If you believe you need to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going, paleontology could be a career for you. Paleontologists study fossils, trying to reconstruct the history of life on Earth. For example, determining how a climate change that occurred thousands of years ago affected life then could help predict what a similar scenario could mean in the future. Paleontologists also use their knowledge of how the Earth has formed to find natural resources derived from fossils, such as coal and oil. Most universities do not offer undergraduate paleontology programs, but degrees in biology and/or geology often suffice. Master’s and doctoral degrees in paleontology help you advance.


Geoscientists, including paleontologists, had an average annual salary of $97,700 as of May 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Assistant professors with a Ph.D. degree in paleontology earn starting salaries of $40,000 to $60,000 for a nine-month academic year, according to The Paleontological Society. Paleontologists with doctorates earn $50,000 to $80,000 over a full year when working in industry and government, according to the society. Geoscientists working in oil and gas extraction earn the most, $139,390 a year on average, according to the BLS.

Regional Comparisons:

Given the high pay for working in oil and gas extraction, most geoscientists work in Texas, where they earned an average annual salary of $130,200 as of May 2011, according to BLS research. That is more than double the 4,360 geoscientists in California, which had the second most geoscientists. Colorado, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania rounded out the top five in terms of employment. Another natural resource-rich state, Alaska, had the highest concentration of jobs with 460 geoscientists, or 1.47 per thousand jobs. Oklahoma geoscientists earned the most, with an average salary of $142,310.

Contributing Factors:

Education and employer drive pay. Doctoral degrees are essential to landing professor positions. Professors typically teach courses, often in general geology as well as paleontology, and supervise student research. They also do their own research and publish the results, which also is needed for advancement. A master’s degree might be enough to work in industry, for the government or at a museum. In industry, paleontologists research subjects of use to their employer, such as an oil company. Government agencies hire paleontologists for geological mapping and other work. Museums hire paleontologists as research scientists and educators.

Career Outlook:

The number of new paleontologists trained each year exceeds the jobs available, according to The Paleontological Society. Of the 3,000 professional paleontologists in the United States, most work for universities and colleges, according to the society. Geoscientists with doctoral degrees must compete for positions in academia and research, according to the BLS. The bureau projects a brighter future for geoscientists with master’s degrees because many geoscientists are retiring, creating openings in consulting firms and the oil and gas industry. Overall, employment of geoscientists will increase 21 percent, from 33,800 to 40,900 by 2020, according to the BLS. That exceeds the projected average of 14 percent for all occupations.

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