The Bristol MSc in Palaeobiology was established in 1996, and 280 students have now graduated. Each year a further 15-25 students are enrolled. The University of Bristol has had a strong reputation in palaeobiology for many years, and currently hosts the largest palaeobiology research group in any British university. The strengths of the programme derive from this active research atmosphere, and from excellent research facilities in both the Wills Memorial Building and the new (2014) Life Sciences Building.
The School of Earth Sciences in Bristol was awarded a top rating in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, carried out by the British government, retaining our position in the top rank of internationally recognized departments in the country, and the world. There are currently about 35 academic staff, 60 postdoctoral researchers, and 60 PhD students in the Department, as well as 40 MSc students and 250 undergraduates. Recent expansion has involved the arrival of several new staff, as well as an ambitious programme of refurbishment and rebuilding.
Research in palaeobiology focuses on a number of topics, including macroevolution, phylogenomics, evo-devo, functional palaeobiology, taphonomy, palaeoecology, and palaeoceanography. The organisms of interest range from microbes to crustaceans, and gymnosperms to dinosaurs. Bristol palaeobiologists are frequently seen on television and heard on the radio. They include key advisers for the Walking with dinosaurs (1999), Walking with beasts (2001), Walking with monsters (2005), as well as some 50 TV programmes for the Discovery Channel, and for many other palaeobiological activities of the kind. They have written over 50 books, including leading textbooks, such as Vertebrate Palaeontology (2015) and Introduction to Paleobiology and the Fossil Record (2009).
The MSc Programme
Students learn about current debates in evolutionary biology, phylogenomics, and palaeobiology, and they learn a broad range of numerical methods to explore phylogenetics, macroevolution, morphometrics, and functional palaeobiology. The School has a strong geochemical and climate change research programme, and students have the opportunity to develop analytical skills, with hands-on experience of a range of analytical instruments. Various taught units give students first-hand training in laboratory techniques, museum methods, and media aspects.
In addition, a wide range of advanced transferable skills are taught: computer use, programming, numerical methods, planning research, problem solving, laboratory techniques, and communication skills are addressed directly throughout the programme. Students learn multi-media techniques, including presentation of palaeontological data through talks, posters, formal written reports, and web sites.
Read an independent review of the MSc, as well as some personal accounts of former graduates, at the Palaeontological Association website.
In order that all students have the necessary background, we recommend biologists to take the new Geology for research palaeobiologists unit, and geologists, the Evolutionary biology unit. The taught courses are outlined in more detail here
The second part of the programme consists of the thesis (sometimes called the dissertation or research project). This is divided into an initial Research methods in palaeobiology unit that allows students to carry out a 'proof of concept' study in which they take a subset of the main project, collect and analyse the data, and present a full report. This is completed by Easter, and provides clarity on how well the research is progressing, and whether adjustments have to be made to the original plans. Students then progress seamlessly to the second, major, phase of the thesis, in which the data sets are expanded, and analyses completed. The aim is to maintain a high standard throughout, to make sure projects are working and students are working to a realistic timetable, with the ultimate aim of producing wrk of publishable quality.
A broad range of project titles are offered at the beginning of the year, students choose their project by week 5, and can then spend time, especially as part of the Literature review unit above, developing their knowledge and plans around the theme. Current projects are listed here, and the titles change each year, as work is done and published, and new opportunities arise.
Duration and assessment
Full-time or Part-time?
One option is to study the degree part-time. Several students have completed the programme part-time, over a two- or three-year span. and others are part-way through. The teaching programme is divided into two blocks of five weeks before Christmas, and you have to be able to attend for one or more of the 5-week blocks each year. The important thing is that you are able to attend the first 5-week block in your first year (this runs from the beginning of October to mid-November). We recommend that you plan to complete the degree in two or three years at most. You cannot complete the programme by attending one day a week, or attending only in the evenings or at weekends.
Fees for part-time students are calculated essentially pro rata , based on fractions of the total annual fee.
Benton, M.J. 2015. Vertebrate palaeontology (4th edition). Wiley-Blackwell, New York.
Certificate, Diploma, Degree
E-mail earth-MSc@bris.ac.uk for further information.