The study of ancient plants, animals, and other forms of past life has led to a great many discoveries that inform our modern view of the world.
Discoveries in paleontology have shed light on the far-distant history of Earth and led to an increased understanding of the interactions between various environmental and geologic systems.
By examining fossils, rock strata, and ancient DNA, paleontologists have been able to describe incredibly ancient forms of life and place them into taxonomies and timeframes that outline the evolution of life from the early days of the earth to the development of anatomically modern humans.
In order to develop such a unique and remarkably detailed understanding of life forms from millions of years ago, paleontologists use an impressive array of disciplines such as geology, physics, chemistry, and biology.
Since the field incorporates such a wide range of scientific fields and methodologies, students interested in careers in paleontology need to make sure that they are enrolling in a college or university with strong programs in these areas and in paleontology specifically.
Below are 10 of the best paleontology schools available in the United States. These schools were selected based on their high positions in online ranking publications, such as US News and edurank.org.
Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut)
Yale’s Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences offers both undergraduate and PhD programs in paleontology.
Undergraduate students can pursue a Bachelor of Science degree track that is focused on paleontology and geobiology, and graduate students may choose from the school’s research programs in paleontology and evolution or biogeochemistry, paleoceanography, and paleoclimate studies, among others.
The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History provides excellent resources to paleontology students at Yale through the more than 14 million pieces held in the museum’s 10 collections.
Along with supporting student and faculty research, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History offers undergraduate students internships and work opportunities to graduate students.
Recent research efforts at the museum have seen a new species of dinosaur discovered among its collections, discoveries about lizards influencing their own evolution, and discoveries that may lead to improvements in drought-resistant crops.
Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, Virginia)
Undergraduate students at Virginia Tech interested in a career in paleontology begin their studies at the school by enrolling in the Department of Geosciences’ Bachelor of Geosciences program and choosing the Geobiology and Paleobiology Option.
Graduate students at Virginia Tech can pursue a PhD or Master of Science degree from the school in one of the Department of Geosciences’ research areas.
Particular areas of research at Virginia Tech include geobiology and biogeochemistry, sedimentary processes and record, paleo-environment reconstruction, and oceans and climate.
The Paleobiology and Geobiology Research Group at Virginia Tech has recently made contributions to efforts of “snowball Earth” periods in Earth’s past as well as shed light on the relationship between dinosaurs and bird-like archosaurs in light of the discovery of a new species, Teleocrater rhadinus, a distant ancestor of modern birds.
University of Chicago (Chicago, Illinois)
The Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago offers graduate students a multitude of options for studying different aspects of paleontology and related sciences as they pursue Master of Science degrees and PhDs.
The department takes an interdisciplinary approach to its graduate education and coordinates with other institutions at the University of Chicago as well as institutions outside of the university.
Along with the attraction presented by the school’s graduate program, potential students will be drawn to the university as it is the home institution of Paul Sereno, a noted paleontologist and explorer.
Along with his work as a faculty member at the university, Sereno is the National Geographic Society’s Explorer-in-Residence.
The Fossil Lab at the University of Chicago serves as a teaching facility, museum, and fossil preparation laboratory in order to support research and education about paleontology and the history of life on Earth.
University of Texas at Austin (Austin, Texas)
The Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin provides a wealth of opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to study paleontology and perform exciting research.
Undergraduates can pursue a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree in geoscience, and graduates can pursue master’s degrees or PhDs through the school.
Undergraduate research opportunities at the school include studying Triassic vertebrates through specimens from Petrified Forest National Park as well studying fossils drawn from cave systems in Texas.
Graduate students interested in geobiology, carbonate sedimentology, paleoecology, and marine communities will also find excellent research opportunities at the school.
The Jackson School Museum of Earth History houses vertebrate and non-vertebrate fossils and specimens collected from research conducted by university researchers and others.
The museum has the fifth-largest collection of non-vertebrate specimens in the United States, with approximately 4 million samples.
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor (Ann Arbor, Michigan)
The Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor enables undergraduate students to begin specifically studying aspects of paleontology in the first year of their undergraduate program through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program in conjunction with the university’s Museum of Paleontology.
Additional opportunities available to undergraduate students are a minor in paleontology, a Senior Honors Thesis researched with a museum faculty member, and work at the museum’s Vertebrate Preparation Laboratory.
The University of Michigan and its Museum of Paleontology also provide many research opportunities for graduate students.
Faculty and researchers at the museum study areas of paleontology such the evolution and morphology of early hominoids, paleobiology of plants, the paleontology of fishes, and sauropod evolution and distribution.
Collections at the university’s research museum are dedicated to vertebrate, invertebrate, paleobotanical, and micropaleontological specimens.
University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, California)
The University of California, Berkeley offers both undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to study paleontology through its Integrative Biology, Geography, and Earth and Planetary Sciences departments.
Students interested in the field may take paleontology courses from these departments as they pursue their degrees through a particular department.
The school’s Museum of Paleontology supports students’ education in the field with its specimen collections, laboratories, staff, research programs, and employment opportunities.
The UC Museum of Paleontology publishes PaleoBios, its peer-reviewed journal of scholarly articles on all subjects of paleontology.
PaleoBios accepts submissions from scholars from the UC Museum of Paleontology as well as from researchers from other institutions.
Recent research at the museum has seen the discovery of a new genus and species of hyena found in China, a hypothesis for the benefits of the short arms of the T. rex, and the study of the oldestknown fossils of giant birds with 21-foot wingspans.
Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts)
Undergraduate students who wish to begin studying paleontology at Harvard choose the university’s Earth and Planetary Sciences concentration.
Many of the undergraduate courses in the concentration provide opportunities to participate in field trips and camps in order to provide experiential education in the field.
Graduate students who wish to study the field at Harvard will be interested in working with faculty members studying geobiology and Earth history.
Areas of interest for researchers in geobiology and Earth history include the study of major climatic events, the radiation of animals and mass extinctions, and the oxygenation of the oceans and atmospheres of the Earth.
The Paleoanthropology Laboratory at Harvard studies the evolution and behavior of hominoids, hominids, and other mammals through field and laboratory research in conjunction with other programs at Harvard and with institutions outside of the university.
University of Kansas (Lawrence, Kansas)
Undergraduate students at the University of Kansas who major in geology can take elective courses in paleontology and biogeology as they pursue a Bachelor of Science degree from the university.
Students pursuing a PhD in Geology may specialize in paleontology as they work with faculty and advisors in the school.
The Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas offers excellent opportunities to study vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology as well as paleobotany.
The institute houses over 900,000 invertebrate fossil specimens, over 150,000 vertebrate specimens, and over 400,000 paleobotanical specimens.
Among the particular research strengths at the institute are the study of Cambrian radiation, phylogenetic patterns in arthropods, Paleozoic and Mesozoic fishes, Mesozoic marine vertebrates, and the biology of fossil plants and their interactions with other forms of life.
Columbia University (New York City, New York)
Students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Earth science at Columbia University can take advantage of the school’s plans of study in order to effectively prepare themselves for further studies in paleontology at the graduate level.
Recommended courses for those interested in paleontology include paleobiology and Earth systems history, paleoceanography, and Cenozoic paleoceanography.
Advanced paleontological research is conducted at the Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
The Biology & Paleo Environment Division at the institution studies the effects of environmental variables and changes in the Earth’s past through fossils, pollen, and chemical biomarkers left behind in the Earth’s sediments.
Columbia’s partnerships enable other paleontological research with outside organizations such as the American Museum of Natural History, which has some of the largest collections
of fossilized fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles, mammals, and invertebrates in the world.
Pennsylvania State University – University Park (University Park, Pennsylvania)
Those who wish to begin a career in paleontology will be excited by the Bachelor of Science in Geobiology program at Pennsylvania State University.
The program incorporates paleontology, paleobiology, astrobiology, biogeochemistry, and geomicrobiology to prepare undergraduate students for a variety of fields concerned with the history of life on Earth and its interactions with the chemical and physical processes at play.
For those who wish to continue their studies at the graduate level, Penn State offers Master of Science and PhD programs in geosciences as well as a dual-title PhD program combining biogeochemistry with one of eight other related disciplines.
Research in paleobiology, microbial geobiology, and biogeochemistry at Penn State spans the world, and the department lists particular areas of expertise in the biotic response to extinction events and climate change, biological indicators of paleoclimates, macroevolution, and evolutionary paleoecology, among many others.