If you are scientific, practical and passionate about animals, then a career as a zoologist may be for you

Zoologists study the evolution, anatomy, physiology, behaviour, distribution and classification of animals. They look at species and populations of animals and work with animals out in the field, in captivity or in a laboratory.

As a zoologist, you can specialise in a particular area; for example, working with reptiles and amphibians (herpetologist), mammals (mammologist), birds (ornithologist), fossil remains (paleozoologist) or parasites (parasitologist).

Job titles vary greatly and may include zoological field assistant, field biologist, wildlife biologist, conservation biologist or field assistant.

Types of work

You could work in a range of areas including:

  • conservation of endangered species and habitats
  • animal education and welfare
  • controlling pests and diseases
  • drug development and testing
  • improving livestock and crops in agriculture
  • teaching and research.

Responsibilities

As a zoologist, you'll need to:

  • study animals in captivity or in their natural environment
  • conduct laboratory and/or field research
  • collect, store and prepare specimens for analysis
  • identify, record and monitor species of animals
  • manage large data sets and use statistical software packages
  • use modelling software to predict future scenarios, such as changes in habitats or population numbers
  • write scientific reports and issue recommendations
  • manage animal care, movement and enclosures
  • rehabilitate and release animals back into their natural environment
  • identify, monitor and address invasive species and other threats
  • use software or equipment, such as geographical information systems (GIS), global positioning systems (GPS), sonographs, terrestrial locomotor activity monitoring systems and video recorders
  • work with other professionals and support staff
  • keep up-to-date with relevant research, policies and legislation
  • teach in field or research centres
  • educate members of the public, which could include children or adults
  • supervise volunteers or assistants.

Your day-to-day tasks and activities will vary depending upon your particular job.

Salary

  • Starting salaries depend upon the role, the employer and your skills, qualifications and experience and can vary greatly, but are typically in the region of £18,000 to £25,000.
  • Zoologists with several years' experience may earn between £25,000 and £30,000.
  • Senior zoologists, such as senior researchers or those managing a team may earn up to £45,000+.

Salaries in private industry and other organisations can vary considerably.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

In industry, research and higher education you will typically work from 9am to 5pm. However, depending on the demands of research projects and when on field trips, your hours can vary. There may be some opportunities to work part-time.

In conservation work, working evenings, weekends and public holidays can be common. As a field researcher, working hours can be variable.

When conducting research, certain factors can dictate working times, such as environmental changes (e.g. tides) and animal activity times (for example if you are studying nocturnal animals you will need to work through the night.)

What to expect

  • When undertaking research in the field, you may be working in isolated locations or areas where there are only basic living conditions or resources, such as limited or no electricity, phone and internet signal.
  • Work can be physically tiring and involve working long hours in challenging terrain.
  • You may work indoors in a laboratory, or outdoors in various environments, such as national parks, zoos, rainforests, woodland, moorland, farmland or coastal areas.
  • Some jobs and research positions may require you to travel or live abroad.
  • Jobs can often be temporary, for example if you are working on a research project for a specific duration. However, there are opportunities to gain permanent jobs, for example, in higher education teaching.

Qualifications

You'll usually need a degree in a relevant scientific subject like zoology, biology, marine biology or environmental biology.

Some employers look for candidates who have relevant postgraduate qualifications (such as an MSc or PhD), particularly for work that requires specialist knowledge. For research or teaching posts in higher education, you will normally need a PhD.

Search for postgraduate courses in zoology.

Zoology is a popular area and competition for roles is often high, so getting relevant work experience is essential if you want to gain entry into this field.

Any training or experience using a piece of software or equipment that is relevant to the role could help you to stand out. The Field Studies Council offers some training courses.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • research skills, such as a strong understanding of scientific methods and the tools and resources that you need
  • strong written communication skills; for example, when writing scientific reports or creating content for a non-specialist audience
  • presentation skills for specialists and for those with little knowledge of the field
  • project management and teamworking skills, which may include working in varied teams, for example, with a science coordinator, rangers, or volunteers
  • IT skills when recording, analysing and presenting data and reports
  • good numerical reasoning as you will need to input data and interpret statistical findings
  • attention to detail as you will need to be observant and pick up on small details to ensure accuracy
  • patience and perseverance as you may have to make observations for prolonged periods of time
  • practical skills; for example, when handling animals or using equipment
  • the ability to problem-solve as some things will not go to plan, for example, when capturing and tagging animals in the wild
  • organisational skills to plan what equipment you will need and how you will go about conducting your research and managing a varied workload.

Work experience

Pre-entry work or volunteering experience is necessary as competition for roles is often high. Try to gain experience in the areas you are most interested in. Advertised work experience may be paid or unpaid, but unpaid work experience can be less competitive.

You may also be able to undertake a work placement or period of work shadowing during a vacation period. Some organisations, such as The London Zoological Society offer internships. Some degree courses offer a sandwich year, where you can work for an organisation and gain valuable skills and experience.

You can volunteer in the UK or overseas. Speak to your volunteering department, visit volunteering databases such as do-it.org or organisations' own websites, such as:

Not all work experience opportunities will be formally advertised. You can make speculative applications for work experience, using a CV and cover letter. If you apply speculatively, it is unlikely that you will be paid.

Find out more about work experience and internships.

Employers

You can find roles in zoology in the UK and overseas.

Typical employers include:

  • animal and environmental charities
  • aquaculture and animal nutrition companies
  • chemical, pharmaceutical and petroleum companies
  • conservation organisations
  • environmental consultancies
  • environmental protection agencies
  • government agencies and research institutions
  • medical research facilities and the health service
  • science centres, libraries and museums
  • universities and research institutes
  • zoos, aquariums and wildlife parks and centres.

There is no one site which advertises all jobs in zoology, so you will need to visit a variety of websites and individual organisations. Below are some examples, but this is by no means exhaustive. Jobs may also be advertised on social networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

Look for job vacancies at:

Many jobs in zoology are not formally advertised, so networking is very important. Talk to university staff as they may be able to offer you some advice or put you in contact with someone employed in the field. Use professional networking sites to build up relevant contacts in advance of graduation. Keep in contact with those you meet through volunteering or work experience.

Where no specific job is advertised, you can make a speculative application to an organisation using a CV and cover letter. Get support from your careers service and, ideally, have your CV and cover letter checked before sending it off.

Professional development

You may need to put yourself forward and show willingness to take on additional opportunities and responsibilities. You can gain additional skills through training courses, which may be funded by your employer. These may be suggested by your employer, or you may need to seek out your own opportunities.

Some bodies or institutes offer training opportunities, conferences and events, such as The International Society of Zoological Sciences.

There are specific societies for specialist areas of zoology, like The Mammal Society who have their own training and events.

Mentoring from a more experienced professional may be something you can arrange through your workplace or you may have to seek this opportunity out for yourself.

Free downloadable courses are available on programmes, such as R (statistical computing and graphics) and Q-GIS (an open source geographical information system).

You could specialise in a particular area of zoology and/or increase your skills and knowledge through completion of a postgraduate qualification, such as an MSc or PhD. You may be able to do these on a part-time basis or through distance learning.

Career prospects

Opportunities for progression can generally be more structured in larger organisations. As a zoologist in a university setting, you could expect to start as a research student, while completing your PhD and then move onto a postdoctoral research position (once you have completed your PhD) and progress to become a senior researcher/lecturer and possibly a professor.

In industry, you may be able to progress towards roles such as senior researcher or onto more managerial roles.

Opportunities may be less structured in other organisations and you may need to be prepared to travel or change roles to progress. Entry level roles may be that of zoological assistant or field assistant; after gaining experience you could progress to more senior roles, which could involve managing a team.

More senior roles may mean that you are less hands-on, for example, doing less fieldwork and focusing more on organisation and people management.

You could specialise in a particular area; for example, mammalogists focus on mammals, herpetologists look at reptiles and ornithologists study birds. With experience, you could also move into consultancy.