Is becoming a behavioral ecologist right for me?

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What do behavioral ecologists do?

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How to become a Behavioral Ecologist

In addition to a passion for working with animals, becoming a behavioral ecologist requires a combination of formal education, training, and practical experience in the field of animal behavior. Here is an overview of the pathway to the career:

High School Diploma or Equivalent
Earn a high school diploma or equivalent. High school education provides a foundation in basic communication and math and organizational skills, and it lays the groundwork for further learning.

Bachelor's Degree
A bachelor’s degree in biology, ecology, zoology, animal sciences, environmental science, or a related discipline is often the first formal step towards becoming a behavioral ecologist. Coursework at the undergraduate level should include foundational courses in biology, ecology, evolution, genetics, animal behavior, statistics, and research methods. Additional courses in physiology, ethology, conservation biology, and environmental science can be beneficial.

Research Experience
Gain hands-on research experience through undergraduate research projects, internships, or volunteer positions in behavioral ecology labs, field stations, or research organizations. This experience will help you develop essential research and collaboration skills, gain basic knowledge of field and laboratory techniques, and build a strong foundation in scientific inquiry and data analysis.

Master’s Degree
While not always mandatory, a master’s in one of the disciplines referenced above is generally recommended for career advancement. Master’s programs typically include a research component, where students conduct original research, develop research skills, and gain practical experience in field and laboratory techniques.

Doctoral Degree
A relevant doctoral degree (Ph.D.) is often necessary for obtaining academic positions and leading research projects in behavioral ecology. Ph.D. programs involve advanced coursework in behavioral ecology, ecological theory, quantitative methods, research ethics, and professional development. Doctoral students are required to conduct original, independent research, develop a research proposal, complete a dissertation, and defend their findings.

Master’s and doctoral programs allow students to choose a specialization within behavioral ecology based on their interests and career goals. Among the options are foraging ecology, reproductive ecology, social ecology, conservation behavior, and cognitive ecology. For a complete list of specializations in the field, please refer to the What does a Behavioral Ecologist do? section in the career overview.

Fellowship or Postdoctoral Training (Optional)
After earning their master’s or doctoral degree, graduates may pursue a fellowship or postdoctoral position. These are temporary positions that allow graduates to work with leading researchers in the field, collaborate on interdisciplinary projects, and prepare for independent research or academic positions. Generally, fellowships and postdocs come from three sources: colleges and universities, government agencies, and foundations. However, some may be available in private industry.

Continuing Education and Research Publication
Stay informed about the latest research, methodologies, advancements, and trends in behavioral ecology and related fields. Attend workshops, conferences, and seminars to present your work, and participate in professional development and networking activities to keep your knowledge current.

Seek mentorship from experienced behavioral ecologists or professors who can provide guidance, support, and opportunities for professional development and research collaboration.

As you progress in your academic journey, aim to publish your research findings in peer-reviewed journals. Building a strong publication record and establishing yourself as a contributor to the field of behavioral ecology will enhance your credibility and visibility within the scientific community.

Certification and Professional Organizations
There isn't a specific certification widely recognized as a standard credential for behavioral ecologists. Instead, qualifications and credentials are primarily based on their educational background, research experience, and expertise in specific areas of animal behavior and ecology. There are, however, professional certifications and training programs related to skills or methodologies that behavioral ecologists might find useful, depending on their focus or specialization. Here’s a sampling:

  • Certified Ecologist (CE) – Offered by the Ecological Society of America (ESA), the CE certification recognizes professional ecologists who have demonstrated a high level of skill, knowledge, and experience in the field of ecology. This certification can be beneficial for behavioral ecologists working in ecological research, conservation, and management.
  • Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) – Offered by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS), the CAAB credential is designed for individuals who have a graduate degree in a biological or behavioral science and specialized training and experience in animal behavior.
  • Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) – The CPDT credential is offered by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) to professionals who have demonstrated knowledge and skills in dog training and behavior management through experience, education, and passing a certification examination.
  • Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) – The CDBC credential is offered by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) to professionals with a combination of education, training, and experience in animal behavior consulting, specializing in dogs and their behavior issues.
  • Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (CCBC) – The CCBC credential is also offered by the IAABC to professionals who have specialized training, education, and experience in cat behavior consulting and management of feline behavior issues.
  • Certified Horse Behavior Consultant (CHBC) – The CHBC credential is offered by the IAABC to professionals with specialized knowledge, training, and experience in horse behavior consulting and equine behavior management.
  • Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant (CPBC) – The CPBC credential is offered by the IAABC to professionals who specialize in parrot behavior consulting and management of parrot behavior issues, demonstrating expertise in avian behavior and welfare.
  • Certified Wildlife Biologist (CWB) – Offered by The Wildlife Society (TWS), the CWB credential is designed for professionals specializing in wildlife biology and management, including those involved in research, conservation, and management of wildlife populations and habitats.
  • Zookeeping and Husbandry Certifications – For behavioral ecologists working in zoos or focusing on captive animal behavior, certifications related to zookeeping, animal husbandry, or enrichment strategies may be relevant. These certifications are often provided by organizations like the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK).
  • Ethics and Compliance Training – Given the ethical considerations involved in animal research, behavioral ecologists may undergo training in research ethics, animal welfare regulations, and laboratory safety protocols. While not certifications in the traditional sense, completion of such training programs may be required by institutions or funding agencies.
  • Certifications in Research Methods and Technologies – Behavioral ecologists may pursue certifications in specific research methods, technologies, and analytical tools used in behavioral ecology, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), telemetry tracking, bioacoustics, molecular and genetic techniques, and statistical analysis software. Organizations, training providers, and professional associations often offer specialized training programs and certifications in these areas.

In addition to these certifying bodies, the following organizations also support the behavioral ecology community, providing advocacy, access to resources, and platforms for networking, information exchange and collaboration, and continuing education and professional development:

  • International Society for Behavioral Ecology (ISBE)
  • Society for Conservation Biology (SCB)
  • International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ)
  • American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB)
  • Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB)
  • European Society for Cognitive Psychology (ESCoP)