The path you take to become a zoologist might be littered with droppings and dirty bedding from the animals you take care of along the way, but that isn't the only route you can choose. A fascination with all living creatures -- pretty important for zoologists -- can also lead to studying invertebrates, and worms and starfish are a little less messy than large mammals. Whatever branch you decide on, your education and work experience will make all the difference to your career path.
Solid preparation in science and math is necessary before you even declare your college major in zoology. Taking plenty of these courses in high school prepares you for the rigors of the college program, but if you slacked off a bit you can still make it up. Some colleges let you declare a major upon entrance as a freshman, but you may have to complete certain classes before gaining entrance to a zoology program. Load up on math, physics, chemistry and biology courses.
You need a bachelor’s degree to work in zoology. Some programs allow you to specialize in a particular area, such as wildlife biology, or work toward a general zoology degree. Most undergraduate programs are designed to prepare you for graduate work, but if you want to stop after four years, you can still get a job in the field if you don't mind an entry-level position. You might find work as a zookeeper, laboratory technician, or assistant to a zoologist or wildlife biologist. If you plan to go for a master’s degree, include computer coursework, such as geographic information systems and modeling systems.
Graduate programs in zoology have fairly rigorous entrance requirements, so don't take it too easy during your first four years. Most programs want to see at least a B average on your transcript and good GRE scores, along with a thorough grounding in organic chemistry, physics, calculus and advanced zoology classes. With a master's degree you're prepared for positions such as wildlife biologist or environmental consultant, and you'll be qualified to work on research projects for government agencies and private employers.
If you want to teach zoology you'll need to earn a Ph.D. A doctoral degree is also necessary if you want to design independent research projects and lead research teams for your employer. Depending on the program, it can take up to five years to complete, including a dissertation. You'll likely choose an area to concentrate in, such as evolution, behavioral, cellular or population biology.
Experience working with animals is often important to employers, but it's hard to get a job without experience. You can break out of that Catch-22 by doing volunteer work with an animal rescue organization or aquarium, or getting an entry-level job with a veterinary clinic. Even working as a dog walker shows you're responsible around animals. College internships or laboratory assistant positions are also important for your resume.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists
- North Carolina State University: Zoology
- North Dakota State University: Zoology
- Oregon State University: Zoology Graduate Program
- Michigan State University Department of Zoology: Requirements for the Doctoral Degree
- SeaWorld: Go! Tips for Starting Your Zoological Career
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