Palaeontologists use a range of knowledge and skills to study fossilised life forms and to understand what the Earth was like millions of years ago

As a palaeontologist, you'll study fossilised past life including plants as well as animals. Through understanding how the Earth and biodiversity has changed over millions of years, palaeontologists can try to predict how it might change in the future.

Working in palaeontology can be an extremely competitive but rewarding career. The role varies considerably depending on your area of specialism and the type of organisation you work for. Activities can range from collecting samples on site, conducting scientific experiments and analysing data to academic research, planning and delivering lectures, curating and outreach work. 

As well as working in academia and in museums, there are a range of related roles linked to palaeontology, including science writer, science educator, photographer, palaeoartist and consultant.

Types of palaeontology

Palaeontology is a broad science and can be separated into many subdisciplines that overlap. Some of the main ones are:

  • vertebrate/invertebrate palaeontology - describing ancient animals from their fossilised remains
  • palaeobotany - the study of ancient plants, seeds, fungi and algae
  • macroevolutionary work - the study of evolution, extinction and how animals are related to each other (the subscience of phylogenetics)
  • stratigraphic palaeobiology - understanding past environments based on fossils and geological fieldwork.
  • taphonomy - the study of how organisms decay and become fossilised
  • biomechanics - the study of how organisms move and eat
  • micropalaeontology - the study of ancient microscopic organisms (typically used in climate studies or oil and gas).

Other areas you could work in include curation, conservation of fossil sites and educational outreach work.


There are a range of different roles and specialisms within palaeontology and your work may cross over these areas, but in general you'll need to:

  • carry out research and write scientific papers
  • work on field excavations or digs, collecting data and specimens
  • work in laboratories, carrying out experiments and testing on fossils using various analytical methods such as CT scanning and electron microscopy
  • carry out data modelling and analyse data for research
  • record and classify specimens
  • plan and deliver lectures and workshops to university students or other academics
  • give educational talks and presentations to schools and geological groups
  • write articles for publications such as professional journals and magazines
  • produce content in various formats, such as podcasts, blogs and online videos
  • act as an adviser or contributor on radio and TV programmes, and films
  • respond to queries from the general public and other researchers
  • manage displays and exhibitions
  • manage volunteers or staff on projects or field trips.


  • Key areas of work for palaeontologists are academia and museums. Starting salaries can range from £18,000 to £25,000 for entry-level museum roles or £15,000 to £20,000 for funded PhD students who receive a tax-free stipend.
  • More experienced museum staff can expect salaries from around £26,000 to £35,000. Postdoctoral researchers can earn between £27,000 and £39,000.
  • Senior staff at museums, such as head curator or head of collections, can expect salaries over £40,000, while senior academics can earn more than £50,000. For more information on academic salaries, see the HE pay scale.

Location, type and size of organisation, specialism and level of experience are all influencing factors when it comes to salaries.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are generally 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, although academic roles often involve longer hours including evenings and weekends to prepare. If you're working in a museum, you may sometimes have to work evenings and weekends to cover events and other commitments.

Part-time work, flexible work and job sharing may be available. Academics may be able to take career breaks or sabbaticals but will need to maintain a research profile. There may be opportunities to work from home or for hybrid working.

What to expect

  • You could work in a museum, university, office, laboratory or on site. Most palaeontologists don't spend a lot of time doing field work. Much of their work is spent on activities such as research, analysis, teaching, preparing workshops and administration. However, there are some opportunities to undertake field work as part of your role.
  • Palaeontology is a small, but competitive profession. For example, there can be intense competition for postdoctoral positions and lectureships. You may need to take on several postdoctoral research roles, both in the UK and abroad, before securing a permanent lecturing post.
  • Museum work can also vary depending on the type of museum. In smaller museums you may have to get involved in all aspects of the work, from preparing exhibits to opening the museum. In a larger or national museum, however, you may have more opportunity to concentrate on research and on specific collections.
  • There are a small number of opportunities available throughout the UK in, for example, universities, research institutions and museums. There are also opportunities abroad in places that have a reputation for palaeontology research. Many of the opportunities for field work can be found abroad in countries such as the US.
  • Posts in both academia and museums are often dependent on funding and specific grants. Contracts are often short term or temporary, especially in the early years of an academic career, and you may have to move around a lot to find work. Secondments are also sometimes available, providing an opportunity to work with other laboratories and institutions.
  • At times, you may need to travel and work away from home for field trips, to share research or to attend and present at conferences.


Entry to a career in palaeontology is usually with a degree. Typically, this will be in geology or a science or mathematical-based subject. However, any of the following degree subjects may be useful:

  • biology
  • chemistry
  • geography
  • geology
  • Earth sciences
  • mathematics
  • palaeontology
  • statistics
  • zoology.

It's difficult to find undergraduate courses specialising in palaeontology, although there are a few that combine geology or evolution with palaeontology. It's often advisable to develop a wider knowledge base in the first instance and then to specialise at Masters or PhD level. Do your research into courses to make sure they meet your career needs.

For most roles, a postgraduate qualification such as a Masters or PhD is useful. Most palaeontologists working in research or academia are educated to at least doctorate level. A strong academic record and achieving a 2:1, or ideally a first, is important. Palaeontologists working in museums or in oil and gas are usually educated to at least Masters level.

Use The Palaeontological Association website to search for Masters courses and PhD opportunities linked to palaeontology.

Although you don't need to specialise in palaeontology at undergraduate level, it's often helpful to specialise in areas of palaeontology at Masters or doctorate level. Many researchers go on to do a postdoc before securing a lectureship or research position. 

Palaeontology is a broad science, however, and it's possible to move into a palaeontology role from areas such as engineering and biomechanics, and the medical profession.

If you're studying palaeontology or a similar subject, it's a good idea to become a member of  The Palaeontological Association, which gives you access to networking opportunities and events. The Palaeontological Association also run a mentoring scheme for palaeontologists at the start of their academic careers, either towards the end of their PhD or in a postdoctoral position.


You will need to have:

  • the ability to plan and carry out high-level research
  • an analytical and enquiring mind, with excellent problem-solving skills
  • the ability to work independently and as part of a team
  • excellent verbal communication skills for presenting ideas and research in lectures and presentations, to a wide range of people including researchers, students and the general public
  • good written communication skills for writing scientific reports and articles for publications
  • excellent IT skills and excellent data analysis and statistical knowledge
  • organisational and project management skills
  • skills in specimen handling, classification and interpretation
  • the ability to manage others, including junior researchers and volunteers on field projects
  • multi-media skills for producing graphical presentations of data and research, videos, podcasts and social media output.

Work experience

Getting relevant work experience helps you to stand out and build networks. There are few advertised internships, but if you’re interested in palaeontological work in museums, you could look at volunteering at your local museum. Approaching smaller museums, as well as national or larger museums, can increase your chances of success.

If you're interested in field work, you could join The Geological Society group in your region to get involved in any activities they are doing. Organisations such as the Jurassic Coast Trust and the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre also have opportunities for volunteers. However, the availability of field experience often depends on location.

For academic careers in palaeontology, you could approach universities and departments specialising in palaeontology to find out about opportunities to visit or to get involved in projects or laboratory work. You could help identify specimens or collate data, either in person or remotely - you don’t necessarily have to be in the same building to do it.

It can also be useful to join the Geologists' Association, and local palaeontological and geological associations to get involved and build networks. You should also get in the habit of reading scientific papers and attending scientific conferences if you can. The Palaeontological Association host an annual conference where members present research, and you can apply to the association for funding to do a palaeontological project even as an undergraduate.

Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.


Universities and museums are the main employers of palaeontologists. However, opportunities also exist with:

  • media and broadcasting organisations - advising or contributing to programmes and films
  • publishing companies - writing for academic and scientific publications
  • mining, oil and gas companies - analysing fossils and organic matter in rock samples and providing reports and real-time data
  • consultancies - providing advice to a range of companies, environmental organisations and government bodies.

Look for job vacancies at:

Vacancies are also advertised on university, museum and local authority websites.

You can also find opportunities through social media by following scientists, museums and institutions on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Consider using The Geologist's Directory Online for making speculative applications to organisations.

Professional development

There are opportunities to develop your skills and knowledge through training, courses and qualifications. The Museums Association, for example, runs several continuing professional development (CPD) schemes for its members. There are also various opportunities for CPD within academia such as the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE) and the Advance HE Fellowships.

Most employers run in-house courses on areas such as:

  •  IT
  • management and personal development
  • administration
  • research techniques.

Attending conferences and other events can give you the opportunity to present your research and learn from others in the field.

Membership of The Palaeontological Association is useful for career development. They hold regular meetings and events throughout the year, where you can network with other palaeontologists. They also have various awards and grants to encourage professionals to develop their research in the field.

Career prospects

There are normally opportunities to advance your career into more senior roles, such as senior and principal lecturer or by becoming a head of collections or curator. Getting your work published and presenting at conferences is helpful for your career progression as it develops your research profile. With experience, there may also be opportunities for freelance work.

As your reputation and knowledge in the field develop, you may be able to access other opportunities such as working for media organisations, where you could be an adviser to broadcast programmes.

Alternatively, you could move into a geological surveyor or consultant role for government bodies or oil and gas companies. Some palaeontologists specialise in areas such as data analysis or management or go into academic writing.

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