Making a living in paleontology

So, you want to be a paleontologist?
How much you earn depends on what sort of paleontologist you are.

For the title: ‘Paleontologist’ salary estimates 
in the USA range from $20,000 to $110,000 per year. I’m guessing the high end goes to tenured professors and geologists in the oil industry. The low end probably goes to preparators. Volunteers, of course, love their work. They just want to be in and around museums, fossils and projects. Salary estimates in the UK average: £32,414 = $43,000 per years. 

According to
“Paleontologists can make an average of $90,000 per year and must undergo extensive training in addition to completing a doctorate level of education.”

“Paleontologists working in the coal and petroleum manufacturing industry make the highest salary, whereas paleontologists who teach at universities typically make the lowest average salary.”

What is a paleontologist?
“A paleontologist is a scientist who studies the history of the earth and how evolution has affected life through the examination of fossils and other historical data. These professionals may find and preserve animal and plant traces, fossilize bones and other data and use these findings to make conclusions about the evolution of life and the history of our planet. They often spend their time at worksites where they perform fieldwork projects to uncover fossils or collect samples that they study in a laboratory.

Common duties that a paleontologist may perform include:

  • Discover the location of fossils
  • Perform excavations to uncover fossils
  • Gather information about fossils found during excavations and digs
  • Use specialized computer programs to analyze discoveries made
  • Compare new data to existing information
  • Perform various tasks within a laboratory setting related to analyzing fossils and other related findings
  • Determine in which time period fossils originated
  • Communicate findings to colleagues and other individuals within the scientific field”

Of course, if you are in the right university or museum,
then the fossils come to you.

Figure 1. The cover of Giants, the book that launched my adult interest in dinosaurs, pterosaurs and everything inbetween.

Figure 1. The cover of Giants, the book that launched my adult interest in dinosaurs, pterosaurs and everything inbetween.

Some artists and writers
specialize in paleontology, I was one for a while. An advance to write and illustrate a dinosaur book was $15,000 back in the 1990s. That gets split in half if the author or illustrator is someone else. Thereafter increased sales provide royalty payments, IF there are more sales. For Giants (Fig. 1) I received only one royalty check worth a nice year’s salary, even though it had been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek and other publications on their 10-Best-for-Christmas Books. The publisher let it stay on the shelves for only one year due to rising printing costs at the time. Several other books that followed did not make back their advance. They tell me ‘novelty’ is the key to positive reviews and big sales. So keep that in mind when you come up with your book idea.

Big selling paleontology books of the past all broke new ground.

Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton made millions in book sales and movie rights. Of course, the timing could not have been better.

Dinotopia author and artist, James Gurney, also did well in his fantasy book that also became a movie.

The Dinosaur Heresies author and artist, Robert T. Bakker, stirred the imagination of readers and workers who followed and built upon his new views.

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs author and artist, Greg Paul, likewise filled a niche that made the book a perennial good-seller.

Some writers and artists work for science oriented popular magazines.
They depend on the paleontologists for their news and artwork. I’ve never seen them question results and they cannot use images under Fair Usage because they are in business for profit.

According to
freelancers can make $100 to $2500 per article. That’s when the editor likes your idea. Much time can be spent pitching ideas and striking out.

  • Discover Magazine — $2/word
  • New Scientist — $300+ per assignment
  • Popular Science — $2/word
  • Smithsonian — $1 to $3.50/word
  • Scientific American — $2/word to start according to  Whopays.tumbler
  • National Geographic — $1.50/word according to WhoPaysWriters
  • Science or Nature — academic publications don’t pay contributors and they send back 95% of all submissions.

Sculpture and Discovery
Some paleontologists are in the businesses of providing fossils and models of fossils to museums, universities and wealthy individuals.  They also hire workers.

Triebold Paleontology digs fossils and creates casts for museum and home display. All of my pterosaur skeletons are now casts available there. It was fun to go to a European museum in 2007 with my girlfriend and say, “Hey, I did that Pteranodon!”

Pteranodon model based on the Triebold specimen by David Peters

Figure 2. Pteranodon model based on the Triebold specimen

Staab Studios creates models for museums, film and private collectors

Black Hills Institute supplies prepared fossils, casts and mineral specimens for research, teaching and exhibit.

CMStudio is a small shop that also produces full-size sculptures for dinosaur lovers, museums and businesses around the world.

Paleoartists on Pintrest include Raul Martin, Mark Hallett, and many others.

If you don’t need to make a salary or commission,
but have a keen interest in paleontology, you can be a blogger or create your own website, like That way you can document the progress of your studies, invite comments and catch hell from irate PhDs.  :  )

Pteranodon and the albatross

Figure 3. Left: Pteranodon. Right: Diomedea (albatross).

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