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How to Become a Zoologist

Majors Overview January 14, 2013

Zoologists study living organisms and focuses specifically on animals. Their areas of study may include specific species of animals or their behaviors, population interactions, and several species within a certain ecosystem. Their work involves the collection and analysis of data in outdoor environments and laboratories. While some zoologists select research work or become teachers in universities, many others seek work with federal agencies that proclaim concern for wildlife, but some seek employment at zoos.

Schools offer both undergraduate and graduate degree programs majoring in zoology. Entry level jobs require job seekers to possess a minimum qualification of a bachelor degree; however, an aspiring zoologist who seeks a higher-level position with higher wages and responsibilities should aim for a master degree. Positions that involve development of plans for management or conservation and performance of original research require a Ph.D. degree from aspiring job seekers. Students enrolled in degree programs can gain hands on experience by completing research and participating in courses that form part of the program. The key skills a zoologist needs for a successful career in the field include skills in areas such as writing, active learning, decision making, complex problem solving, critical thinking, and science. Prospective zoologists are also expected to have computer skills, including knowledge of scientific software used in the analysis of data; in addition, word processing software and spreadsheets (such as MS-Word and Excel) (sources: O Net OnLine; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

In this article, we will look at the various steps a prospective zoologist should take in order to pursue their career.

Stage One: Completing a Bachelor’s Degree Program in Zoology

At some schools, students enrolled in bachelor degree courses can major in zoology while at other schools; students may not be able to specialize in the field. Mathematics, physics, chemistry and general biology are among the core subjects taught in most bachelor degree programs. In some programs, organismic and molecular biology are treated as separate specializations. Prospective zoologists can also consider specializations in zoo and aquarium science, animal behavior, genetics, ecology, or marine biology. These specializations are based on students selection for specific elective courses. A candidate who has completed a bachelor degree program can aspire to be an entry level wildlife biologist or zoologist. Once they have gained some experience, the candidate can try for a higher-level position. Organizations that employ entry level wildlife biologists and zoologists sometimes involve these employees in research work.  If a candidate wants to perform independent and original research work; they will need to complete a graduate degree program.

Participation in internships and volunteer work will not only earn college credit, but allow students to network in work settings that will be beneficial later in their career. It may be difficult to get an internship; students may have to settle for volunteer work initially that could prepare them for possible internship participation. Participants in some internship programs may receive a paycheck or stipend depending on the company.

Stage Two: Getting Employed with a Bachelor Degree

This is an optional step because some may choose to enter a graduate program immediately after graduating from a bachelor degree program. This is an option for those who do not want to wait for a job till they have completed a master degree program. Gaining professional connections along with experience are advantages while doing some work in the field before seeking admission to a graduate degree program. Some may choose to continue working rather than go on to earn a master degree. While zoos are potential employers for zoologists, these professionals are different from zookeepers. Zookeepers take care of animals in a zoo and focus on feeding them, a zoologist’s work involves research on animals. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service among other federal agencies are other potential employers of zoologists, as are conservation organizations.

Stage Three: Completing a Graduate Degree Program in Zoology

Coursework related to graduate and doctoral degree programs in zoology generally cover similar topics as a bachelor degree program. However, bachelor degree programs are not as advanced as graduate programs, which are delivered through a seminar-like format and place greater emphasis on research. Students are given thesis and non-thesis choices in a graduate degree program; the non-thesis program will involve taking an exam instead of participating in a research project. A doctoral program focuses on a thesis project where original research has to be completed and recorded and written about by students. They also have to make an oral defense about the research by addressing faculty members and peers. Some specific research topics could focus on foraging behavior of wolf spiders, or the effect of nutrient availability on phytoplankton communities.

Stage Four: Seeking Work with a Graduate Degree

Once a student has completed a graduate degree program in zoology, they may apply for a higher-level position offering a bigger paycheck and involving more research opportunities. Doctoral degree holders can target research and teaching jobs. Doctoral research in zoology can revolve around providing greater depth of knowledge about an animal species or focus on development of new plans and ideas relating to the conservation of some other species.

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