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How to become a Zoologist

Hi, Frank Indiviglio here.  I’m a herpetologist, zoologist and book author, recently retired from a career of over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo. 

 

Frank Indiviglio at the Bronx ZooProviding career advice is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work.  There are many resources available to aspiring zoologists and herpetologists, but deciding the best path to take can be a confusing process.  Today I’d like to provide some guidelines drawn from my experiences and those of my readers and colleagues on how to become a zoologist.  And as you’ll see from the face of the little fellow in the photo below, it’s great fun to get started early!

Note: Much of the following information is based on my work in zoos and museums, and the journals mentioned are oriented towards herpetology.  However, the basic principles apply to any discipline within the field of zoology.  I can also help, or refer you to others who can help, with related fields, such as ornithology, arachnology, etc.  Please post any questions you might have below.

 

Budding Zoologist with Rat Snake

Speak with People Working in the Zoology Field

Education continues to play a key role in attaining a career in zoology.  But what hampered me most – and I see this in many others who are interested in working with animals – was my shyness around teachers, professors and practicing zoologists.  Most successful colleagues of mine worked closely with their teachers and college professors, and were quick to speak to the zoologists they encountered at conferences or while visiting zoos and museums.  I’ve found that most professionals recall their own struggles, and are quick to provide advice to others.

 

Zoos and Aquariums

Zoo-keeping is a common entry point for folks wishing to work with animals.  Once employed, one can continue to work towards an advanced degree (I completed my Master’s Degree in this manner) and eventually qualify for research or related positions as a zoologist; financial support for continuing education is sometimes available at major zoos.  You’ll need a B.S. for an entry level animal-keeping job at larger zoos (in some cases, extensive experience may be substituted); an M.S. to move into other areas, and a PhD for curatorial, field research, and similar positions.

While it may be easier to rise up the ranks in smaller zoos, large well-funded institutions generally offer more career options. Zoo-keeping is a wonderful job for animal enthusiasts, and many quickly become enamored of it (myself included).  Unfortunately, salaries are abysmally low, especially given the education required, and particularly if you live in or near a large city.  Some zoos have a policy against promoting keepers to positions above the supervisory level.  However, a keeper position in a large, well-respected zoo often becomes a stepping stone to curatorial spots elsewhere.

Zoology Fieldwork - Frank Hunting Anacondas in Venezuela

Field Research

Fieldwork was a favorite of mine, but I became involved as an aside to my work as an animal keeper and supervisor.  Those who pursue fieldwork as their profession often work “from grant to grant” – not an easy route to follow, but some enjoy the lifestyle.  The Bronx Zoo and certain others employ fulltime field researchers, generally PhD’s or graduate students.

Aspiring field researchers sometimes go into fulltime teaching at universities, thereby locking in a steady paycheck, and then become involved in research, perhaps supported by the college, during the summer.

Zoologist Salary

Zoologist salaries at museums, zoos and other not-for-profit institutions are generally lower than what similarly-educated professionals earn in the private sector.  Faculty teaching or research positions at colleges and universities vary with the reputation and funding base of the institution.  However, positions with well-respected educational or research institutions can lead to lucrative employment elsewhere, and upper-level spots in such institutions can be financially rewarding.

 Federal and state governments employ zoologists in a wide variety of capacities.  Salaries vary by job title, education attained and experience, but are commensurate with those of other similarly-employed professionals.

 Experienced zoologists often supplement their income by consulting with government agencies or private companies, teaching, writing books, lecturing, free-lance field research, leading wildlife viewing tours, and similar activities.  As one gains experience, a variety of interesting opportunities usually arise.

Remember also that there are many related fields that may offer much more in the way of salary than do typical careers in zoology, including bio-medical research (medicine from frog skin, etc.), agricultural pest research, and conservation genetics.  Zoologists are also needed as researchers in most fields dealing with human physical and mental health, and many, many others that at first glance seem unrelated to the study of animals. 

Colleges for Those Interested in Zoology

The following is provided as an example of what to look for in general…please post below for information on related fields.

A major in biology or zoology is usually ideal (you can always specialize as time goes on), but individual schools may be able to provide other options …it is very important to discuss your plans with high school or college career counselors.

Please see this site for a list of colleges offering herpetology courses.  Colleges offering courses and majors in entomology and other related fields are in greater supply, and should be easy to locate…please post below if you need assistance.

Professional Zoology and Herpetological Journals

Reading professional journals was a “secret” I discovered early-on (thanks to the advice of my dear cousin, a librarian).  This habit gave me an edge over others, and continues to serve me well…and it’s very enjoyable!

While much of what you encounter may not be relevant to your interests, pursuing even the abstracts alone will give you important information, i.e. what is being done and by whom, subjects in need of further research, the types of articles likely to be published, which colleges and zoos support researchers, etc.  You may also find that interesting work is being done nearby…by following up, you may find a volunteer opportunity and make important professional connections.  It’s never too early to begin.  With so much (often questionable) information available online, much of it written in a very casual style, I believe it is very important for young people to take note of what will be required if they pursue a career in zoology.

Major professional journals are often expensive.  Please see Professional Herpetological Journals and Organizations, Part I and Part II
for descriptions of the leading herpetology journals).  However, you can keep abreast of article abstracts through a valuable, free resource – Bioone.org. Simply choose the journals that interest you and sign up for email notifications.  You’ll receive abstracts of all new articles, and have access to past editions.  Hundreds of journals, including all the leading ones, are available.

Fortunately, full issues of some newer professional journals are now available free online.  Please post below if you would like further information on these.

Volunteering

Volunteering for biology professors, field researchers, zoos, nature centers and museums can provide you with invaluable experience and connections.  Most are under-funded, and often gladly accept responsible offers of assistance.

It’s also useful to become a member of local zoos, museums and special interest groups such as birding clubs and herpetological societies.  Be sure to attend lectures given in your area of interest, and speak with the presenters if possible.  Local groups can also provide amazing opportunities to meet people and become involved in interesting projects; the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society, my favorite, is a perfect example.  Zoos and museums nearly always utilize volunteer interns (I started out at the Bronx Zoo in this way), so be sure to look into these possibilities.

Zoologist Job Listings and other Resources

The American Zoo Association job list will give you an idea of the types of positions available at zoos; field research and museum opportunities are sometimes included.

Careers in Herpetology, Part I

Careers in Herpetology, Part II

American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists: Job Listing

Center for North American Herpetology: Careers in Herpetology and Herpetoculture

Society for the Study of Reptiles and Amphibians: Careers in Herpetology

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable.  I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly.  Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

 Further Reading

Volunteer Opportunities, Field Research

Becoming a Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator

14 comments

  1. avatar

    Hi! My name is Shaan and I am 11 years old. I have a white’s tree frog and I want to be a zoologist or a herpetologist when I grow up. It would mean the world to me if you checked out my blog and gave me a few tips!

  2. avatar

    Hello Shaan,

    Great to see that you are starting out by sharing info with others; please keep me posted, and let me know if you need any ideas as time goes on.

    I enjoyed reading your blog. A few thoughts:

    Coco fiber sticks readily to insects…some folks use it with success, but intestinal blockages have been reported in several species. I usually cover that and similar substrates with sheet moss or dead leaves. If the frog adjusts to such, you can also feed in a large dish, a separate container or via feeding tongs.

    Be sure to add Calcium as well as reptivite; amount depends upon species, age, etc.

    Avoid mealworms, or use newly molted (white ) grubs; please see this article.

    Canned and freeze dried insects are a good way to add variety to the diet, but not all frogs will take via feeding tongs (White’s generally do take them). Dietary variety is vital to long term health…1-2 food items, even if supplemented with vits, are rarely sufficient. please see these articles http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatreptileblog/2010/10/07/frog-diets-nutritious-foods-for-popularly-kept-frogs-and-toads/#.Uucpo7ROmpo, http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatreptileblog/2010/12/02/frog-diets-nutritious-foods-for-popularly-kept-frogs-and-toads-part-1/#.Uucpy7ROmpo.

    Enjoy and keep up the good work, Frank

  3. avatar

    Thank you for all of the information, Frank. I am just learning and it really inspires me that a real Zoologist is giving me advice.

  4. avatar

    My pleasure..I was shy at your age, and that held me back, so keep asking me and others, and be sure to take notes on what you see and do,. best regards, Frank

  5. avatar

    Hello Mr. Indiviglio;

    Thank you so much for referring me to your blog posting. I have found many links here that will be of much use to me. I am so pleased that you are willing to take the time to help out an aspiring herpetologist/zoologist like my self and many others. I am sure you must be very busy and I don’t want to take up too much of your time but I am just so thrilled you are offering us a helping hand! I was aware that field research does not have a high salary and because of that I was considering getting my start as an exotic vet to ensure I have a stable income to support my family, but I really want to work in the field to help save our ecosystems. As a child I had dreamed of going to the rain forest to study the frogs and wild life in the area and help to save them. I still dream of doing this even now in my present life, though it may never be possible as I am a parent. So, heart breaking as it may be, I am looking for another way to offer my assistance to our animals that desperately need it now more than ever. I was considering going to school to become an exotic vet and while attending school, I want to work for the St. Louis Zoo part time until I can find my true niche. So long as you don’t mind, I would like to contact you from time to time about my plans and ask questions that may arise. I know your input will be very valuable to me. My fiance has just finished his education in the field of IT and is now looking for full time employment. Since he is now done with school except for the certification he will have to go back for from time to time, it is the perfect time for me to pursue my education and finally get the chance to live out my dream. I will be referencing your site for the links you provided us and making use of the information given there. Thank you again for all you help and advice up to this point. You have been a wonderful help to me so far!

    Sincerely;
    Ms. Moore

  6. avatar

    Hello,

    Thanks so much for the kind words, and I’m happy to hear that the information was useful to you. veterinarians play a great role in conservation today. Several on the Bx Zoo staff spend their all or part of their careers in the field, involved everything from hands-on medical intervention to research on emerging wildlife diseases, impacts of diseases that can transfer to people, etc. The Chytrid situation is one of many such cases. All major zoos employ vets on site as well, and many nteract with field vets or participate in related projects…several major zoos are or have had vets as their directors, or heading up various departments. …so it sounds like a wise plan. I could not go right into animal work due to financial concerns as well, went into law until that became possible; very useful to have a safety net, and can help you reach ultimate goals n long run,

    Please be in touch whenever you wish, enjoy, Frank

  7. avatar

    Hi Mr.Indiviglio….I m Diksha from ahmednagar,Maharashtra.m 16 years old.I love reptiles…So I wish to become a Herpetologist.For that I wish that you should guide me to become a herpetologist,means what should I do after HSC ? Which subjects I should have ? or what efforts i have to take to become a herpetologist ?

  8. avatar

    Hello Diksha,

    Glad to hear of your interest. Basic biology or zoology is important to focus on in the first 2 years of college, after that you can take courses more directly related to herpetology. If a college that offers herpetology is not available to you, you can continue with standard biology…this will still serve you well. You can take herpetology on a graduate level also (master’s, pHD). In the meantime, become in as many related activities as possible, as described in the article..volunteering with environmental groups, teachers and professors, and read, read, read! Please keep me posted and write in with any questions or ideas, enjoy, Frank

  9. avatar

    Hello Mr. Indiviglio

    I love this page. I found a lot of useful information here thanks a lot for the sharing. I have a question or maybe more of a concern. I am 29 years old currently Active Duty military but my dream always has been become a marine biologist or zoologist but I feel that by the time I finish my 20 years in the military I be 40 years old and that might be too old to start. What do you think? I would have to take all those science classes when I’m 40 years old because they are not available online due to all the labs. Do you know anybody that has start a career on one of those two fields at or around that age. Thanks a lot for you time.

  10. avatar

    Hello Luis,

    Thank you very much for your service, and for the kind words.

    A co-worker of mine started at the Bronx Zoo in his late 30’s-early 40’s, as have others elsewhere. I started a bit younger, but still “late” according to most folk’s timetables. Many biologists work well past the times others retire, because they enjoy their work…it’s all relative. I rec’d my Master’s Degree in my 40’s…my mom went back to college in her 50’s, re-entered blood lab work after a 30 year absence (when she was first in the field, computers were unknown, lab techs did not use gloves, drew blood into pipettes by mouth, and paid homeless men $5 and a shot of whiskey for blood donations!)

    While some aspects of starting later are difficult, in other respects I’ve found that it’s easier…one appreciates new opportunities, is more disciplined, has a clearer sense of purpose…a life in the military will no doubt leave you with all this, and more, hopefully including good health and fitness, which is a great asset.

    The basic building block of a career in the sciences is a 4 year degree in biology…this can then be applied towards any specialty…marine bio, conservation biology etc; perhaps some of this can be completed before you retire?…speak with counselors in the service and in various colleges, as they will be more current than I regarding your options, but if this is your interest I would certainly encourage you to pursue it.

    There are also many other options within the various fields besides those I’ve mentioned. You may begin working in the field while completing your education and find a position that satisfies you and does not require further study. I, for example, stayed many years as a zookeeper, because I enjoyed the work and was able to supplement the salary by teaching, writing, etc.

    Please keep me posted,

    Best wishes for your safety, and thanks again, Frank

  11. avatar

    Mr. Indiviglio

    Thanks a lot for the advice and the information I really appreciated. I talk to some colleges around and right now I’m going to work on getting all the basics courses out of the way so I can jump right into the core courses and what ever other classes I might have to take to complete the degree in biology. Thanks to your information I feel more comfortable, inspired and motivated to reach my dreams. Thanks a lot Sir. I will keep you posted.

  12. avatar

    I appreciate the kind words, thank you. Please let me know if you need anything in the future. Best wishes in your academic and military careers, Frank

  13. avatar

    Hi There,

    Sorry about the Arachnoboards post getting lost, however it did! Thank you for getting back to me about it! I’m currently studying zoology at university. I’m in my third year, and have just started an entry-level volunteer position in a professor’s lab (though unfortunately this is mostly self-directed and gives me little face time with said professor; hopefully that will change though). I’d say my primary area of interest is fishes, but I love all animals. Zoo or aquarium work interests me, as does field and lab research. I generally lean towards having more interest in animal behaviour and ecology than the molecular and cellular side of things, but that may just be due to my limited exposure to it outside the classroom. Any advice for my future career? Thanks so much!
    P.S. I’m in Ontario, Canada.

  14. avatar

    Hello nick,

    Fish are a big interest of mine also..always out seining, trapping, looking, and I do some exhibit design work and even collecting of FW species for the maritime Aq in Connecticut..always a battle for me to stay focused, wide interests! Several of my weather loaches are in their late 20’s, some others near there…

    Usually, jobs in behavior and ecology are harder to come by, less financially rewarding, but with fishes there are so many impt commercial species being reared and harvested that the situation may differ from what we see with herps and others. And so many species left to find, no doubt, which is helpful. Associating with larger, well-funded institutions is often a good way to eventually have the freedom to do the work you’re interested in ..takes time, of course, but larger museums (I’m thinking here of AMNH in NYC) have the resources to employ people who are involved in other than traditional “museum work”. Some friends use teaching as a springboard to doing interesting work….teach during school year, do university-funded research in summers…but one needs to have some interest in teaching…not something you can “fake” or put up with for 9 months, I’d think.

    Larger aquariums, like zoos, are employing researchers both on site and in the field…behavior , ecology would seem a natural focus…again, best option would be large, well-known facilities.

    Working as an aquarist…caring for fishes, etc – is a dream job in many ways, but like zookeeping, pay is generally low; I’ve always needed a second job when so employed….moving into curatorial levels offers more realistic salaries, etc, but positions are harder to come by.

    Volunteering in any capacity is very worthwhile, that’s how I got started; speak with professors, others in field when possible; read Copeia and similar journals, just to get a feel for what people in the field are doing…subscriptions expensive, but available in libraries; look into Bio One…free service that sends you table of contents and abstracts of major biological journals, incl Copeia…again, good way see the type of work that’s being done, where, by whom, etc.

    Please keep me posted, and let me know if you need other info, enjoy, Frank

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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