CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a zoologist.
Is becoming a zoologist right for me?
The first step to choosing a career is to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursuing the career. You don’t want to waste your time doing something you don’t want to do. If you’re new here, you should read about:
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For prospective zoologists, high school is the time during which to lay a strong career foundation. A focus on biology and chemistry and gaining practical experience by volunteering at zoos, aquariums, or animal sanctuaries will pay dividends at later educational stages.
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. The biology requirement is sometimes divided into courses in molecular and organismal biology. If specialization is permitted or required, options are marine biology, ecology, genetics, animal behavior, or zoo and aquarium science. By taking certain elective courses students may be permitted to create a custom-made specialization in the subject.
Bachelor’s programs may offer both a Bachelor of Arts (BA) and a Bachelor of Science (BSc). The BSc is the preferred degree for those considering earning a Master’s and/or Ph.D.
A Bachelor’s in zoology generally opens doors to entry-level and some mid-level positions. It may be sufficient to obtain an assistant research post. However, more advanced roles in applied research typically call for a Master’s degree.
Volunteering / Internships / Employment
While working towards a Bachelor’s it is wise to seek out volunteer opportunities, co-op programs, and internships, which may count for college credit. They will most definitely provide experience in writing research papers and proposals; offer networking connections; and possibly lead to employment or prove to be beneficial in gaining acceptance to a graduate degree program.
Master’s Degree (optional)
Master’s programs in zoology consist of coursework that is similar in subject matter to that of a Bachelor’s program; however, graduate-level studies are, of course, more advanced and they also offer a thesis or non-thesis option.
Some Master’s programs involve conducting extensive research and completing a thesis, while others are coursework-based and require that students pass an exam instead of completing a research project.
Doctorate Degree (optional)
For zoologists who wish to teach at the university level or who are primarily interested in conducting independent research, earning a doctorate degree is the best option. Research at this level is used to develop new ideas and plans for conservation of certain animal species.
Completing a Ph.D. dissertation is the most likely route to focusing one’s career in a specific sub-discipline. This requires carrying out original research, recording data, writing about findings, and orally defending the research to peers and department faculty members. It is important to look for universities that are home to professors specializing in the desired area of study. Examples of research dissertations include wolf spider foraging behavior, toxicity effects of certain chemicals on rainbow trout, and the effects of nutrient availability on phytoplankton communities.
Stay up to date
Zoology is a particularly research-oriented field. It is therefore necessary to stay current on new findings and trends. The Journal of Animal Ecology, Animal Behaviour, and Mammal Review consistently publish articles related to the field.
The Zoological Association of America (ZAA) accredits professional zoological facilities. Its major pillars are conservation, education, and research. The Association conducts animal ambassador programs, classroom education, and comprehensive work with wildlife management professionals around the globe. Its programs involve research in behavioral sciences and genetics and the exchange of information and training in the areas of husbandry, nutrition, best management practices, and veterinary care.
The Wildlife Society facilitates networking of wildlife professionals through magazines, journals, an e-newsletter, an annual conference, and working groups. It also administers professional certification for wildlife biologists.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a network of more than six thousand zoo and aquarium professionals and organizations, offers animal management information, business benchmarking data, conference proceedings, grants, and more.
How to become a Zoologist
Aspiring zoologists should start planning their career in high school by volunteering at zoos, animal shelters, kennels, and aquariums. Any exposure to working with animals will smooth the transition to studying and working in the field.
Most positions zoology require a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree in zoology, biology, wildlife biology, or ecology. Coursework generally includes anatomy, wildlife management, cellular biology, botany, physics, and chemistry. In addition, prospective zoologists should make mathematics, statistics, and computer science part of their curricula, as most jobs involve complex data analysis and the use of geographical information systems and modeling software.
Participation in internships, co-op work study programs, and undergraduate research opportunities relevant to the field is also recommended. The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are among the state and federal agencies which periodically have volunteer openings. These hands-on experiences help students with selection of a concentration or specialty and often enhance employment prospects or admission to graduate school.
A Master’s degree is typically needed for higher-level positions, and a Ph.D. is required for most leadership roles in research and for university teaching appointments. Because competition in the zoology job market is strong, even entry-level positions may go to candidates with a graduate degree.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that in addition to the formal coursework specific to a zoology degree, zoologists need advanced skills in communication, report writing, critical thinking, problem solving, and public speaking. Observational talents are of particular importance because it is imperative that zoologists notice even very slight changes in an animal’s appearance or behavioral characteristics. Abilities in each of these areas prove to be invaluable when zoologists apply for grants, deliver presentations, and advocate for changes in public policy that impact the environment.