Zoologists are biologists who study animals. They often select a particular type of animal to study, and they may study an entire animal, one part or aspect of an animal, or a whole animal society or ecosystem. There are many areas of specialization from which a zoologist can choose, such as origins, genetics, characteristics, classifications, behaviors, life processes, and distribution of animals.
History of Zoologist Career
Human beings have always studied animals. Knowledge of animal behavior was a necessity to prehistoric humans, whose survival depended on their success in hunting. Those early people who hunted to live learned to respect and even revere their prey. The earliest known paintings, located in the Lascaux Caves in France, depict animals, demonstrating the vital importance of animals to early humans. Most experts believe that the artists who painted those images viewed the animals they hunted not just as a food source, but also as an important element of spiritual or religious life.
The first important developments in zoology occurred in Greece, where Alcmaeon, a philosopher and physician, studied animals and performed the first known dissections of humans in the sixth century BC. Aristotle, however, is generally considered to be the first real zoologist. Aristotle, who studied with the great philosopher Plato and tutored the world-conquering Alexander the Great, had the lofty goal of setting down in writing everything that was known in his time. In an attempt to extend that knowledge, he observed and dissected sea creatures. He also devised a system of classifying animals that included 500 species, a system that influenced scientists for many centuries after his death. Some scholars believe that Alexander sent various exotic animals to his old tutor from the lands he conquered, giving Aristotle unparalleled access to the animals of the ancient world.
With the exception of important work in physiology done by the Roman physician Galen, the study of zoology progressed little after Aristotle until the middle of the 16th century. Between 1555 and 1700, much significant work was done in the classification of species and in physiology, especially regarding the circulation of blood, which affected studies of both animals and humans. The invention of the microscope in approximately 1590 led to the discovery and study of cells. In the 18th century, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus developed the system of classification of plants and animals that is still used.
Zoology continued to develop at a rapid rate, and in 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which promoted the theory of natural selection, revolutionized the way scientists viewed all living creatures, and gave rise to the field of ethology, the study of animal behavior. Since that time, zoologists throughout the world have made innumerable advances.
In the past century, the rapid development of technology has changed zoology and all sciences by giving scientists the tools to explore areas that had previously been closed to them. Computers, submersibles, spacecraft, and tremendously powerful microscopes are only a few of the means that modern zoologists have used to bring new knowledge to light. In spite of these advances, however, mysteries remain, questions go unanswered, and species remain undiscovered.
Zoologist Job Description
Although zoology is a single specialty within the field of biology, it is a vast specialty that includes many major subspecialties. Some zoologists study a single animal or a category of animals, whereas others may specialize in a particular part of an animal’s anatomy or study a process that takes place in many kinds of animals. A zoologist might study single-cell organisms, a particular variety of fish, or the behavior of groups of animals such as elephants or bees.
Many zoologists are classified according to the animals they study. For example, entomologists are experts on insects, ichthyologists study fish, herpetologists specialize in the study of reptiles and amphibians, mammalogists focus on mammals, and ornithologists study birds. Embryologists, however, are classified according to the process that they study. They examine the ways in which animal embryos form and develop from conception to birth.
Within each primary area of specialization there is a wide range of subspecialties. An ichthyologist, for example, might focus on the physiology, or physical structure and functioning, of a particular fish; on a biochemical phenomenon such as bioluminescence in deep-sea species; on the discovery and classification of fish; on variations within a single species in different parts of the world; or on the ways in which one type of fish interacts with other species in a specific environment. Others may specialize in the effects of pollution on fish or in finding ways to grow fish effectively in controlled environments in order to increase the supply of healthy food available for human consumption.
Some zoologists are primarily teachers, while others spend most of their time as researchers, performing original research. Teaching jobs in universities and other facilities are probably the most secure positions available, but zoologists who wish to do extensive research may find such positions restrictive. Even zoologists whose primary function is research, however, often need to do some teaching in the course of their work, and almost everyone in the field has to deal with the public at one time or another. As Dr. R. Grant Gilmore, a fish ecologist who is a senior scientist and former director of marine science at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, says, “In marine science, it’s a public day, too. You do get reporters calling about odd things all the time. That happens. People don’t realize that, but you end up going before the public eye whether you want to or not.”
Students often believe that zoological scientists spend most of their time in the field, observing animals and collecting specimens. In fact, most researchers spend no more than two to eight weeks in the field each year. Zoologists spend much of their time at a computer or on the telephone. Speaking of his daily activities, Dr. Gilmore says, “Getting up and starting with correspondence is, I think, number one. We communicate with colleagues all the time, and with the young people wanting to get into the field, and that’s one thing we try to get out right away. We try to get letters and telephone calls returned. That’s another thing. I think most people think they’re going to be out in the boat, diving. No. You communicate. You communicate with the granting agencies, people that are going to support you. You communicate with the people that are going to work for you, or students. There’s an awful lot of that going on. Part of my day, two or three hours, is devoted to that, and that alone. And then it’s a joy to get to your data.”
It is often the case that junior scientists spend more time in the field than do senior scientists, who study specimens and data collected in the field by their younger colleagues. Senior scientists spend much of their time coordinating research, directing younger scientists and technicians, and writing grant proposals or soliciting funds in other ways.
Raising money is an extremely important activity for zoologists who are not employed by government agencies or major universities. The process of obtaining money for research can be time consuming and difficult. Dr. Gilmore, an expert fund-raiser, views it as the most difficult part of his job. Good development skills can also give scientists a flexibility that government- funded scientists may lack. Government money is sometimes available only for research in narrowly defined areas that may not be those that a scientist wishes to study. A zoologist who wants to study a particular area may seek his or her own funding in order not to be limited by government restrictions.
Zoologist Career Requirements
To prepare for a career in zoology, make sure to get a well-rounded high school education. Although a solid grounding in biology and chemistry is an absolute necessity, you should remember that facility in English will also be invaluable. Writing monographs and articles, communicating with colleagues both orally and in writing, and writing persuasive fund-raising proposals are all activities at which scientists need to excel. You should also read widely, not merely relying on books on science or other subjects that are required by the school. The scientist-in-training should search the library for magazines and journals dealing with areas that are of personal interest. Developing the habit of reading will help to prepare you for the massive amounts of reading involved in research and keeping up with the latest developments in the field. Computer skills are also essential, since most zoologists not only use the computer for writing, communication, and research, but they also use various software packages to perform statistical analyses.
Dr. R. Grant Gilmore recommends that college students who are interested in zoology avoid specializing at the undergraduate level. “I would say the best bet is to get a good liberal arts degree and emphasize the sciences. If you’re interested in biology, emphasize the biological sciences. And then, your graduate level is when you really make up your mind which direction you’re going to go. But if you have the aptitude for the sciences, I think you should try a number of the different sciences. Just play the field when you can,” he says.
A bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement to work as a zoologist; advanced degrees are needed for research or administrative work. Academic training, practical experience, and the ability to work effectively with others are the most important prerequisites for a career in zoology.
Success in zoology requires tremendous effort. It would be unwise for a person who wants to work an eight-hour day to become a zoologist, since hard work and long hours (sometimes 60 to 80 hours per week) are the norm. Also, although some top scientists are paid extremely well, the field does not provide a rapid route to riches. A successful zoologist finds satisfaction in work, not in a paycheck. The personal rewards, however, can be tremendous. The typical zoologist finds his or her work satisfying on many levels.
A successful zoologist must be patient and flexible. A person who cannot juggle various tasks will have a difficult time in a job that requires doing research, writing articles, dealing with the public, teaching students, soliciting funds, and keeping up with the latest publications in the field. Flexibility also comes into play when funding for a particular area of study ends or is unavailable. A zoologist whose range of expertise is too narrowly focused will be at a disadvantage when there are no opportunities in that particular area. A flexible approach and a willingness to explore various areas can be crucial in such situations, and too rigid an attitude may lead a zoologist to avoid studies that he or she would have found rewarding.
An aptitude for reading and writing is a must for any zoologist. A person who dislikes reading would have difficulty keeping up with the literature in the field, and a person who cannot write or dislikes writing would be unable to write effective articles and books. Publishing is an important part of zoological work, especially for those who are conducting research.
Zoologist Career Path
One of the best ways to find out if you are suited for a career as a zoologist is to talk to zoologists and find out exactly what they do. Contact experts in your field of interest. If you are interested in birds, find out whether there is an ornithologist in your area. If there is not, find an expert in some other part of the country. Read books, magazines, and journals to find out whom the experts are. Do not be afraid to write or call people and ask them questions.
One good way to meet experts is to attend meetings of professional organizations. If you are interested in fish, locate organizations of ichthyologists by searching in the library or on the Internet. If you can, attend an organization’s meeting and introduce yourself to the attendees. Ask questions and learn as much as you can.
Try to become an intern or a volunteer at an organization that is involved in an area that you find interesting. Most organizations have internships, and if you look with determination for an internship, you are likely to find one.
Zoologists are employed by a wide variety of institutions, not just zoos. Many zoologists are teachers at universities and other facilities, where they may teach during the year while spending their summers doing research. A large number of zoologists are researchers; they may be working for nonprofit organizations (requiring grants to fund their work), scientific institutions, or the government. Of course, there are many zoologists who are employed by zoos, aquariums, and museums. While jobs for zoologists exist all over the country, large cities that have universities, zoos, and museums will provide far more opportunities for zoologists than in rural areas.
Though it is possible to find work with a bachelor’s degree, it is likely that you will need to continue your education to advance further in the field. Competition for higher paying, high-level jobs among those with doctoral degrees is fierce; as a result, it is often easier to break into the field with a master’s degree than it is with a Ph.D. Many zoologists with their master’s degree seek a midlevel job and work toward a Ph.D. on a part-time basis.
According to Dr. R. Grant Gilmore, the best way to get your first job in zoology is through people you know. “Make as many personal contacts as possible. And try to get a qualified scientist to help you; someone who really knows the field and knows other people. If your adviser doesn’t, try to find one who does,” he says. “It’s so competitive right now that the personal contact really makes a difference.”
You will be ahead of the game if you have made contacts as an intern or as a member of a professional organization. It is an excellent idea to attend the meetings of professional organizations, which generally welcome students. At those meetings, introduce yourself to the scientists you admire and ask for their help and advice. Gilmore says, “I see too many students these days hesitating to go up to that renowned scientist and talk to him. Just go up and carry on a conversation. They seem to be afraid to do that. I think that’s a big mistake.”
Don’t be shy, but be sure to treat people with respect. Ultimately, it’s the way you relate to other people that determines how your career will develop. Says Gilmore, “I don’t care what GPA you have. I don’t care what SAT score you have or GRE score you have. That does not make one bit of difference. Everybody has high scores these days. It’s the way you present yourself, your interests, the way you act. And that personal contact that makes all the difference.”
Higher education and publishing are two of the most important means of advancing in the field of zoology. The holder of a Ph.D. will make more money and have a higher status than a zoologist with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. The publication of articles and books is important for both research scientists and professors of zoology. A young assistant professor who does not publish cannot expect to become a full professor with tenure, and a research scientist who does not publish the results of his or her research will not become known as an authority in the field. In addition, the publication of a significant work lets everyone in the field know that the author has worked hard and accomplished something worthwhile.
Because zoology is not a career in which people typically move from job to job, people generally move up within an organization. A professor may become a full professor; a research scientist may become known as an expert in the field or may become the head of a department, division, or institution; a zoologist employed by an aquarium or a zoo may become an administrator or head curator. In some cases, however, scientists may not want what appears to be a more prestigious position. A zoologist who loves to conduct and coordinate research, for example, may not want to become an administrator who is responsible for budgeting, hiring and firing, and other tasks that have nothing to do with research.
A study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers determined that in 2005 beginning salaries averaged $31,258 for holders of bachelor’s degrees in biological science (including zoologists).
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual wage for biological scientists in 2005 was $52,050. Salaries ranged from less than $32,250 a year to more than $85,000 a year, depending on the zoologist’s education and experience.
The benefits that zoologists receive as part of their employment vary widely. Employees of the federal government or top universities tend to have extensive benefit packages, but the benefits offered by private industry cover a wide range, from extremely generous to almost nonexistent.
There is much variation in the conditions under which zoologists work. Professors of zoology may teach exclusively during the school year or may both teach and conduct research. Many professors whose school year consists of teaching spend their summers doing research. Research scientists spend some time in the field, but most of their work is done in the laboratory. There are zoologists who spend most of their time in the field, but they are the exceptions to the rule.
Zoologists who do field work may have to deal with difficult conditions. A gorilla expert may have to spend her time in the forests of Rwanda; a shark expert may need to observe his subjects from a shark cage. For most people in the field, however, that aspect of the work is particularly interesting and satisfying.
Zoologists spend much of their time corresponding with others in their field, studying the latest literature, reviewing articles written by their peers, and making and returning phone calls. They also log many hours working with computers, using computer modeling, performing statistical analyses, recording the results of their research, or writing articles and grant proposals.
No zoologist works in a vacuum. Even those who spend much time in the field have to keep up with developments within their specialty. In most cases, zoologists deal with many different kinds of people, including students, mentors, the public, colleagues, representatives of granting agencies, private or corporate donors, reporters, and science writers. For this reason, the most successful members of the profession tend to develop good communication skills.
Zoologist Career Outlook
According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, job opportunities for biological scientists should grow at an average rate through 2014. Competition for good positions—especially research positions that require a Ph.D.—is high.
Those with a bachelor’s or master’s degree will face less competition due to a larger number of available positions, especially in nonresearch areas. Growth in the biological sciences should continue to increase in the next decade, spurred partly by the need to analyze and offset the effects of pollution on the environment.
Those who are most successful in the field in the future are likely to be those who are able to diversify. Dr. R. Grant Gilmore, who believes that the need for well-trained zoologists will increase in the next century, advises those entering the field to stay open-minded, maintain a wide range of contacts, and keep an eye out for what is occurring in related fields. “There is a danger in science today. People become so narrowly focused that it endangers their future. There’s an ecological concept which I like to use that says ‘Diversity is stability.’ If you put all your marbles in one basket and somebody tips that basket, you’re done for. Keep an open mind and keep open contacts.”
For More Information:
- American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK)
- American Institute of Biological Sciences
- Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)
- Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology