Become a Paleoanthropologist: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become a paleoanthropologist. Research the job description and the education requirements, and find out how to start a career in paleoanthropology.

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  • 0:49 Career Requirements
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Should I Be a Paleoanthropologist?

Paleoanthropologists study the archaeological remains of early humans and other primates to understand different aspects of human evolution, such as walking, diet, artwork, tool development and cognition. Paleoanthropologists may work in an office, planning research projects, or in a lab, conducting experiments, analyzing data and writing reports. They also do some fieldwork, collecting artifacts at excavation sites. An academic job may combine teaching and research duties. Completion for tenured teaching positions at the college level is usually strong. Travel is often necessary to visit archaeological sites or to conduct other research.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Ph.D.
Degree Field Anthropology
Experience Fieldwork and internship experience are necessary for most positions
Key Skills Analytical, critical thinking, investigative, and writing skills; technological and field specific equipment skills; knowledge of software for working with 2-D and 3-D coordinate data (such as Morphometrika and TPS); ability to travel for extended periods; physical fitness and tolerance of harsh or rugged conditions
Salary $64,290 (2015 average for archaeologists and anthropologists)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, University of Missouri job posting (Feb. 2013), U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*NET OnLine, New York University, Smithsonian Institution

Paleoanthropologists need a Ph.D. in anthropology. Fieldwork and internship experiences are necessary for most positions. These professionals should have good analytical, critical thinking, investigative and writing skills. They should also have technological and field-specific equipment skills. Knowledge of software for working with 2-D and 3-D coordinate data, such as Morphometrika and TPS, may be sought. Additionally, these professionals should be physically fit and have the ability to travel for extended periods as well as be comfortable with exposure to harsh or rugged conditions. According to 2015 data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for anthropologists and archaeologists was $64,290.

Steps to Be a Paleoanthropologist

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

Completing a bachelor's degree program in anthropology is the first step to becoming a paleoanthropologist. Schools typically require students to complete at least one course in each major subfield: cultural, biological, archaeological and linguistic anthropology. Studies in anthropological theory and ethnography, or the anthropological method for writing about research, are also typically included. Some schools offer a degree in anthropology with a major in a subfield, and other schools allow students to combine fields to create their own majors.

Students should take additional courses in chemistry, geology, physics or biology. Knowledge of these topics is beneficial for a career in paleoanthropology. Aspiring paleoanthropologists should lay the foundation for graduate studies by taking classes that teach human evolutionary biology, the fossil record, development of language, stone tools and ancient skeletal analysis.

Step 2: Join an Internship Program

Some schools offer anthropology internship programs for undergraduate students. Internships at museums, nonprofit organizations or historical societies can also be useful. These programs offer valuable hands-on experience, and some offer travel opportunities to field sites.

Step 3: Earn a Graduate Degree

Since paleoanthropology is such a specialized discipline, a Ph.D. is typically required for advancement. Some schools allow students to obtain a master's degree on the way to earning a Ph.D. A program with a specialization in paleoanthropology would best prepare students, but a biological anthropology program with paleoanthropology courses could also be sufficient. A bachelor's degree, GRE scores, a writing sample, a purpose statement and references are common admissions requirements.

Graduate degree programs in paleoanthropology are commonly interdisciplinary and may cover genetics, behavioral reconstruction, isotopic research, paleoecology and morphology. Some examples of paleoanthropology course topics include cognitive archaeology, paleoneurology, rock art, the Neanderthals and symbolic evolution. Ph.D. students typically complete coursework, research projects, a graduate teaching assistantship, fieldwork, a comprehensive exam and a dissertation. Learning a foreign language may also be a graduation requirement.

Aspiring paleoanthropologists typically need a doctoral degree in anthropology as well as experience, which can be acquired through an internship in a museum, historical society or related organization.

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