Research in palaeobiology focuses on a number of topics, including taphonomy, palaeoecology, palaeoceanography, organic geochemistry, molecular biology, phylogeny, macroevolution, and functional morphology. The organisms of interest range from microbes to crustaceans, and gymnosperms to dinosaurs.
The Bristol MSc in Palaeobiology was established in 1996, and around 250 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 the close collaboration between palaeobiologists in the Earth Sciences, Biological Sciences, and Archaeology departments.
The MSc offers a research-oriented programme with advanced coverage of quantitative aspects of the fossil record and the history of life. The programme aims to bridge the biology-geology divide, and to provide students with a strong background for independent research to PhD level or for an applied career in museums, libraries, management, or the media.
Graduates of the programme have been highly successful in obtaining PhD positions in top institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, and in other commercial and educational activities. The programme is inter-disciplinary: it is taught mainly in the School of Earth Sciences, but some units are given in Biology and in Archaeology.
Students learn about current debates in evolutionary biology, systematics and palaeobiology, how to analyse problems in a quantitative manner and how to design experimental approaches to resolving questions in macroevolution and in the study of ancient organisms.
The School has a strong geochemical and geomicrobiological research programme, and students have the opportunity to develop analytical skills, with hands-on experience of a range of analytical instruments. A unit on research methods in palaeobiology gives students first-hand training in laboratory techniques, museum methods, and media aspects.
A wide range of advanced transferable skills are taught: computer use, numeracy, 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-based presentations.
Students study 120 credit points (cp) of taught units, comprising five mandatory units specifically at Masters (M) level (totalling 80 cp), and a choice of four (40 cp) from the list of options, plus 60 cp of research units, comprising the Thesis unit (60 cp).
Among the listed options, the unit marked * is compulsory for students with a background mainly in the life sciences, and that marked ** is compulsory for students with a first degree in geology or earth sciences.
We recommend that students take no more than two options that are below M level.
Most mandatory and optional taught units are completed by Christmas, and examined in January. The Literature Review unit runs from before Christmas until the end of February. The Research Methods in Palaeobiology unit follows, to be completed by Easter, moving on to the main Thesis unit after Easter, to be completed by mid-September.
Core M level programme
Options: M level
Options: below M level
- EASC30008 - Evolution of the biosphere (10 cp)
- EASC30052 - The Cambrian Explosion - the origin of animal body plans (10 cp)
- BIOL30004 - Tree of Life (10 cp)
- ** BIOL20212 - Evolutionary biology (10 cp)
How is the course assessed?
Assessment is divided equally amongst the taught units, including the research project preparation unit, and the thesis. In the majority of the taught units the marks are split between continuous assessment of assignments and written examinations. Project marks are assigned based on the quality of the scientific work and the quality of the written presentation.
What kind of budget should I allow for the year?
An estimate of living costs in Bristol can be found on the Fees and funding website.
What kind of career could the course lead to?
Graduates from the MSc in Palaeobiology have secured a wide range of funded PhD positions in institutions on both sides of the Atlantic or have gone on to successful careers in both commercial and educational areas such as museums, libraries, management and the media. We like to keep in touch with our former students and follow their progress.
How does being a postgraduate differ from being an undergraduate?
Postgraduates should expect an increased amount of independent study as well as a more informal rapport with PhD students and lecturers.
How does the MSc compare with a North American qualification?
A British MSc, or Masters degree, is broadly equivalent to a North American (US or Canadian) Masters (MS). The course here typically lasts for 12 months, rather than two years, and it is a free-standing qualification that can either continue into a PhD, or can be terminated with the Masters qualification.
Do students get their research work published?
Yes! We see publication as the natural outcome of MSc student research, and many student projects are published in the leading journals, including Nature and Science. We also list details of published work on the website.
How to apply
Our postgraduate study page lists entry requirements and full details on how to apply.
Applications must be made through the online system, but you are welcome to make enquiries before you apply formally.
News items and publications
Many of our successful MSc students have contributed to new discoveries and won prestigious prizes and awards for their published work and we keep an archive of news items and awards.
We also list details of published work on the website.
If you have specific questions, please contact:
Tel: +44 (0)117 331 5133
Fax: +44 (0)117 925 3385