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According to Webster's, a zoologist is a biologist that specializes in the study of animals. While this definition seems clear-cut, it leaves a lot to the imagination. Part of the problem is that the science includes the entire animal kingdom, from bread mold to manatees, and includes a vast array of disciplines.

Degrees in zoology and animal biology prepare students for work in a variety of fields, ranging from the most particular research (comparative endocrinology, anyone?) to the development of conservation strategies and wildlife management. As a whole, applicants must value exploration and be prepared to follow through on independent study, often guided by but not managed by a faculty member that shares your research interests.

Like most life sciences, graduate programs in zoology follow an open and collaborative plan that is normally flexible according to the interests of the individual student. Graduates enter the workforce with a base of preparation for a wide variety of careers--from hands-on disciplines like zookeepers, naturalists, or veterinarians to laboratory-focused careers in ecology, ornithology, or, for the strong-of-constitution, parisitology. Careers are not just found in the private sector. Zoologists are employed in federal and state organizations and can have a lot of say in policy decisions stretching from public health issues to practical national conservation strategies.

Degree Information

Most graduate schools with a Zoology Department offer interdepartmental programs leading to M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. M.S. degrees are completed by conducting original research spanning two to three years. Ph.D. degrees, offered to those who already hold an M.S. in Zoology or related areas, are generally completed in five years. Programs are normally very flexible and designed in accordance to each student’s professional goals. Dissertations are required, and students must work closely with advising committees in planning and researching topics.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Degree Program

  • Are you an independent thinker who enjoys following lines of investigation?
  • Do you communicate well with peers, faculty, and the general public?
  • Do you have strong observation skills?
  • Does the school you’re considering have faculty experienced in your areas of interest?
  • Does the program offer a mix of lectures, field studies, and laboratory classes?

Career Overview

Zoologists work in both the public eye and behind closed doors. They generally focus on one aspect of study such as entomology (insects), ethology (animal behavior), or herpetology (reptiles), and work to increase scientific knowledge and develop practical applications based on their research. Possible professions include studying animals in their natural surroundings to improve the conditions of those in captivity, devising methods of population management, lecturing or taking faculty positions at universities, or educating the public about wildlife awareness.

Career/Licensing Requirements

Educational requirements for zoological fields vary but often include at least a four-year degree in zoology or biology as well as experience with animals and laboratory research.

Salary Information

The average starting salary for zoologists is $28,000, increasing to $36,000 after five years. Depending on your education and experience, salaries can range to $50,000 to $70,000.

Related Links

The American Zoo and Aquarium Association
Links to job opportunities, conferences, and professional training opportunities.

Encyclopedia Smithsonian
Fun facts about invertebrate and vertebrate zoology focusing on the collections housed at the Smithsonian.

The Journal of Arachnology online

The Center for North American Herpetology