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RE: When is a paleontologist a paleontologist?

- so WELL DONE, Thom! :-)
(go to end of Thom's message or Hit Delete now.... whatever)

At 9:12 AM -0500 01/30/2001, Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. wrote:
> 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

********************** Thus, spake Thom, Now, spaketh Marilyn....... ;^)

This is SO well done, that I can only add just a little bit more.

When I was four years old, I remember my Daddy carrying me around the Carnegie Museum, reading out loud to me the long, mystifying words on the labels next to the Ichthyosaurs, that I so wanted to understand more. I was fascinated and I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up - right then and there. My bemused Father told me that I could be anything that I wanted to be if I was willing to work for it. Sadly, he died before he saw that occur - but I know he would be proud of me now.

SO, you want to be a paleontologist? Then....

Thom is correct - you must first get a BS degree in Geology or Biology.Take the required courses in chemistry, biology, mathematics, and zoology. You have to first, get by people like me (and others) - who will test your mettle and determination, not because we want to see you fail, but because we wish to see you succeed! Take engineering physics. Then take MORE of all of these. Take every geology course your department offers.

Your thesis and/or dissertation committee will guide you through blending your love of paleontology in to your science and putting you on the road to having the tools at your wherewithal to make your dream be within your grasp. At times, it will seem like there are mountains of obstacles in your path. Often, an MS or Ph.D. becomes an opportunistic document - it is and end to a means, in many ways. An Ordovician brachiopod worker can very easily become a Mesozoic vertebrate paleontologist. You are not locked in to what your dissertation topic was - especially if your background is solid and broad. Being a Paleontologist can be done without blowing each other up ala "Cope & Marsh" style, (such bad manners!). Indeed, in austere seminar rooms with burgundy damask and velvet curtains, these wars are still referred to with distaste - it is not good to emulate such a thing. There is respect among colleagues for the understanding that no one person can be the jack of all trades and be able to do it all. You will work with people who are "just geologists" and "just paleontologists" all of your life - and you will find that you like the company of many of them.

Many departments will recognize your efforts in additional ways. For instance - I am perhaps more fond of the Second Diploma, that was awarded to me by my Department, than I am of the one sent to me by the University - It is the one that says " Universalis Geologicourum Scientiae Confraternitatis, Salutem, <Snip out lots of Latin>qui ad gradum Paleontologaie Doctore promoveatur" ...... perhaps, your departments recognize your area of specialty inside your degree in a similar way.

You do not get to be something just because you want it to be so - you must work for what you want. I see in your post, that desire. Then - It takes determination, maturity, and focus - blended with a understanding, regard, and respect for and of your colleagues, a kind heart, and a strong mind.

Best of luck to you!
                                =00=  =00=  =00=  =00=
                                Marilyn D. Kressel-Wegweiser, Ph.D.
                                Adjunct Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology
                                Cincinnati Natural History Museum

                                Assistant Professor of Geology
                                Department of Geology
                                Ball State University
                                Muncie, Indiana
                                Office: 765-285-8268; 765-285-8270
                                FAX:    765-285-8265