Just being an animal lover won’t get you too far in the mega-competitive world of zoology. It’s a jungle out there, and only the strongest survive.
There are herds of people who watched animal docs when they were kids and thought it would be cool to put on khaki and hang with our furry friends. The truth is that not too many zoologists actually go out and commune with chimpanzees. The chosen few that do get the chance to do fieldwork go through years of school at tough universities. When they finally emerge with Ph.D’s in hand, they have to fight tooth and nail to get the kind of funding they need to get out into the bush.
If you’re not the outdoorsy type, being a zoologist who does fieldwork will be pure misery. Unless you plan to study house cats, there’s a high probability that you’ll spend a large percentage of your time in the great outdoors. We don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but the great outdoors is not temperature controlled. Zoologists often have to deal with extreme weather conditions. Studying polar bears in the Arctic may seem like the adventure of a lifetime for the first week of sub-zero temperatures, but how about the second week? How about an entire winter spent shivering in your boots?
Zoologists who do a lot of field research also need straight-up wilderness survivor skills. Your studies might very well take you into environments that are way off the beaten track. In an emergency situation, your survival could depend on knowing how spark a fire or build a shelter with nothing. On the same token, you also need to be physically fit. If you’re studying the mating habits of the Andean condor, and you wheeze every time you hoof it up a mountain, you’re never going to see those big buzzards getting busy. And wouldn’t that be disappointing?
Don’t go thinking that all zoologists are these lone-wolf wilderness survivor types. Quite often, zoologists work in teams. Sometimes you’ll be with scientists who have the same focus and sometimes with folks who come from totally different fields of study. For example, if you’re part of a government survey whose job it is to check out the effects of climate change in Alaska, then you might be working with geologists, marine biologists, ecologists--any number of different people. If you don’t play well with others, you won’t be invited back the next time a juicy government contract comes down the pipeline.
While every real-deal zoologist job requires an advanced degree, you can lock down an entry-level zookeeper position with nothing but a four-year or even a two-year degree from the right program. You’ll have to fight off a horde of other hopefuls, though, and if you make it, you may find it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. If your goal in life is to fill feed troughs and scoop poop while living close to the poverty line, then this will be a great option. Don’t expect full-fledged zoologists to ever treat you like more than a farm hand. The upper echelons of zoo-employed zoologists have Ph.D’s and years of experience before they’re allowed to do things like manage breeding programs. Hey, it takes a lot of know-how to get a panda in the mood.
The real money for zoologists isn’t in zoos or field research; it’s in the biotech industry. Many zoologists spend their days in fluorescent-lit labs doing genetic or other research, some of which actually requires testing on animals. (Here’s a point where being a softy when it comes to our furry friends might be a fireable offense.) Zoologists can also find totally solid jobs with state and federal governments, where they do everything from keeping tabs on fish populations to finding ways to keep birds from flying into airplanes (and we all give them a hearty thanks for that last one).
There are a ton of different specialties in zoology, and most zoologists eventually pick a focus. Maybe your thing is dolphins. You just can’t get enough of them. When you were little, your room was plastered with sparkly dolphin posters, and you forced your parents to take you to Sea World every summer. If this is the case, you probably want to be a cetologist, a type of zoologist that focuses on marine mammals like dolphins and whales.
The list of zoologist specializations keeps going and going. You name a type of animal, and there’s a flock of human beings out there studying them. There’s herpetolgists (who study insects and amphibians), ornithologists (who study birds), ichthyologists (who study fish), and entomologists (who study insects). We could keep listing “ologists,” but you get the point. Studies have shown that some zoologists begin to resemble the animals they study, so you might want to avoid devoting your time to the blobfish.