Zoologist Career Information: Becoming a Zoologist

Learn how to become a zoologist. Research the education and career requirements, training information and experience required for starting a career in zoology.

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Education Requirements for Becoming a Zoologist

Zoology is the study of living organisms, specifically animals. Zoologists may study multiple species in a certain ecosystem, population interactions, and specific species or behaviors. They collect and analyze data in labs or outdoor environments. Many conduct research and teach at universities, while others work in zoos or for federal agencies with a concern for wildlife.

Zoology degrees are available at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. A bachelor's degree is the minimum education required for jobs in the field, while a master's degree can qualify an individual for higher-level positions with more pay and responsibility. A PhD is needed for most positions involving original research and developing plans for conservation or management. The following is a list of education and skills commonly required for a career in zoology.

Common Requirements
Degree Level Bachelor's degree for most entry-level jobs; master's and PhD for most research and teaching*
Degree Field Zoology*
Experience Required experience is gained through courses and research completed as part of a degree program*
Key Skills Skills in science, critical thinking, complex problem solving, decision making, active learning, and writing ***
Computer Skills Scientific software used to analyze data, spreadsheet and word processing software (e.g. Microsoft Excel and Word)***

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*Net OnLine

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Zoology

Some bachelor's degree programs in zoology allow for specialization and others are more generalized. Core courses for most programs are general biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Sometimes the biology requirement is divided into courses in molecular and organismal biology. If specialization is allowed or required, options might be marine biology, ecology, genetics, animal behavior, or even zoo and aquarium science. Each specialization is created by taking certain elective courses in the subject.

Those with a bachelor's degree in zoology can get entry-level jobs as entry-level zoologists and wildlife biologists. Jobs like these usually start at a low-level with minimum education and experience requirements, and then job holders are allowed to apply for higher-level positions as they gain more experience. Some entry-level zoologists and wildlife biologists can be involved in the research that their employing agency or organization is involved in. However, to conduct original and independent research, such a professional would need a graduate degree.

Success Tip:

  • Get involved in volunteer work or internships. Not only does volunteering and interning possibly count for college credit, these experiences provide networking opportunities in work environments that might be relevant to future employment settings. Some internships may be difficult to obtain, so volunteer work might be done first to gain competitive experience for the desired internship. Certain internships may also offer a stipend or paycheck for participants.

Step 2: Obtain Employment with a Bachelor's Degree

This step is optional because some may choose to enter a graduate program immediately after graduating from a bachelor's program. Working in the field is a possible way to gain experience and professional connections that might be beneficial when applying for and completing a graduate degree program. Others may obtain employment and find they are content with their position and remain there with no plans on earning a more advanced degree.

While zoologists can work in zoos, it's important to note that they don't have to; zoologists are different from zookeepers, who focus on the care and feeding of zoo animals rather than animal research. Other places where zoologists can start their careers include conservation organizations and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Step 3: Earn a Graduate Degree in Zoology

Master's and PhD programs in zoology usually have coursework that is similar in subject matter to a bachelor's program, especially if they are offered through the same university. However, graduate-level courses are more advanced, focus more on research and may be offered in the form of seminars.

Master's degree programs might have a thesis and non-thesis option, with the non-thesis option possibly requiring an examination or instead of a research project. The dissertation is the main focus of a doctoral program. Students are required to conduct original research, record and write about it, and orally defend the research to peers and department faculty members. Specific examples of research conducted by graduate zoology students could include wolf spider foraging behavior, toxicity effects of certain chemicals on rainbow trout, and how nutrient availability affects phytoplankton communities.

Step 4: Work as a Zoologist with a Graduate Degree

After completing a master's degree in zoology, an individual might qualify one for a higher-level job with more pay and research opportunities. Teaching and research opportunities are open for those with doctoral degrees. Research at this level may be used to develop new ideas and plans for conservation of certain animal species or used to enhance the depth of knowledge about another species.

Success Tip:

  • Join a professional organization in the field of zoology. Many specialized branches of biology and zoology have societies and associations in which a professional in the field can be a member. As a member, one is privy to papers written by other professionals in the field, professional connections, and possibly workshops or classes for continuing education.
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