Zoologists are scientists who study the evolution, behavior, and genetics of animals, as well as their diseases and life cycles. Some choose to specialize in wildlife or environmental biologists, collecting and evaluating additional data such as migration patterns and natural dietary preferences. Zoologists may find employment at wildlife preserves or zoos, conduct or supervise environmental impact studies, or conduct research in the field or in a laboratory setting.
Education Required to Become a Zoologist
Undergraduate degrees in zoology are extremely rare. Most zoologists choose to receive their Bachelor’s degrees in biology. As part of their undergraduate studies, they typically take courses in organic chemistry and physics along with biological sciences. Creating computer simulations that model growth or migration patterns may be part of the zoologist’s career, so many opt for advanced math and computer science classes as well. A Bachelor’s of Science degree in biology is sufficient for teaching high school classes in most districts, and may be adequate for jobs as research technicians or inspector.
For those serious about becoming zoologists, a master’s degree is a must. This normally requires an additional two years of college after receiving a bachelor’s degree. Most employers filling positions in management or applied research require a minimum of a master’s in zoology or a sub-specialty, such as biochemistry or microbiology. Beginning with this degree, students may choose to specialize, focusing on one particular animal, species, or environment.
Zoologists who wish to conduct independent field studies or manage university research projects, a Ph.D. is typically required. Most universities require teachers to have a doctorate to be considered for full-time or permanent status.
A zoologist can find himself working in many different environments, depending on the career path he has chosen. For example, a zoologist conducting field research in the Amazonian rain forest will be under different, and far more primitive, conditions than a zoologist investigating the encroachment of wildlife into suburban areas. A zoologist who chooses to concentrate on laboratory research will typically have comfortable, climate-controlled surroundings, although protective clothing may sometimes be required.
As of May, 2009, the U. S. Department of Labor reported fewer than 18,000 zoologists and wildlife biologists were employed nationwide. Of this number, state governments were the largest employers, providing more than one-third of the positions. The federal government, with approximately 4,500 jobs, was second. There were slightly fewer than 2,000 zoologists working in management, technical, and scientific consulting. Research and development accounted for almost 1,200 position, while local governments employed fewer than 1,000 zoologists.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
On the state level, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming had the highest concentration of zoologists and wildlife biologists when taken as a percentage of all occupations.
The five cities with the highest percentage of zoologists and wildlife biologists, in descending order, were Olympia, Washington; Corvallis, Oregon; Fairbanks, Alaska; Lewiston, Idaho; and Wenatchee, Washington.
Zoologists and wildlife biologists may also be employed by private corporations to conduct research or provide environmental impact studies for proposed developments. Grants from universities, organizations, and governments may fund domestic as well as international field studies.
Salaries for Zoologists
The salary ranges for zoologists vary greatly, depending on the employer, position, and area of expertise. Overall, the median salary for all zoologists was $60,670 per the May 2009 U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.*
The best paying employer was the federal government, which paid a median salary of $75,690 annually. Those in consulting services earned a mean annual salary of $64,530, while zoologists involved in research and development had a median salary of $60,560 per year.*
Maryland was the best-paying state government, with its 230 zoologists earning an annual median salary of $91,050. Second was Rhode Island, which employed 30 zoologists earning a mean salary of $77,440 annually.*
California provided employment for 2,360 zoologists and wildlife biologists at a median annual salary of $73,160. Connecticut and Louisiana each had 80 employees in this field, paying annual mean salaries of $71,990 and $69,150, respectively.*
The five metropolitan areas providing the highest salaries were Bethesda/Gaithersburg, Maryland, paying an annual median salary of $100,560; Washington, D.C./Alexandria, Virginia, with a median salary of $98,210 annually; Barnstable Town, Massachusetts at $97,520; Santa Cruz/Watsonville, California, which offered an annual median wage of $90,080; and the Oakland/Hayward, California metropolitan area, where zoologists and wildlife biologists earned an annual median salary of $85,740.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
Preparing for a Career as a Zoologist
Preparing for a career in zoology can begin in high school. Students should consider taking biology, chemistry, and calculus to better prepare them for their college classes. Part-time or volunteer work at the local zoo, wildlife park, or veterinarian can provide additional insight into the animal kingdom.
At the undergraduate level, courses in biology and organic chemistry will likely be required. However, additional courses in microbiology, pathology, and genetics are helpful even if they are not required by the school’s degree plan.
Once the student has earned an undergraduate degree, it is possible to find relevant work opportunities. While pursuing a master’s degree, many students find employment as laboratory assistants or technicians at the university’s research facility or a veterinary hospital. Zoos will likely be more open to hiring (and training) students for zookeepers or tour guides. Local animal shelters may prefer students for both paid and unpaid positions to work as caretakers or to educate those seeking to adopt a pet on such matters as neutering and spaying or proper dietary requirements for the animal being adopted.