Careers in Paleontology

Sally Painter
Paleontologist Working on Dinosaur Fossil

A degree in paleontology offers several career opportunities. The most common career paths are teaching, working in a museum or as a monitor for an oil company. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists paleontology as a subset of physical sciences and categorized with geosciences. There are a few geosciences-related careers you may not have considered for a paleontology degree.

22 Careers in Paleontology to Explore

Some careers for a paleontologist require a PhD while most only require a bachelor's or master's degree. Discover which career appeals to you the most. As a general rule, Paleontologists (including geoscientists) earn an average annual salary from $89,000 to $105,000. There are specific career areas that allow lower or greater earning potentials.

1. Professor or Teacher

The most commonly known position for a doctorate degree is a university/college professor. There are other teaching positions that only require a bachelor's degree or a master's degree, such as a high school teacher. The annual median salary for university professors is $104,000, while a high school teacher is around $54,000.

Teacher and student working in natural history museum

2. Research Specialist

You may enjoy a career as a research specialist. This position requires field work, usually on a daily basis followed up with lab analysis. You'll need at least a master's degree and in some cases a PhD, depending on the work area and employer. The annual median salary is around $75,000.

3. Museum Curator

A common position for a paleontologist is working in a museum. The availability of this position depends on the size of the museum. You'll give presentations to visitors, locating and acquiring new additions to the museum inventory, and serve as consultant for new claims of finds. As with most careers in this field, the competition is stiff, so you may need a master's degree and in some instance a PhD is preferred. The annual median salary is $56,000, depending on location and size of museum.

Museum worker with children at Natural History Museum

4. Museum Research and Collections Manager

This career path leads to a larger museum for a vertebrate and/or invertebrate paleontologist. You'll be responsible for the museum's collections, maintain the digital collection records, public programs and education, and training/supervision of staff. Most positions require a master's degree, while some larger museums prefer a PhD. The annual median salary $67,000, depending on location and museum size the salary can be higher.

5. Prospector

A prospector paleontologist typically works for an oil company. Your main responsibility will be locating oil reservoirs. The skills needed include geological knowledge and specific scientific equipment. A master's degree is usually sufficient, although due to competition, a PhD may prove advantageous. The annual median salary is around $106,000.

6. State or National Park Ranger Generalist

A paleontologist may choose a career as a park ranger. Some parks may have a need for a paleontology background, especially those with a high concentration of fossils. These positions are minimal, but you bring an added depth of knowledge that can benefit the park and park visitors. A bachelor's degree is required for this position. The annual median salary is around $35,000.

7. Paleontologist or Paleontology Principal Investigator On-Call

An on-call paleontolgist (PI) may work with a cultural resource and/or project for a museum or private industry. You'll typically analyze and search museum/agency records, review geological maps and other research. You'll be responsible for preparing reports/documents, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and any state statutes, such as California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA, as well as impact mitigation plans. You may provide support for paleontology monitors in the field. A bachelor's degree in paleontology is required. Many candidates also hold a master's degree in sedimentary geology or related field. The annual median salary is $125,000.

8. Paleoceanography/Paleoclimatalogy

Paleoceanography can focus on past ocean climates and paleoclimatology may focus on biogeochemical cycles. Both focus on the geological history of Earth. This can include studying climate behavior, Earth's orbit, atmospheric and ocean changes to provide some basis for predictive conclusions. These factors can include lake and ocean sediment, isotopic tracers and organic biomarkers among others. You'll examine these and other types of data to analyze. Potential employers include government (EPA, NOAA), private businesses, academia, or even some charities. You'll need a PhD in paleontology or a related natural or earth sciences. The annual median salary for government positions average around $101,000. Professional service employees earn around $89,000 a year.

Environmental Scientist examining water

9. Science Journalist

You may decide to use your degree and experience as a science journalist. You can find employment with professional journals and science related publications. You may venture into television news reporting as a researcher. You'll need a bachelor's degree and possibly a master's depending on the arena. The annual median salary is $55,000.

10. Human Paleontologists or Paleoanthropologists

This branch of anthropology focuses on researching the origins, developments and evolution of pre-human hominids and prehistoric humans. You'll employ various archaeology and ethnology techniques, such as comparative anatomy and radioactive-decay rates. You'll also need to know physical sciences. Possible employers include universities, museums, geological surveys, and other types of related organizations. The annual median salary for academia is $73,000, while outside academia the average salary is $54,000.

11. Paleontologist and Comparative Morphology

Paleontology and comparative morphology is a career path that mostly falls in the field of zoology, but your paleontology degree paves the way for this career choice. You'll work in various positions most will be field work at a previous or new excavation site. You'll be tasked to identify and determine fossil age/origin or prospect for fossils via excavations. This position requires research of geological studies, reviewing published papers/reports and securing funding/applying research grants. Most employers include universities, museums, geological surveys and other types of related organizations. You'll need a PhD in Paleontology. The annual median salary is around $85,000, but may be higher if working in the oil or mining industry.

12. Paleontological Field Technician

You will provide support for field projects. Some projects will be solitary while others will involve working with a team. Areas you might work in include, excavations, construction monitoring, surveys, fossil salvages, etc. You'll collect and record lithologic, stratigraphic and paleontologic data while assisting in lab preparations for fossils, analysis and data management. You'll need a bachelor's degree in paleontology, geology or related field, such as biology. The annual median salary is between $64,000 to $90,000 depending on the state and employer.

Two young palaeontologists in the field

13. Ichnologist

Ichnology is the study of trace fossils. Unlike body fossils, these are impressions left in the substrate that are a biological record of their activities. A good example is dinosaur tracks or various fossil trails/footprints. This career field is considered an earth science. This career is often titled, paleobotony. A master's degree in paleontology, geology or biology is required. The annual median salary is around $80,000.

14. Paleobotanist

The job description for a paleobotanist is identical to the job description for an ichnologist except you will be researching fossil plants. This can include fungi and even algae. A master's degree in paleontology, geology or biology is required. The annual median salary is around $80,000.

15. Paleontology Lab Manager

This career path takes you into the industrial side of infrastructure. Most likely you'll find employment with an environmental company or consulting company. These companies serve the various companies involved in industries, such as highway construction, production of oil/gas pipelines, utilities (power, cable, phone lines), drilling for oil and natural gas, mining, etc. All of these companies must follow the laws governing the collection/preservation of fossils. As the lab manager, you'll be in charge of collecting and preparing fossils. You'll need a master's degree in paleontology, geology or biology and field experience. The annual median salary is around $78,000.

16. Vertebrate Paleontologist

You can find career paths with universities dedicated to medicine and even dentistry. Vertebrate paleontologists are often hired as anatomy instructors. A master's degree is typically required, although some institutions may require a PhD. The annual median salary is around $62,000.

Dentist wearing safety glasses and holding dental equipment next to screens showing images of teeth

17. Micropaleontologists

A micropaleontologist or biostratigrapher career is often found within the gas and oil industry since microfossils are used in this industry. A micropaleontologist conducts paleoenvironment analysis to study microscopic fossils in the process of oil and gas exploration as well as minerals and underground water, land reclamation projects and waste disposal. A bachelor's degree is required. Some professionals also earn a master's degree in geology and may advance to a PhD in paleontology or A related field. The annual median salary is $85,000.

18. Paleoecologist

A paleoecologist conducts field research to reconstruct past ecosystems by studying past ecologies and climates. This is achieved by examining, studying and comparing animal fossils, pollen and spores (microfossils), flora, chemicals in trapped air pockets, and other factors. You'll find employment with universities, research labs and environmental consulting firms. A bachelor's degree is required and sometimes a dual, such as paleoecology and geology. The annual median salary is $89,000.

19. Specialty Environmental Monitor

A specialty environmental monitor may also be called a paleontological monitor (PRM) or cultural monitor (CRM). The duties include monitoring construction sites/crews to ensure adherence to environmental compliance policies. A bachelor's degree is usually required although some positions accept an associate's degree plus two years of field work. The annual median salary is $82,000.

20. Scientific Illustrator

If you are an artist, you can combine your talent with your paleontology degree. This highly competitive field combines traditional art formats with digital ones. You'll create illustrations of various scientific subjects that that can include medical and biological. You may work for book publishers, museums exhibits, science journals, various scientific websites, and other media outlets. You may decide to opt for a master's degree in scientific illustration to augment your bachelor's degree in paleontology. The annual median salary $52,000.

Illustrator drawing on paper at table in office

21. Palynologist

Palynology is a small ecological niche that collects and studies these samples to determine any genetic changes that occurred during specific timeframes. Most of the positions you'll find available are in academia, although you may occasionally find a research position with an independent lab or company. The annual median salary is around $86,000.

22. Forensic Taphonomist

Forensic taphonomy emerged from forensic anthropology. Forensic taphonomy is charged with identifying, interpreting and documenting taphonomic agents in the remains of a corpse. The technician will collect samples from the scene and conduct laboratory examinations. A conclusion will be drawn based on scientific evidence how these agents changed the remains. You might find a forensic career with a crime lab, federal, state or county agencies, CDC (Centers of Disease Control and Prevention), academia, science labs, and others. The annual median salary is $45,000.

Professional Organizations You May Join

There are numerous professional organizations you may choose to join. Some are specifically for paleontologists, while others include geologist and other earth science professions.

Paleontological Society

The Paleontological Society is a nonprofit international organization. It's mission is to support the advancement of the science of invertebrate and vertebrate paleontology, paleobotany and micropaleontology. Professional, retired professionals, students, teachers, amateur or avocational paleontologists are eligible for membership. An emphasis on membership for amateur fossil collectors features a special discounted membership fee and category. The society publishes two journal, Journal of Paleontology and Journal of Paleobiology, as well as various membership publications.

Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP)

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) is dedicated to vertebrate fossil preservation, discovery, interpretation and study. Membership is open to scientists, preparators, advocates, scholars, students and artists around the world. There are various membership levels that also include avocational paleontologists.

Society for Protection of Natural History Collections

The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) is an international organization. Its mission focuses on the management of natural history collections through development, preservation and conservation. Anyone with an interest in natural history is eligible for membership.

Many Possible Careers in Paleontology

In spite of what most people may think is a limited scope of careers in paleontology, you have many career paths in a range of industries. You may find a dual degree combination with other earth sciences will provide you with many more career opportunities.

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Careers in Paleontology