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How to Become a Zoologist

What is a zoologist?

A zoologist is a scientist who studies animals. They may study an animal’s origins, genetics, diseases, behaviors, or more. With over 1.3 million identified animals in the world so far, it’s not surprising that zoology is a very broad field. 

A zoologist typically devotes their time to the study of one specific species or group of species, although some do more general work. They work in the field, studying animals in their natural environment, or in captivity in zoos and aquariums. Zoologists observe animals, take meticulous notes, and conduct experimental studies in either controlled or natural surroundings. Some zoologists manage wildlife reserves where they keep a count of animal populations and study animal behavior.

Not all zoologists work in the field studying animals. Many work in labs where they study various biological aspects of animals. Others are professors at universities and colleges. They teach, conduct research, and write reports, scientific papers, and journal articles.

On any given day, a zoologist may be designing or conducting research, studying animal behaviors and characteristics, collecting and analyzing biological data and specimens, writing papers, reports or journal articles, giving lectures, or educating the public on animal welfare and wildlife conservation.

Qualifications and eligibility

To become a zoologist, you must have at least a bachelor’s degree, typically in biology, zoology, or a related field. Graduate-level degrees, such as a master’s or a doctorate, are generally preferred and many times required for advanced research or teaching positions. Zoologists typically focus on a particular branch of zoology during their graduate studies. 

Along with science courses, such as biology, anatomy and physiology, chemistry, and physics, students are required to take statistics, communications, and computer technology. Additional courses in animal science, veterinary science, animal behavior, animal husbandry, and ecology can be very beneficial. 

A zoologist should have excellent communication skills, both verbal and written, as they often present research findings and write research papers and reports. They also need keen observation skills to identify animal behavior, appearance, and the effects of the environment on the animals they study. Critical thinking is important as zoologists need to develop theories and draw conclusions from experiments, research, and scientific observations. They often need to find solutions to issues affecting animals and need good problem-solving skills to do so. Computer literacy and the ability to work with highly specialized scientific equipment are also important skills zoologists need.

Work environment

Zoologists work in a variety of environments. They might be professors, teaching at universities and colleges where they are either in the classroom or conducting research in a lab setting. Aside from giving lectures and presenting research, they write papers and journals for publication. Other zoologists work exclusively in lab-based environments performing experiments and conducting research. They spend some of their time writing reports and papers. Many zoologists spend at least part of their time outdoors, studying animals on wildlife reserves or in their natural habitats. They often endure a wide range of environmental and weather conditions while in the field. They may also only have limited comforts. Field zoologists can sometimes work in remote areas and be away from friends and family for days, weeks, or months at a time.

Some zoologists work at zoos or aquariums, observing and taking care of animals. Others are employed at museums where they set up and maintain exhibits and educate the public on different species of animals. Other environments that zoologists work in include marine parks, state or federal governmental agencies, environmental conservation groups, and consulting companies.

Typical work hours

Zoologists working in the field often work long hours, which may include nights and weekends. They can spend days, weeks, or even months in the field, which may be remote locations. The work and the hours can be unpredictable. 

Professors tend to work flexible hours as classroom schedules change each semester. They spend some hours of their day in the lab conducting research. They typically don’t work weekends but can work nights in the classroom. 

Zoologists in labs generally work traditional 40-hour weeks during normal business hours. Consultants for private companies also work 40-hour weeks from Monday through Friday. 

Types of zoologists

There are many different types of zoologists as the animal kingdom is very large. While some study only a species or subspecies, others might study a wider, more generalized group, such as mammals. Some common branches of zoology include:

Ethologists

Ethology is the study of animal behavior, typically in the animal’s natural habitat. 

Primatologists

Primatology is the study of primates, including gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and lemurs. Primatology incorporates field study, laboratory study, and semi-free range study (a natural habitat replicated in a captive setting).

Wildlife Biologists

Wildlife biologists observe and study animal behavior to maintain and conserve wildlife populations. They track things like disease and nutrition and monitor endangered populations. Wildlife biologists may specialize in entomology, ornithology, herpetology, marine biology, or other branches of wildlife biology.

Paleozoologists

Paleozoologists study extinct and surviving animal remains, including bone, horn, hair, and soft tissues. They may work alongside paleontologists at archaeological sites. 

Mammalogists

Mammalogy is the study of mammals. This may include the natural history, taxonomy, systematics, anatomy, physiology, and behavior of mammals. With over 4,000 species of living mammals and many extinct species, mammalogists have a wide range of animals to study and typically specialize in one species. They may work in the field, zoos, natural history museums, or in research labs at colleges, universities, or other educational institutions.

Herpetologists

Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians, such as snakes, frogs, turtles, salamanders, crocodiles, and iguanas. Herpetologists study these animals in their natural environments, assess any possible threats from disease and pollution, and study their behaviors, physiologies, development, and genetics. They also work for museums and zoos. 

Ornithologists

Ornithology is the study of birds. Ornithologists study bird behavior, flight, migration patterns, habitats, physiology, and much more. There are over 18,000 different species of birds, allowing ornithologists to generalize or specialize in a specific bird species.

Entomologists

Entomology is the study of insects. This is by far the broadest branch of zoology as insects make up approximately 80% of the animal population and well over 1 million species have been identified. Most entomologists focus on a specific type of insect, such as bees, beetles, or butterflies. Some entomologists look at ways to control insects. 

Arachnologist

Arachnology is the study of arachnids, which include spiders, scorpions, and opiliones (or daddy longlegs). This is another vast group of animals as there are over 45,000 species of spiders alone. Arachnologists study everything from arachnid populations, evolution, diversity, venom, webs, and predatory tactics. 

Acarologists

Acarology is the study of mites and ticks, which are arachnids, so acarology is a sub-branch of arachnology. 

Cetologists

Cetology is the study of sea mammals, including whales, dolphins, and porpoises. They study the behaviors, habitats, and interactions between these creatures. Cetologists in the field often spend hours or days in boats observing these animals in their natural habitat. They often use tagging and tracking systems to monitor the movements and migrations of sea mammals. 

Ichthyologists

Ichthyology is the study of fish, including their behavior, development, and reproduction. Some ichthyologists work in museums, while others work in the field, often conducting underwater research. There are about 34,800 species of fish to study, and most ichthyologists study only one species.

Malacologists

Malacology is the study of mollusks, such as snails and clams.

Income potential

The earning potential for a zoologist can vary greatly depending on geographic location, education, experience, and acquired skills.  

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for zoologists and wildlife biologists was $64,650 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $42,420, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $103,900. The top industries for zoologists and wildlife biologists were:
    • Federal government – $81,890
    • Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences – $64,420
    • State government – $63,580
    • Management, scientific, and technical consulting services – $61,920
    • Colleges and universities – $61,780
  • A zoologist makes an average salary of $76,693 in the United States per Salary.com as of July 2022. The average pay range is between $62,813 and $94,580.   
  • The 5 cities with the highest annual pay are listed as:
    • Atkinson, NE – $69,837
    • Frankston, TX – $68,603
    • Dimondale, MI – $64,116
    • Manhattan, NY – $63,791
    • Skyline-Ganipa, NM – $62,074
  • The 5 states reporting the highest annual salaries are:
    • Tennessee – $57,065
    • Massachusetts – $56,019
    • Hawaii – $55,844
    • Minnesota – $55,610
    • Connecticut – $55,143
  • The bottom 3 states are:
    • Florida – $40,267
    • North Carolina – $40,071
    • Georgia – $37,543

Position trends

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the employment of zoologists and wildlife biologists is projected to grow 5% from 2020 to 2030, slower than the average for all occupations. Most job openings are expected to result from workers who transfer to different occupations or retire.

Zoologists and wildlife biologists will be needed to study the impact of disease, habitat loss, pollution, and other factors on wildlife as the human population grows and expands, reducing animal habitats. 

Career path

The animal kingdom is very large and diverse. As a result, zoology encompasses a wide range of study. The career path you take as a zoologist will depend on your education, experience, interests, and opportunities. You might become a college professor, work on a wildlife reserve, or at a zoo. You may study insects, mammals, or fish. Some career path opportunities for zoologists include:

  • Aquatic Biologists
  • Botanists
  • Cetologists
  • Entomologists
  • Evolutionary Biologists
  • Fish Culturists
  • Fishery Biologists
  • Herpetologists
  • Ichthyologists
  • Lepidopterists
  • Limnologists
  • Malacologists
  • Mammalogists
  • Marine Biologists
  • Migratory Game Bird Biologists
  • Ornithologists
  • Protistologists
  • Protozoologists
  • Terrestrial Biologists
  • Teuthologists
  • Wildlife Biologists
  • Agricultural and Food Scientists
  • Biochemists and Biophysicists
  • Conservation Scientists and Foresters
  • Environmental Scientists and Specialists
  • Microbiologists
  • College Professors
  • Veterinarians

Steps to becoming a zoologist

Here are the typical steps to becoming a zoologist:

1. High school preparation 

If you’re still in high school, this is the time to concentrate on the right classes that will help you get into college and lay the foundation for much of your college work. Focus on biology and chemistry courses. Take all you can. Volunteer or find a part-time job at a local zoo, aquarium, or animal sanctuary. Get all the experience you can. 

2. Get a bachelor’s degree

Most colleges and universities offer a bachelor’s degree in biology, and many also have a zoology degree program. Most programs include core courses in general biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Some university programs have specialized courses you can take, including marine biology, wildlife ecology, mammalogy, herpetology, ornithology, and animal physiology. Popular universities for zoology degrees include:

3. Gain experience

Beyond your education, you will most likely need hands-on experience to get even an entry-level job as a zoologist. While working on your bachelor’s degree, you can find opportunities for volunteer work, co-op programs, and internships. Some of this work may count for college credit, but they all provide valuable experience, whether that includes fieldwork, research, writing papers, or more. Experience can also be beneficial in gaining acceptance to a graduate degree program. Some of the top internships for undergraduates students in 2022 include:

4. Get a master’s degree

A master’s degree program is where you might specialize in a particular branch of zoology and generally assist research professors in their specialties as teacher’s assistants or research assistants. Master’s programs may consist of a thesis or non-thesis option. 

5. Get a doctoral degree

If you are interested in teaching at the university level, or you want to conduct your own independent research, you will most likely need a doctorate in zoology. Zoologists focus on a specific sub-discipline of zoology while working on their doctorate. It is important to apply to doctorate programs at universities where at least one professor is specializing in your desired area of study. 

6. Get certifications & stay current

It’s important to gain certifications in the field. Some top certifications include:

The Zoo & Aquarium Science certificate requires the completion of five online courses (15 academic credits) and a field requirement consisting of 40 hours of hands-on experience as an employee, intern, or volunteer at an approved institution.

Zoology is a research-oriented field where new findings and trends are emerging all the time. To stay up with what’s happening in the field, read zoology articles from Smithsonian Magazine, The Scientist, Science Daily, and others.

7. Join zoology associations

Zoology association websites offer a wealth of resources, job opportunities, internship opportunities, and more. Some of the top associations for zoologists are:

Tips for becoming a zoologist

If you are planning to become a zoologist, there are a few things you can do to get ahead of the game. Here are some tips for becoming a zoologist:

  • Gain a general understanding of zoology by reading articles, books, science journals, etc. You can also check out audiobooks or videos. Discover which branches of zoology interest you the most. 
  • Zero in on your interests. Learn everything you can about bees, reptiles, rodents, carnivores, butterflies, whales, or whatever group of animals that interests you. Find out their history, biodiversity, ecology, evolution, genetics, behavior, anatomy, and physiology.
  • Take advantage of local volunteer opportunities at a zoo, aquarium, museum, animal shelter, or other organizations in your area that study and care for animals.  
  • If you have the opportunity, attend seminars, workshops, and summer camps.
  • Make sure zoology is a good fit for you as it requires extensive academic study, dedication, and a solid foundation in biology and chemistry.
  • Talk to zoologists in your area, whether at a college or university, a government facility, or a private company. Find out all you can about what they do.
  • Keep your grades up. A high grade point average can help you get into the college or university you want to attend.
  • Get your bachelor’s degree. This is your entry ticket into a career as a zoologist. Choose the right degree for you. A bachelor of arts degree is heavier in the humanities and is a good choice if you want to focus on environmental policy and regulations. A bachelor of science is better if you want to conduct experimental research or pursue an advanced degree. 
  • Find internships that align with your interests. They will give you invaluable hands-on experience that can help you get into master’s programs or land a good job.

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