Primatologist Career Profile

Debbie Cox Working with Protected Chimpanzees
••• Penny Tweedie/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

Primatologists are scientists who study primates including gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and lemurs. They may work in a variety of roles within the field including research and education.

Duties of a Primatologist

A primatologist’s duties can vary widely based on whether they are primarily involved in education, research, or conservation.

Primatologists involved in education, such as professors, may have a variety of teaching duties including teaching undergraduate or graduate level courses, supervising student lab sessions, conducting research studies, and publishing their research findings in professional scientific journals. Publishing research is critical for professors seeking tenure at a college or university.

Primatologists that are primarily involved in research may be responsible for planning research studies, providing basic care for the primates involved in the studies, supervising laboratory technicians, collecting data, analyzing results, and publishing their research findings in scientific journals. Research work for primatologists may occur both in the field and in the lab; extensive international travel may be involved for field researchers.

Primatologists involved in conservation efforts may manage a rescue or conservation facility, interact with the public through educational programs, give tours, direct fundraising efforts, or promote primate conservation through ecotourism or other avenues.

Career Options for Primatologists

Career options for primatologists include employment at colleges, universities, laboratories, government agencies, field research organizations, conservation groups, biotechnology firms, pharmaceutical groups, zoos, veterinary clinics, or museums (where primatologists study primate fossils).

Primatologists may also specialize by studying one species of interest. Another option is focusing on one specific area of primatology such as genetics, behavior, reproduction, nutrition, or veterinary medicine.

Those looking for career options and job openings should explore the Primate Info Net site maintained by the Wisconsin Primate Research Center Library (a division of the University of Wisconsin at Madison).

Education and Training

Primatologists generally have at least a four-year college degree. Many hold graduate degrees, especially those involved in teaching or research roles.

It is most common for primatologists to complete undergraduate studies in a field such as zoology, biology, psychology, bacteriology, pathology, veterinary medicine, ecology, or other related biological sciences. Coursework in computer-based technology, animal science, communications, and statistics generally proves useful.

Students of primatology can add other classes to their course of study based on their specific area of interest in the field. For instance, those interested in behavior could add a variety of psychology and behavioral science classes to their course load to better prepare them for future work in this area of primatology.

A Competitive Field

Aspiring primatologists should try to gain as much hands-on experience as possible while completing their college studies, as primatology is a highly competitive field. Students will benefit from volunteering or interning at primate centers, primate research facilities, or zoos to get relevant hands-on experience working with primates.

Joining professional organizations may also ​be beneficial, as these groups offer networking and support to members. The American Society of Primatologists (ASP), which publishes the American Journal of Primatology, is one such group. Other professional primatology groups include the International Primatological Society, the Primate Society of Great Britain (PSGB), and the Australasian Primate Society (APS).

Primatologist Salary

The salary for primatologists can vary widely based on whether they are employed in academia, research, conservation, or other roles. Salary can also be influenced by a variety of other factors such as level of education, years of experience, and areas of expertise. On average, primatologists earn an annual salary of $57,710 a year.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), college or university professors who teach courses in the biological sciences earn a mean annual wage of $93,630, however, this can vary widely depending on a variety of factors.

Zoologists and wildlife biologists earn a mean annual wage of $60,300 a year, but in the District of Columbia, which boasts the highest salaries, zoologists and wildlife biologists can earn about $106,540 a year. The mean annual wage for the more general category of biological scientists is $75,150 a year. 

Career Outlook for Primatologists

Competition is keen for positions in the field of primatology, especially for those positions that allow direct contact with the animals. However, according to the BLS, primatologists with significant experience or education in the field will continue to enjoy good prospects for employment.