languages, since many professional papers are written in French, German, Chinese, or Russian. If you travel overseas on an expedition, learning a foreign language will help you figure out what the locals are saying about you.

Now on to college. If you were planning a nice four-year party, with a little class attendance thrown in, you're batting in the wrong ballpark. You'll actually have to work for this. Your college education begins with an intensive emphasis on science and math. Specifically, you'll need chemistry, physics, biology, and geology on the science end. Your math courses should absolutely progress through calculus, and hopefully beyond. What will you major in? Believe it or not, most universities don't actually offer paleontology degrees. Instead, plan to major in biology or geology, or perhaps a double major if you're up to the challenge. A major/minor combination might also work.

But wait, you're not finished! You'll also need top-notch computer and data analysis skills, along with digital mapping expertise and a familiarity with satellite-based Geographic Information Systems. If you know how to use a GPS, you've got a leg up on this one. Throw in a few communications courses, since you'll write reports and work with other professionals. What, you don't like people, and that's why you want to dig in the dirt for a living? At least learn how to write the reports.

Congratulations, you're a happy college grad! Now, bring on those fossils! Not so fast. Come back to earth, and sign up for grad school. Oh, and one more thing: Get ready for a rude awakening. In graduate school, you're not snoozing through lectures, doing lab work, skimming text books, and milking it on field trips. You'll actually have to do your own independent research projects, and you're accountable to a faculty adviser who probably won't cut you any slack if you try to weasel out of them. On the bright side, if you perform some valuable original research, you might find a master's or doctoral degree at the end of the excruciating slog.

Okay, you're almost a professional fossil digger, although you'll still have to commit to a career path, which might require more education (at great expense, of course). If you plan to work as an industrial or museum paleontologist, you might get by with a master's degree. If you want to live in the academic world, teaching and conducting research for a university, you'll absolutely need a doctoral degree.

Let's assume you prefer field work, hands down. If your university is footing the bill, they'll probably train you to use your research tools and equipment correctly, which reduces the chance you'll destroy them by accident. If you happen to be toiling for a specific employer or think tank, somebody will fill you in so you don't get yourself into trouble. Finally, make sure you're in top (or at least decent) physical shape, so your assistants won't have to haul you off on a stretcher after your first day on the job.

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