So you want to be a zoologist…

15 03 2012

I often get asked about what a student should concentrate on if they want to become a zoologist. I find this a very tricky question, because zoology is a very wide discipline, with subfields of it often not having much to do with each other. The lists here reflect my own bias as someone interested only in systematics and evolution, and ecology (the latter unrelated to the previous two).

Note that I’m not including typical obligatory courses – evolution, ecology, biochem, genetics, etc. Just courses that are usually (in my experience) offered as optional or specialisation modules, or that you might not consider as essential. It’s aimed at first-year bio students, but I see no reason why high-school students can’t begin their studies early (as I did, but mostly because I hated school, not out of ambition).

The list is not comprehensive; if you have any other ideas, comment/e-mail and I’ll consider.

All Zoology

Physics: I cannot stress this enough. A knowledge of classical physics goes a long way towards making the various contrivances that animals have more understandable. Optics for the more complex visual systems; mechanics for locomotion types and biomechanics; waves for audio systems. You don’t have to go the mathematical route (I don’t), just an intuitive understanding of such things.

Organismic Biology: Take as many as you can. Even if it’s not your taxon of interest, you should endeavour to have as wide a grasp of the animal kingdom as possible. Usually, an invertebrate zoology course is more than enough for this (vertebrate zoology is limited by the fact that they have no diversity, but it also doesn’t harm to take one); but if you find specialised ones (biology of mammals, of insects, of Crustacea, etc.), all the better. Also take as many courses on individual systems (there will often be one on nervous systems, for example).

Cladistics: You must learn about cladistics. You will definitely learn about molecular phylogenetics since it’s in vogue, but a knowledge of classical methods will be much more useful to you. I guarantee it. *bias alert*

Palaeozoology: Don’t even think you can study modern animals without knowing their evolutionary history. For general zoology, a simple evolution of animals series of lectures is enough, or evolution of mammals, insects, whatever your taxon of interest is.


Neuroethology: A specialised course in this is critical; while it may be touched on in a general ethology or ecology course, neuroethology is, in my opinion, a field that anyone interested in animal ecology should have a grasp of – how animals perceive their environment and react to it.

Zoogeography: These are specialised courses in animal biogeography and dispersal. Take them.

Ecology of xyz: Where xyz is a geographical area. Take as many as you can; similar to the organismic biology, you should strive to know as many different ecosystems as possible, to get different insights into a system you will study in the future (I know that my experiences from Germany are pretty useful to me here in Cyprus, even though the ecosystems are very different).

Statistics: Goes without saying. Don’t just take the typical “stats for biologists” courses. Dig deeper, the effort is worth it.

Conservation: Even if conservation isn’t your interest, conservation biologists often have some good ideas and are the most well-versed people in the specific ecology of their animal groups/ecosystems. So I recommend conservation biology courses, because the amount of knowledge you get is really quite valuable.


Programming: Learn some programming languages. R, Python, Perl, and/or C are my choices. They will make your life easier. Even if you can’t learn a new language, at least know how to work a command line.

Maths: Many systematists fall into the trap of making a checklist and copying the methods from papers, without thinking of what they’re doing. This is the primary reason for a paper being full of shit. You have to understand the algorithms, why you’re doing this analysis instead of that, what a bootstrap really is, etc. Or else you can never ever hope to properly interpret your trees.

History: While the history of biology is interesting, thats not what I’m talking about. It’s more the methods historians of biology use. This is so you avoid synonymies and can identify when a hypothesis you propose was actually proposed by Herpaderp in 1947 and you just brought it back from the dead. Related with this is a good knowledge of libraries and archives, and the ability to conduct searches in ancient documents written on paper (how quaint!). The ability to understand written Western European languages is also useful. Many ancient texts were written in Latin, French, Italian, even Spanish. You don’t have to be fluent in the language, just be able to parse the sentences.

Taxonomy: Some will scold me for mixing these two together, but I must recommend a course in taxonomic principles and rules. At the very least, it will teach you how to get a proper taxon sampling and how to properly describe any new species your systematic analyses might bring up.

Morphology: Just to counteract the molecular phylogenetics you will most likely have shovelled down your throat. Morphological phylogenetics is regaining ground nowadays, and we need to push for it to become commonplace again. Morphometrics is also recommended.

Palaeontology: Confucius say, “Systematist who ignore fossil record is a moron.” True story. As a systematist, your job is to figure out the evolutionary history of your taxon, and the only tangible evidence of it is the fossil record. Take a palaeontology course to find out all the pitfalls and dangers of palaeontological data (biases, etc.) and you will be much better equipped to do your job; make sure basic geology is included (often the first 2 lectures are basic geology and sedimentology). Historical Geology would be a natural companion, to know in what kind of environment the animals were living in.

Palaeobiology: This is a subdiscipline of palaeontology, the one that investigates evolutionary patterns in the fossil record (e.g. those species curves through time). I recommend it so that you can integrate palaeobiological methods with your analysis; the potential is then there to not only uncover the history and relationships of your taxa, but also to say something about evolution in general.



14 responses

17 10 2012

Hi. I’m a sophomore in high school right now & I’m not doing so well in biology right now & I’m thinking about going into zoology or marine biologist. Would I have to be good at biology to do these jobs?
Thank you!

17 10 2012

Blunt answer: yes, definitely. But there’s two sides to this.

1) Most universities have limited places for biology students, so you should try to get above average grades in school biology so that you can get accepted into a biology program (and from there, you can start specialising in zoology and marine bio).

2) I don’t know the details of what you’re learning in school, but chances are it’s boring and irrelevant to pure zoology and marine biology (lots of biochemistry and cell biology, little ecology/zoology), so it doesn’t surprise me that you’re not doing well (I flunked most of my high school biology but still became a zoologist). So what I recommend is to look for some opportunity to volunteer at some local environmental centre or NGO or other such place (ask your teacher if they know, otherwise google or even ask your local college’s ecology department) so you can do some fieldwork. This will not only look great for your college application later, you will also learn a lot of stuff that will actually be useful for you and that you will not learn in school. Not only raw information, but also things like how zoologists/marine biologists work, what they do, etc. It’ll also help you make your mind up if you really want to continue to do that in university.

So, summary: You have to get through the useless stuff they’re making you learn in biology now so you will be able to do zoology and marine biology later.

PS: If there’s any parts of biology that you’re really not understanding, and you can’t find any help or tutoring or websites, feel free to ask, my e-mail’s in the About Me section :)

20 06 2013
Stefan Nichols

Hello, I have just graduated from high school and for the longest I’ve wanted to be a zoologist. I already plan to attend a junior college to save money for my first two years and then transfer to a university that’s best suitable for a major in zoology. The problem is YES I love learning about animals, but at the same time I want to be able to live comfortably also. They say you shouldn’t do it for the pay because if you enjoy the job then you would enjoy life as it is, which is understandable; I just also have dreams of living in a nice city. Now its obvious I wont be starting out making 50,000 a year, I just want to know which jobs precisely in the zoology field pays the highest salary and how much school exactly I would need to accomplish that goal. I would definitly work for the government but im not sure how that works. If you have any answers that would be so great. Thanks


20 06 2013

Completely understandable – take it from my personal experience that doing science without getting paid is a lose-lose situation ;)

Zoology is mostly an academic discipline, but academia doesn’t pay much until you get to the postdoc and professor level.

For money, the “easiest” path is to specialise in animal ecology and get a job for the government environmental agency, or at an environmental consultancy that gets hired by the government. Your job would consist mostly of doing inventories of all the species found in an area, figure out where and when they’re active. That also opens the way for a lot of research, all funded by the government, and ample opportunities to discover new species.

I’ve seen many who get into such jobs with just a Bachelor’s or Master’s. The higher your qualification, the better your job – a BSc. or MSc. will probably only get you a technician position, while a PhD will get you a supervisor or other leadership position.

A field that is only going to get bigger in the coming years is pharmacozoology. Stealing chemicals produced by animals (toxins, defence chemicals, whatever) and using them as bases for drugs and medicine. If you specialise in biochemistry/pharmacology as well as zoology, you’re set for this, and it does pay well, as do all pharma jobs. My recommendation is to specialise in marine zoology, since marine animals produce much more defensive toxins than other animals. Especially sponges.

If you’re into electronic engineering and physics, bio-inspired robotics is a pretty lucrative field, but harder to get into. Taking inspiration from what natural selection has done in animals to construct and design efficient robots. You can dig around for high tech companies (or the defence agencies, this stuff is also used in weapons research…) and apply after you have a PhD in zoology, but I’m sure you will also need a heavy emphasis on engineering and physics.

Other than those, it’ll either be working at a research museum or at a university. They pay enough to be well-off once you go past the grad student level, but until then it’s a rough road.

21 06 2013

Thanks alot! I have one more question though what if I decided to work at another country? Because its kinda obvious anyway that all the more interesting animals reside on different continents. In plus I wouldnt mind going to asia or australia. totally aware of the dangers these places can pose

21 06 2013

Sure, you will always find a place, especially in the high biodiversity areas (Southeast Asia, for example). But the money is generally less there. Australia pays much better and is currently pumping a lot of money into environmental issues, so you can potentially ride that wave and get an interesting and well-paying position there. Try to see if your college or university has some sort of overseas student exchange program that you could use to go to one of these places, so you can get experience and see if it’s the kind of place you really would like to live in.

6 01 2014

Yeah but i’m only 10.

8 01 2014

what college would you recommend going to , if you want to be a zoologist

9 01 2014

At an undergraduate level, there’s no real difference between courses – differences really only appear once you get to Master’s level and over… and there, I’d have to know what kind of specialisation you’re looking to get into and I can give you recommendations.

As a general rule of thumb, the best places to study are the places that have a large reference collection, e.g. an associated natural history museum. Think Harvard and their Museum of Comparative Zoology, for example. These are places with a historical emphasis on zoology, where there is a long tradition of studying it and thus they will be geared towards producing good zoology. So when looking at colleges, look at whether they have a natural history museum or something similar associated with or as part of the university.

27 02 2014
Neon Breeze

I recently chose my GCSE’s and I did’nt choose History… I chose Geography Computing and Spanish though.. and I can speak fluent French. Will not choosing History change my chances of being a zoologist?

27 02 2014

Not at all, no need to worry. The history you learn in GCSEs is world history or European history. Nothing to do with zoology or history of science. Any history you will need, you will learn through your zoology and taxonomy courses (how to dig around past references and reconstruct the history of research into a subject). Not even taking history as a minor in university would be directly useful :)

13 05 2014
Alyssa Jones

I am graduating highschool next spring. I want to be a zoologist. Im looking into going at OSU I know they have a good vet school. Should I go there? Are there any schools you would suggest. What level degree should I get

28 06 2016
Sarah C

Hello. I am debating returning to college next year as a mature student ..I would absolutely love to study Zoology but the more I look into it the more people advise to do Ecology instead (better job prospects etc) I live in Ireland where zoological jobs are pretty much non existent unless you want to be a lecturer (which you cant do with just a bachelor’s anyway) so I am willing to move in order to study/learn.
I guess my main interest would be researching certain animals & their ecosystems etc (elephants :) ) & also conservation…basically I want to learn about how we can live with our animals without putting them in danger (ivory etc) and protecting them and their ecosystems.
Now for the question….which is the needed degree for this..ecology for the conservation aspect? Or Zoology for the mammal aspect?
Thanks in advance for any info you can share with me, all the best :)

28 06 2016

Hi Sarah, I would echo the same advice others gave to you. If you’re looking for a more stable career, ecology is the “safer” choice, especially given your interests in conservation. If you study biology, you will be be able to specialise in ecology, then zoology and conservation, especially when it comes to the large iconic mammals like elephants.

Going from the zoology route might be more limiting, in that you will learn a lot of information that will not be as useful to you as a conservationist or even as an ecologist. The crossovers between ecology and zoology will be covered whichever degree you study (e.g. behavioural biology), so unless you are really more interested in the anatomy and physiology of your favourite animals, ecology is the wiser choice.

The exception I can think of is if you find a lab where they do research into the ecology of elephants, as a specialised zoologist you will have an easier time getting hired for research there… but that’s assuming a research life is what you’re after.

Just a warning, I didn’t study in the UK or Ireland, so things may work differently there in terms of jumping between subjects.

For countries, as an Irish student you have the big EU advantage, that you can study anywhere in Europe easily. The only problem is language, but that problem is lessened after BSc. level (at least in Germany, MSc. courses and up are done in English only).

In your position, I would sign up at Trinity or University College Dublin for Ecology (or whatever is closest to that), then see if it really is the right thing for you. You may find that conservation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that you prefer the research life. Who knows :)

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