Though many considered her weird or just plain crazy for devoting so much of her life to living with and studying primates, Jane Goodall, the most famous female primatologist, made huge strides in the science of primatology. Along with studying primates in their natural habitats, primatologists like Goodall also serve at colleges and universities as professors, doing research in government and private labs and caring for primates in zoos and wildlife centers. The path to becoming a primatologist includes specialized schooling and training.
At the very least, a primatologist must have a four-year bachelor’s degree. Primatology degree programs do exist, but only at the graduate level. Typically, primatologists earn undergraduate degrees in anthropology, psychology, biology and veterinary science. Other typical undergraduate degrees include anatomy, biochemistry, genetics, medical science, pharmacology and physiology. Regardless of the degree program, primatologists should have a strong background in topics like primate behavior, biomedical and reproduction studies, ecology, conservation and animal husbandry.
Advancing in the field of primatology requires a master’s degree or PhD, especially for those looking to enter academia to teach. Several colleges and universities do offer graduate degrees in primatology, including Central Washington University and the University of Georgia. Potential primatologists can also opt to earn a graduate degree from a veterinarian or medical school. As part of an advanced degree program in primatology, students take part in research, laboratory projects and dissertations.
Because the field of primatology is extremely competitive, potential primatologists benefit from additional training outside of schooling. An internship or field school offers student a real-life look at primatology in action and provides her with hands-on experience she can use in a full-time position. The National Primate Research Centers keeps a database of internship and field school opportunities. Typically, candidates for an internship or field study must be concurrently enrolled in primate-related studies or recently graduated. Some internships and field schools occur over the summer months, while others cover six months to a year. Training programs take place all over the world, and students must be willing to put in long hours, often living in primitive settings with little or no pay.
Along with a strong educational background in the biological sciences, a primatologist should have a strong grasp of mathematics and statistics, both of which she uses when gathering and studying data. Though not a requirement, fluency in languages other than English benefit primatologists, since the field has an international reach. Basic computer knowledge, as well as excellent oral and written communication skills are also necessary to be successful in the industry, as many primatologists write grant proposals, research papers and other educational content.
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