What Does a Primatologist Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image by Theresa Chiechi © The Balance 2019

Primatologists are scientists who study primates, such as gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and lemurs. They work in a variety of roles within the field, including biology, medical research, anthropology, and zoology. Some primatologists are employed by zoos and other domestic habitats caring for primates to ensure they stay healthy and adapt to their surroundings. Others work out in the field studying primate behavior in their natural habitat, or in laboratories performing research.

Primatologists may specialize by studying one species of interest or a particular area in the field, such as genetics, behavior, reproduction, nutrition, or veterinary medicine.

Primatologist Duties & Responsibilities

A primatologist’s duties can vary widely based on her work in education, research, or conservation:

  • Education: Primatology professors may have a variety of duties, including:
    • Teaching undergraduate- or graduate-level courses
    • Supervising student lab sessions
    • Conducting research studies
    • Writing and publishing their research findings in professional scientific journals, which is critical for professors seeking tenure at a college or university
  • Research: Primatologists 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 and analyzing results
    • Publishing research findings in scientific journals
  • Conservation: Those involved in conservation efforts may:
    • Manage a rescue or conservation facility.
    • Interact with the public through educational programs.
    • Give tours.
    • Direct fundraising efforts.
    • Promote primate conservation through ecotourism or other avenues.

Primatologist Salary

The salary for primatologists can vary widely based on whether they are employed in academia, research, conservation, or other roles. Salary is also the result of other factors, such as level of education, years of experience, and areas of expertise. 

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey does not offer a separate classification for primatologists, it does offer one for zoologists and wildlife biologists, which includes the field of primatology:

  • Median Annual Salary: $69,290 ($29.95/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $99,700 ($47.93/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $39,620 ($19.05/hour)

Education Requirements & Qualifications

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

  • Undergraduate and graduate degrees: 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. Advancement in the field typically requires a master's degree or doctorate.
  • Courses: 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. 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.
  • Experience: Aspiring primatologists should gain as much experience as possible while completing their college studies, as primatology is a highly competitive field. Students benefit from volunteering or interning at primate centers, primate research facilities, or zoos to get relevant hands-on experience.

Primatologist Skills & Competencies

Depending on your area of focus, you'll benefit from having the following characteristics:

  • Communication skills: Ability to write scientific papers and give lectures to the public, policymakers, and academics
  • Critical-thinking skills: Sound reasoning and judgment to draw conclusions from experimental results and scientific observations
  • Emotional stamina and stability: Ability to endure long periods alone in the wilderness, as well as calmly and effectively deal with injured or sick animals
  • Interpersonal skills: Ability to work as a team player to achieve goals
  • Observation skills: Ability to notice subtle changes in animal behavior or appearance
  • Problem-solving skills: Ability to find the best possible solutions to threats that affect wildlife, such as disease and habitat loss
  • Computer skills: Familiarity with geographic information systems (GIS) and data analysis software

Job Outlook

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 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of zoologists and wildlife biologists is projected to grow 8 percent from 2016 to 2026, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Primatologists with significant experience or education in the field will continue to enjoy good prospects for employment.

Work Environment

Depending on their area of focus, primatologists may work in an office, laboratory, or classroom environment, or even out in the field. They may work for universities, government agencies, biotechnology or pharmaceutical firms, conservation groups, veterinary clinics, zoos, or museums. Their work may involve a combination of environments such as a professor who works in an office, classroom, and laboratory. Research may occur in the laboratory and in the field, involving extensive international travel.

Primatologists doing fieldwork are exposed to adverse weather conditions and rough terrain. They may be required to perform physically demanding work. Their research requires them to live in remote regions with little human contact for long periods of time.

Work Schedule

Primatologists work full-time, although fieldwork may require extensive hours or irregular schedules.

How to Get the Job

APPLY

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.

NETWORK WITH OTHER PROFESSIONALS

Joining professional organizations may also ​be beneficial, as these groups offer networking and support to members, which can lead to employment. 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).

Comparing Similar Jobs

If you are considering a position as a primatologist, you may want to look into these other professions: