Palaeontology is the study of prehistoric organisms that thrived in the biosphere of the earth and later transformed into fossils mostly after post mortem burial. Many of these organisms, for example, the giant dinosaurs are extinct, while many others still survive (extant).
Palaeontology is a branch within geology and serves as a fundamental pillar in revealing the geological history as well as defining the evolutionary pattern of life that survived on earth through geological ages. While constructing the stratigraphy of a basin, palaeontology plays a key role in defining the age of the different lithological horizons with the help of its diagnostic fossil assemblages.
Fossil is the most reliable tool for ascertaining the age of a horizon, because a particular lithology may appear time and again within the geological time scale, but a particular species will never repeat itself and is restricted only to particular strata, thereby revealing a definite age.
Life on earth since its inception has survived many mass extinction events and has evolved into the present-day biosphere comprising millions of species. Unlike other branches of science, the domain of palaeontology is very wide and encompasses all the life forms that ever appeared on the earth.
Consequently, there are many specialised streams within palaeontology, for example, micropalaeontology, vertebrate palaeontology, invertebrate palaeontology, palynology, ichnology and many others. Hence, it is evident that to identify and describe a fossil of a particular group, one needs to develop expertise in that group.
Careers in palaeontology are similarly diverse and possess a lot of opportunities for amateurs as well as professionals. The most common and significant career prospect in palaeontology is teaching the subject as a professor in academic institutions.
Scholars having a master degree in Geology and a Ph.D degree in palaeontology have ample opportunities to apply for the post of professor in different national/International academia. An individual having a strong passion for teaching may opt for this profession.
Students with research background may also apply for scientific positions recruited in different scientific organisations in the country like Geological Survey of India (GSI), Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC), Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences (BSIP), Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG), Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) and many institutes under Ministry of Earth sciences (MoES) and Department of Science and Technology (DST).
Scholars with a micro palaeontological expertise are best suited to oil companies where the role of a palaeontologist is to help locating the possible oil reverses based on microfossil assemblages. Students after completing their masters in geology may absorb in different palaeontological research projects of academic institutions which provides fellowship as well as an opportunity to register for Ph.D courses in palaeontology.
There are also many fellowship programs in the country offering post-doctoral research exposures to scholars, e.g., National post-doctoral fellowship (NPDF) offered by SERB-DST and D.S. Kothari fellowship offered by UGC. All these research experiences may help the scholars to develop requisite expertise in the subject and strengthen their candidature for permanent positions in scientific as well as academic institutions.
Although not very common in the country, the position of Curator in different museums is a lucrative career option as scholars get exposure to a wide collection of fossils leading to further researches. This opportunity is more open in European countries.
Large museums like the Natural History Museums also have research and collection manager positions. Nowadays, many academic and research institutes are developing a public outreach cell where they utilise palaeontologists to create awareness among the common people regarding the importance of fossils and the need for their conservation through seminars and exhibitions.
To pursue a career in palaeontology, it is always better to opt for a particular specialization and gain expertise on the subject through research and publications. This process of career building may be time taking but the efforts will be high yielding.
(The author is a Senior Geologist, Palaeontology Division, Geological Survey of India)