Reptiles and amphibians tend to be pretty polarizing creatures. Some people find them fascinating, while others consider them creepy and unsettling. If you fall into the "fascinating" camp, you might consider making a career out of the study of reptiles. It's a branch of biology called herpetology, one of many specialties within the field of wildlife biology.
There are several approaches to herpetology, depending what interests you about reptiles and amphibians. If you're mainly interested in them as animals, for example, you might study their natural environment, how their bodies function, or their behavior. If you're more the pure-science type, you might focus instead on the peculiarities of their anatomy or internal chemistry. Conservation, genetic analysis, reptile breeding and many more alternatives are all valid career paths, so let your areas of interest be your guide.
To work in most settings, you'll need at least a bachelor's degree in biology. That qualifies you to work in zoos, museums or universities, or do field work as part of a research program. To advance in the field, you need to have at least a master's degree, and high-level positions at the head of a research project or department almost always require a Ph.D. Graduate degrees usually take two or three years to complete and often require you to carry out and document a piece of original research.
A lot of herpetologists work in academia, either as researchers or instructors at colleges and universities. You'll need a Ph.D. for most positions, though you can work as a research or lab assistant with a bachelor's degree. Some smaller schools will hire herpetologists with a master's degree as instructors, but most universities won't. Herpetologists such as longtime curator Doris Mable Cochran of the National Museum of Natural History combine education and research in a public setting. Governments employ some herpetologists as part of their wildlife management programs, and a small number of herpetologists carve out entrepreneurial careers as reptile breeders, snake-venom harvesters or in other enterprises. Organizations such as the National Geographic Society fund conservation projects under the direction of committed herpetologists such as Jenny Daltry of the U.K.
Reaching your Goals
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected just seven percent job growth for zoologists and wildlife biologists between 2010 and 2020, about half the national average for other occupations. That means there'll be fierce competition for the relatively few spots that open up in any given year. You can improve your chances by gaining experience with reptiles wherever and whenever you can, through volunteering, attending seminars or building your own collection of specimens. You can also build contacts and credibility by submitting articles to reptile-oriented magazines and networking diligently with other professionals in your field.
- Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles: Careers in Herpetology
- American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists: Careers in Herpetology
- Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles: How Can I Become a Herpetologist?
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists
- Smithsonian Institution: Doris Mable Cochran -- Smithsonian Herpetologist
- National Geographic Society: Explorers -- Jenny Daltry
- Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images