Paleoanthropology is a combination of two disciplines -- paleontology, the study of human origins, and anthropology, the study of humans in general. The work of paleoanthropologists adds to general scientific knowledge and helps everyone understand what it means to be human. To become a paleoanthropologist, you must have at least a master’s degree, and a doctorate is usually required for independent research and career advancement. Fieldwork experience increases your job prospects, although competition is likely to be strong.
Start with a Bachelor's Degree
A bachelor’s degree may help you get a foot in the door as a research assistant but is just the starting point for a career as a paleoanthropologist. Paleoanthropology includes a variety of scientific disciplines, such as biological anthropology, Paleolithic archeology, genetics and geology; your degree might be in any of those areas. Anthropology includes the study of languages, culture and social customs. Because of its multidisciplinary focus, a broad-based education is useful. The Smithsonian National Museum of History recommends courses in biology, chemistry, physics and geology. Other courses of study might not be immediately obvious. For example, teeth may be the only part of a fossil that remains after millions of years, so knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of teeth may be helpful at some point in your career.
Attain a Master's Degree
A few schools offer a degree specifically in paleoanthropology, but most in the field attain a master's degree in anthropology. At this stage of your education, you might begin specialized study. For example, New York University offers a master’s degree in physical anthropology with a concentration in human skeletal biology. You learn about topics such as biological variations between human populations and how to determine what the differences mean. At the University of Central Florida, you must complete required courses in biological and cultural anthropology, and you may take courses in fields such as forensic and nutritional anthropology, Maya studies and Caribbean culture.
Finish with a Ph.D.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that a Ph.D. is typically required for any anthropologist, especially if you want to teach at university or work outside of the United States. The requirements of foreign governments are very stringent, and a Ph.D. is often necessary to conduct fieldwork abroad. You must complete a dissertation to earn your Ph.D., and spend months in field work and research. The experience you gain provides you with specialized skills in the field of paleoanthropology and improve your chances of finding a job after you graduate. Expect to spend a minimum of 12 and as long as 30 months performing research and fieldwork.
Job Outlook and Salary
Anthropology is not a large field. Although the BLS projects above-average job growth of 19 percent from 2012 to 2022, that growth will result in only 1,400 new jobs for both archaeologists and anthropologists. Job opportunities may be found in museums, academia or consulting positions. A broad-based education and extensive field experience will increase your chances of finding a job, according to the BLS. The BLS reports an average annual salary of $61,420 for archaeologists and anthropologists in 2014.