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RE: When is a paleontologist a paleontologist?

> From: owner-dinosaur@usc.edu [mailto:owner-dinosaur@usc.edu]On Behalf Of
> Waylon Rowley
> One thing i've always been curious about is how prominent paleontologists
> with degrees in fields like geology and anatomy can pronounce themselves
> dinosaur paleontologists. Wouldn't they only be geologists?

Ummm... No.  It is not as if there are degrees in "dinosaur paleontology"
(or "paleontology", for that matter).  Professional academic degees (Masters
and Doctorates) are at the Department level; since paleontology is a
subdiscipline of both the Earth Sciences and the Life Sciences, people who
do graduate work in paleontology wind up getting Geology degrees and/or
Biology degrees.

This doesn't make them any less a paleontologist!!  It is the same for
seismologists or volcanologists or herpetologists or ichthyologists: these
folks get degrees in departments of Geology and Biology.  What is important
is the subject and research in their graduate work, not the title of the

Essentially all the famous dinosaur paleontologists you have heard of
received their Ph.D.'s in either Geology (or an equivalent) or Biology (or
an equivalent).

Note further: just because you didn't do a disseration in a dinosaur topic
doesn't keep you from being a dinosaur paleontologist.  After all, Jim
Farlow's dissertation was something to do with marine biology/ecology (don't
know the exact title), but I defy anyone to say that he isn't a dinosaur
(indeed, a theropod) paleontologist!!

> Is it
> that after
> much independent study you self-proclaim yourself as a paleontologist?

No.  In fact, it would be best that a person not proclaim themselves a
paleontologist: the best sign that you are a paleontologist is when others
refer to you as one!  More significantly, the key to being a paleontologist
is doing the science of paleontology (just as the key to being a
astrophysicist is doing the science of astrophysics, or being a molecular
systemicist is doing molecular systematics).  For most workers in the field,
this entails first doing a lot of course work in both geology and biology:
you HAVE to have the fundamentals under your belt before you can progress
further.  Otherwise its like trying to do astrophysics without understanding
physics: sure, there is the off chance you could come up with something
great, but it works better if you know what you are doing.

> what's the deal? Personally, I want to be one of the worlds top
> experts on
> theropod dinos (analogous to where Phil Currie is now)

I know the feeling... :-]

> but the
> only classes
> available to me are geology, biology, and zoology.

Then take geology and biology and zoology.  If you are only an undergrad
(don't know your situation in life) you should be concentrating on the
fundamentals.  If there is a class on invert paleo or historical geology or
evolutionary biology, definitely try to get in.  However, there are only
rare opportunities for classes in vertebrate paleontology at the
undergraduate level.  (The exception are intro-level dinosaur classes, but
these are generally intended for non-science majors at most universities).

Hope this helps.

                Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
                Vertebrate Paleontologist
Department of Geology           Director, Earth, Life & Time Program
University of Maryland          College Park Scholars
                College Park, MD  20742
Phone:  301-405-4084    Email:  tholtz@geol.umd.edu
Fax (Geol):  301-314-9661       Fax (CPS-ELT): 301-405-0796