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How to be a paleontologist

        Something just occurred to me, which I thought I ought to post. Most
everyone who writes to the list asking how to be a paleontologist wants to
know how to get into a degree program. The problem is, degree programs are
not for everyone. They are expensive, stressful, difficult, and they require
an academic savvy of the sort which some people just don't have. So what do
you do if you're, say, not a "math-science type?" What if you are, for lack
of a better phrase, not all that bright? What if you are far too poor to
even think about graduate school? What if you have a serious aversion to
extremely petty politics? What if you'd like a better than 50-to-1 shot of
getting a job?
        The answer is that you don't have to give up your love for dinosaurs
or other fossil critters. Many of the people on this list maintain their
interest as a hobby, but you may be able to do more than that. Here's a
couple options to consider. Several of these have been brought up before,
but I thought they bore reiteration.
        1) Naturally, there is the option of volunteering at your local
museum or university. Don't have one? Move to where one is. Almost any other
option you choose would require you to move anyway. Museums seem to be keen
on people who want to work for free. A know a fella who volunteered, then
got an actual job, then decided to go to grad school to get his Masters (he
had good recommendations from a museum, and that doesn't suck), and then
turned around and decided to try for his PhD. But you don't have to go this
far... volunteering will get you close to the fossils you love.
        2) Volunteer for a dig. Some museums, professionals, and
organizations will take people out on digs. Sometimes you have to pay,
sometimes you pay your own way, but you will get a chance to dig. Some
schools have field techniques classes (apparently South Dakota School of
Mines has a great one) which you may be able to sign up for to get some
experience and make yourself more of an asset. One of the best fossil
hunters I know is the technician in our isotope lab in the Department. He
has found two of the most important fossils I have had the privalege to
handle. He is invaluable in the field because he can fix anything, can
figure out how to jury-rig almost anything, and knows a ton about the area.
If you can contribute something, even just enthusiasm, you might be able to
help someone.
        3) Consider applying for your master's in geology or biology. This
is a minimum prerequisite for a lot of museum preparator positions. Master's
programs are easier to get into, less demanding, and more technical. You do
not have to be at the top of your class to get a Masters, and you'll get a
lot of experience. A Master's degree can be a gateway to a number of
technical and lab positions, which will then support your "dinohabit." Best
of all, an MS usually only takes two to three years. I you don't mind a
little (say... $10-40K), you should be able to swing this on most budgets.
This, as I said, opens the door for:
        4) Preparation is a great way to get into paleo without going
through the hell of a PhD. Good preparators may know more about the fossils
than the PhD describing them. Preparation is extremely fun, very rewarding,
and can lead to opportunities to publish. Heck, before they ascended to
doing research, famous paleontologists Jack Horner and Ken Carpenter were
both Preparators. I know a Berkeley BS, UT MS with a mind sharper than most
university professors who works as a preparator. Preparators get to do cool
stuff like mounting specimens, working on exhibits, digging, playing with
the fossils, casting, playing with the fossils, reconstructions, playing
with the fossils... the list goes on. And, like I said, being a preparator
doesn't mena you can't still do some research if you want to.
        5) If you have artistic talent, trying your hand at paleoart is a
rewarding way to incorporate your work and your hobby. Paleoartists are, in
some ways, the most important members of the paleontology team. Without
them, we would have no way of communicating ideas to the public, or for that
matter to scientists. I firmly believe that a lot more ideas catch on
through illustrations than through text. A quick example: Larry Whitmer's
recent "dinonose" presentation, where he showed a slide of _Saurolophus_
with the "inflate-o-sack" on its crest. This idea was pioneered by Hopson,
but apparently didn't catch on outside of hadrosaur workers until a
paleoartist (I can't remember which one, but I'd be happy if someone
reminded me... I love that painting) painted it. Paleoart is a great way to
get involved, and you'd be doing everyone a service.
        6) Journalism is another possibility. I don't know too much about
it, but there are some cool dinophile newswriters out there. Being both a
dinosaur fan and a newsman helps paleontology tremendously. It is
well-established that many journalists have trouble keeping the facts
straight on highly technical subjects. It's a natural consequence of having
to try and understand all of the esoteric subjects you are reporting on,
when you spent most of your education learning how to be a reported, not a
scientist. If you try to do both, you will be helpful to both groups.

        Anyway, for all of these options, every little edge you can get
helps. Good grades are always a good idea. Take as many art and science
classes as you can. Read dinosaur articles and take every opportunity you
can get to visit museums. Try to acquire useful skills like mechanical
repair, casting, plasterwork, painting, carpentry, ironwork, sculpting,
writing (learn to write well! Few people can anymore... I find the key to
writing well is reading lots of well written books). If you can't do math or
chemistry, don't sweat it, concentrate on what you are good at. Try and
figure out how you can contribute. Speaking of which, if you are super rich,
but you can't do any of this, you can always donate money to a worthy paleo

        Anyway, that's enough rambling for now... back to work...

     Jonathan R. Wagner, Dept. of Geosciences, TTU, Lubbock, TX 79409-1053
  "Why do I sense we've picked up another pathetic lifeform?" - Obi-Wan Kenobi