Tutorial 35: Finding work experience relevant to palaeontology

October 25, 2019

I don’t know if this exists in the US, but here in Britain it’s common for kids in Year 11 at school (age 15 or 16) to have a week allocated where they find a position (usually unpaid) and do some work outside the school. It’s called “work experience”.

A friend of a friend has a son that age, and he wants to be a palaeontologist. I was asked if I had any advice. Here’s what I wrote, lightly edited: I hope it’s useful to other enthusiastic kids.

Palaeontology, being the study of ancient life through the medium of fossils, is really the intersection of two fields: geology (the study of rocks) and biology (the study of life). Your first decision is whether you see yourself primarily as a geologist whose favourite rocks happen to be fossils; or as a biologist whose favorite organisms happen to be long dead. Myself, I fall 100% in the latter category — I know almost nothing about geology — which means I call myself a palaeobiologist. But because historically palaeontology grew out of geology in England, most palaeontology happens in geology departments. (That’s why my acacdemic address is “Department of Earth Sciences” despite my near-total ignorance of earth sciences.)

If you want to come into palaeo via the geology end of things, I’m not really sure what to suggest. Perhaps talk to oil companies or someone like that? Maybe surveying companies — perhaps someone who is working on the HS2 route and might know about work being done to understand the nature of the ground that the new railway is to be built on?

But if you want to come in via the biology route, you have a lot of options to do with extant (i.e. non-extinct) animals and plants. In your position, I would be writing to every zoo in travelling distance — or where I could stay with a friend or relative — trying to get a placement at one of them. Alternatively, you might be able to get a placement at a veterinary surgery (as our youngest did), which would be great for learning some animal anatomy. Or even a farm might be useful. Or if you’re interested in ancient plants, then perhaps an arboretum or nursery could give relevant experience with extant plants.

Finally, the other obvious thing to try would be a museum. Even if you land up in one that has no palaeontology collection, it will be useful for you to get to understand how museums work, how access to collections happens, how specimens are stored, indexed, etc.

Our eldest son knew from about fourteen or fifteen that he was interested in economics and government, and he ended up doing three “work experience”-like placements: first the official school-sanctioned one in the Treasury in London (thanks to a family friend who worked there); then on his own school-holiday time in local government in Birmingham (thanks to another family friend!); and finally during the summer working in the constituency office of our MP Mark Harper (due to sheer persistence and chutzpah). I think having done all three of these gave him a really good, broad perspective on the kinds of things he was interested in. If I were you, I would be looking for three placements, too — one school-sanctioned and two in forthcoming holidays. And I’d ideally want a zoo, a veterinary surgery and a museum.

Hope that’s helpful!

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