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Zoologist Job Description, Career as a Zoologist, Salary, Employment - Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesEngineering, Science, Technology, and Social Sciences

Education and Training: Doctoral degree

Salary: Median—$50,330 per year

Employment Outlook: Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Zoologists are biological scientists who study animals. They observe animals both in their natural habitats and in the laboratory in order to learn as much as possible about animal life. Zoologists study the origin and development of animal species, the habits and behavior of animals, and the interaction between animals and their environment. They also do research to learn how animal diseases develop and how traits are passed from generation to generation.

Zoologists are sometimes known as animal scientists or animal biologists. Their field is zoology, or animal biology. Like botany and microbiology, zoology is a major division of biology. Zoology is a broad field. It includes the study of animals as varied as elephants, kangaroos, and killer sharks. Zoologists work in all areas of animal life, studying both simple and complex processes. For example, a zoologist might examine the overall structure of a cat or just the microscopic cells in its brain. Zoologists study the life functions of a single animal, such as an insect, as well as the behavior of whole colonies of ants, flocks of birds, or bands of gorillas.

Zoologist studying turtles

Most zoologists are employed by colleges and universities where they teach and do research. Large numbers of zoologists work for government agencies in such areas as wildlife management, conservation, and agriculture. A few work for private companies, such as pharmaceutical companies or biological supply houses that sell animal specimens to laboratories. Some zoologists are employed by museums and zoos.

Although their jobs may differ widely, most zoologists spend at least part of their time doing research or laboratory work. They dissect and examine animal specimens. They prepare slides so that they can observe such things as diseased tissue and chemical reactions under light or electron microscopes. Since they often perform experiments with animals, many zoologists keep laboratory animals, such as mice, fruit flies, and guinea pigs. They may breed these animals, raise their offspring under controlled conditions, or test the effects of drugs on them. Some zoologists observe animals in their natural habitats. These zoologists study mating practices, aggression, life histories, and the group behavior of animals. Zoologists may make use of computerized information as well as a wide variety of special laboratory equipment and scientific methods. They are sometimes assisted by biological technicians.

Some zoologists work in zoos, where they engage in scientific studies of animal diseases and animal behavior. (© Dave G. Houser/Corbis.)

Zoologists often specialize in the study of one group of animals. For example, ichthyologists concentrate on the fish family. Some ichthyologists provide basic knowledge about fish. They classify fish according to species and study their distribution, size, and growth. They also study the behavior of fish, including migration patterns and feeding habits. Some specialize in one group of fish, such as sharks. Others work with one aspect of fish, such as their anatomy. Ichthyologists serve as fish experts on museum staffs or sometimes write books on the identification of fish. Most teach and do research in colleges and universities. Other zoologists working with fish concentrate on fish that have economic or recreational uses. These scientists are often called fishery biologists. They may work with trout in state fish hatcheries or do research on fish that have commercial uses, such as tuna, cod, or salmon. Zoologists also specialize in other groups of animals. Herpetologists, for example, are experts on reptiles, frogs, and salamanders. Entomologists study insects.

Some zoologists specialize in one area of animal life that may cover many species. Animal taxonomists, for example, identify and classify the many different species of animals. Animal physiologists examine the life processes of animals. They do research on their growth, movement, reproduction, respiration, circulation, and other functions. They also study how the environment of animals affects their life processes and functions. Embryologists focus on the early growth of animals from their beginning as a fertilized cell to their birth or hatching. There are many other kinds of zoologists.

Education and Training Requirements

You generally need a doctoral degree to become a zoologist. You should major in zoology or biology as an undergraduate. In graduate school, you may want to specialize in genetics, embryology, or another area in animal science. Graduates with a bachelor's degree can get some jobs, such as advanced biological technician, but their opportunities for advancement are limited. People who have earned a master's degree in zoology or a related field are qualified for some jobs as teachers or research assistants. You usually need a doctoral degree, however, to get a job teaching and doing research at a university or working as an administrator. It usually takes four years to earn a bachelor's degree and another one or two years to earn a master's degree. You need to go to school for an additional two or three years to receive a doctoral degree. In order to keep up with new developments in animal science, you should continue to study throughout your career.

Getting the Job

Your professors or college placement office may be able to help you find a job in zoology. You can apply directly to colleges and universities, zoos, and museums or private companies. You can also check with government agencies about getting work in research, conservation, inspection, management, or another special area. You sometimes need to pass a civil service examination to get a government job. Other sources of job openings include the classified ads in newspapers and professional journals.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Advancement opportunities are good, especially for zoologists who have a doctoral degree. Zoologists can become project leaders or research directors. Those who work in zoos and museums can become administrators or head curators. Zoologists working for the government can advance to such positions as head of a state fishery or national wildlife refuge. Zoologists employed in colleges and universities can advance to the rank of full professor. Another way that a zoologist can advance is by becoming recognized as an authority in one area of animal science. This kind of recognition generally comes to zoologists who have done important research and have published their findings in professional journals.

Employment of biological scientists in general is projected to grow about as fast as average for all occupations through 2014. There will continue to be demand for zoologists, but opportunities will be limited because of the small size of this field. However, due to public interest in preserving the environment and protecting many species of animals, federal and state governments are devoting more funds to research in animal science. The work of zoologists is also important in finding cures for diseases and improving food supplies. There will probably be openings for trained experts who can contribute to the solution of such problems. Competition for jobs teaching in universities, however, is expected to be keen.

Working Conditions

The working conditions of zoologists vary widely. Some zoologists spend much of their time in clean, well-lighted, well-equipped laboratories. Others work outdoors, observing wildlife and perhaps making do with improvised equipment. Many zoologists spend some of their time in offices and classrooms. Their working hours are generally flexible but often total more than forty hours per week. Some experiments and projects need to be observed around the clock. Therefore, zoologists may work rotating shifts. Zoologists often spend extra time attending meetings, writing up their findings, or reading to learn about the findings of other scientists.

Zoologists sometimes work independently. At other times they work as part of a scientific team. They must be able to cooperate with and communicate their ideas to other people. They should also be interested in animals and willing to spend many hours working with them or doing research on them. They need to use careful, precise methods in their work.

Where to Go for More Information

American Institute of Biological Sciences
1444 I St. NW, Ste. 200
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 628-1500

Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology
1313 Dolley Madison Blvd., Ste. 402
McLean, VA 22101
(800) 955-1236

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings for zoologists depend on their education and experience, as well as the location and the kind of job. In 2004 the median annual income of zoologists was $50,330. In 2005 zoologists who worked for the federal government in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions earned an average salary of $101,601. Benefits generally include paid holidays and vacations, insurance, and retirement plans.

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