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How Do I Become an Ethologist?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Ethologists study how and why animals behave the way they do. A career in ethology can be attained either by earning a college degree in ethology, or by obtaining a degree in comparative psychology. Comparative psychology also includes the study of animal behavior, often by comparing different species including humans.

Dedication is required to become an ethologist because advanced education degrees are usually required and competition for jobs is stiff. It is possible to become an ethologist with a bachelor’s degree in psychology or biology, but post-graduate education increases the chances of finding a job and advancing in the field. Most jobs in animal behavior require either a master’s degree, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) or a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).

Those who want to become an ethologist and who choose to follow the biology track, will specialize in zoology and other biological sciences, and study a wide variety of animal species. The undergraduate curriculum for ethology includes courses like anatomy, genetics and neuroscience. An independent research project is often required during the senior year of college.

Comparative psychology studies animal behavior within the framework of human psychology. Undergraduate programs provide a general background in the principals of psychology and an introduction to comparative psychology. A master’s degree is usually required to specialize in comparative psychology. Master’s level programs include the study of animal behavior, psychobiology, and animal behavior research.

Entry level jobs in ethology include research assistants, zoo and museum assistants, and veterinary technicians. Other career paths for ethologists that require advanced degrees include teaching, research, zoo curating, and animal training. Many ethologists work as college teachers. They predominately teach either zoology or psychology as well as related topics such as physiology or ecology. Some may even teach sociology or anthropology.

Some ethologists do research for the government, universities or private industry. They may study wildlife or pest control. They may also study human health issues or the effects of pharmaceuticals on pets and livestock. These jobs require a PhD or DVM degree. Sometimes additional training in physiology, biochemistry or pharmacology is also needed.

Zoos are another possible source of employment for someone who wants to become an ethologist. They sometimes hire ethologists as curators who are responsible for acquiring animals. Zoos may also hire ethologists to research animal behavior, especially in the case of endangered species like the giant panda. Ethologists can be instrumental in discovering ways to preserve endangered species.

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Discussion Comments

By TreeMan — On Oct 28, 2011

I think what interests me most about ethology after reading this article is how we as humans compare to different animals. We usually think about ourselves as being more sophisticated than other animals (and I think most people would agree), but there is still a lot we don't know about how we act.

From the wildlife perspective, I know someone who got a master's degree in wildlife by studying black bears. Bears can be a problem when they start interacting with humans by eating trash and entering campsites. His whole project was trying to find different ways to scare them away from areas.

As you might expect, bears are pretty smart and figure out pretty quickly that the different scare tactics won't hurt them, so there still isn't a good way to keep them away from people.

By kentuckycat — On Oct 27, 2011

It definitely sounds like you could choose your own career path.

As gross as they are sometimes, I think it would be really neat to study the behavior of pest insects. I have always loved reading about how bee and ant and other social insect colonies all work together. There is still a lot that we don't know about how they function.

I wonder if some of the pest companies hire ethologists to study things like that so that they are better prepared for how to deal with infestations or stop them in the first place.

By Emilski — On Oct 26, 2011

@Izzy78 - I would guess it usually just doesn't go by the name ethology. When I was in college, we had a program called Integrated Biology that had a bunch of different concentrations. One of them was called animal behavior biology. I don't know what the curriculm. I never really had any idea what was involved until I just read this article.

I would also be willing to guess that the type of animals you want to study and what facet of the field intrests you would determine the department you were a part of.

I had a friend who was in veterinary medicine, but I don't ever remember her talking about ethology. It does sound like it would be an interesting career path, especially if you got to work at a zoo.

By Izzy78 — On Oct 25, 2011

Wow, I had no idea there were so many career paths just for studying animal behavior.

When I was in college, I took a few biology and zoology type classes, and don't remember hearing anything about ethology. Is it something that is relatively new, or is it one of those fields that usually doesn't get called by its true name.

I suppose the other option would be that it's more common for these types of people to actually be located in psychology departments where I didn't take any classes.

By jonrss — On Oct 25, 2011

I had to do a few assignments that involved ethnographic principles when I was in college. In one of them I went to a laundry mat for several hours each day for a week. I recorded my observations of the people inside and wrote a report on the norms observed in the laundry mat. I think it was a pretty interesting paper and definitely one of the more interesting assignments I had when I was in college.

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