Animal Behavior & Education
Guide to Careers in Animal Behavior
Draft revised by John Roche and Sue Margulis, November 2006, with incorporation of committee feedback in December 2006–January 2007]
From earliest childhood, people are tremendously interested in how animals act—how they do things such as find food, avoid predators, choose mates, reproduce, and care for their young. At the same time, an understanding of the movements of animals—that is, animal behavior—holds great practical importance to animals and to human society. As a result of this interplay of interest and relevance, there is both a steady demand, and a wide-ranging supply, of careers related to behavior. In this guide, we outline some of the types of career options that are available related to the behavior of animals, including perspectives on the amount of training needed, and the relative advantages of different career paths. Many of these statements are generalization and will vary somewhat among particular jobs. We hope that this information will help you make an informed decision about planning a career in this exciting and important field.
What career opportunities are available in animal behavior?
Careers in College Teaching and Research — Many animal behaviorists teach and/or do independent research at colleges and universities. Many have academic appointments in biology, zoology, or psychology departments. Others are employed in departments of anthropology, sociology, neuroscience, animal science, wildlife biology, entomology, ecology, or in medical or veterinary colleges.
A Ph.D. plus one or more postdoctoral training positions are generally required for academic positions in animal behavior. Required training varies somewhat with type of school, with more training and greater achievements required for candidacy at first-tier and research-intensive schools. Smaller schools or community colleges may offer excellent teaching opportunities as well as entry-level experience in the field. Competition for jobs in teaching and research is intense, the workload is high, and compensation is moderate, but the autonomy, job security, and intellectual stimulation of such positions is outstanding.
An increasing number of animal behaviorists are being hired by universities to apply behavioral knowledge to the production, management, conservation, or care of domestic animals. Many are employed by academic departments such as animal science, veterinary medicine, wildlife, or entomology for research aimed at areas such as improving livestock production, managing wildlife populations, or controlling pests.
Careers Teaching in Primary and Secondary Schools — Careers in primary and secondary science education offer the ability to directly influence society in an extremely powerful way by helping children better understand science and the natural world. Whereas only some high schools offer courses in animal behavior, courses in biology and social science classes provide opportunities for teaching behavior. Such positions offer abundant vacation time, and freedom from the need to publish and obtain grants (requirements faced by most college teachers). Compensation for primary and secondary teachers varies widely by state, but pay is generally moderate relative to the cost-of-living. One relative financial advantage of K-12 teaching is that the amount of educational training required is considerably less than for college teaching (often ten years less), and so a person can start their earning years far earlier.
Careers in Government and Private Research Institutions — A growing number of animal behaviorists work in government laboratories or in private business and industry. Many of these jobs involve health-related research. This work may be somewhat invasive—for example, drug companies or government laboratories may hire animal behaviorists to conduct research on the behavioral effects of new drugs, or examine the links between behavior and disease—but in all such laboratories, the well being of animals is of critical concern. State and federal government agencies responsible for natural resources management sometimes hire animal behaviorists to work in their wildlife programs. Increasingly, private environmental consulting firms are employing behaviorists to examine the effects of habitat alteration on foraging patterns, spatial dispersion, and reproductive processes in animals.
For many of these jobs, a Ph.D. degree will be desirable, and breadth of training will be essential. For health-related jobs, training in relevant fields such as molecular biology, physiology, biochemistry, or pharmacology will be particularly helpful. For management or consulting jobs, experience in administration, environmental science, conservation biology, or population and community ecology may be useful. Compensation in these positions tends to be higher than in academia, though the degree of autonomy is generally lower.
Careers in Zoos and Aquariums, Conservation Groups, Museums — Zoos, aquariums, and museums may hire animal behaviorists as curators or researchers. Curators are responsible for acquiring, maintaining, and displaying collections of particular animals, and often are involved in behavioral research as well. Zoo and aquarium researchers are responsible for the scientific study of those animals and not the day-to-day care and management of the living collection. Keepers often have a tremendous interest in animal behavior, and view their job as a way to learn about animal behavior in a very direct and hands-on way. Zoo keepers and aquarists usually have degrees in zoology, biology, or psychology, and often spend many years volunteering or interning before obtaining a paid keeper position. Salaries vary from institution to institution, but generally are fairly low.
Zoos and aquariums provide excellent venues for many types of research, both applied and theoretical. Behaviorists often collaborate closely with specialists in endocrinology, nutrition, genetics, and veterinary medicine. Museum curators more often have research as their primary responsibility. This research may cover a wide range of topics, but usually encompasses aspects of the ecology, natural history, and systematics of the taxa being studied. Some conservation groups also hire animal behaviorists, especially those that fund long-term field research or are involved with reintroduction programs, the design of nature preserves, or sustainable wildlife use.Curators, researchers, and conservation workers usually have Ph.D. or D.V.M. degrees and also have broad training in at least one other area of biology such as animal husbandry, ecology, systematics, or in one of the taxonomic disciplines such as entomology, ichthyology, herpetology, ornithology, mammalogy, or primatology.
Some zoos, aquariums, and museums also hire researchers that specialize in animal behavior education. Educators work to communicate knowledge about animal behavior to the general public through tours, lectures, educational displays, and outreach and formal programs. Educators may have a bachelor's, masters, or Ph.D. degree in the biological or behavioral sciences, or a D.Ed. degree. Usually, some specialized training or experience in secondary or adult education is also preferred. Salary ranges vary among zoos and museums, depending on the experience level of the scientist and the size of the institution, but are generally comparable to academia. Careers in this area routinely involve working on weekends and holidays (with some weekdays off to compensate), because such institutions are generally open to the public 365 days a year.
Other Research Opportunities — Paid research assistants often are hired by universities, zoos, aquaria, museums, government agencies, and private facilities to help conduct ongoing animal behavior research. Here they work under the direction of faculty and staff researchers and help to design, perform, and analyze the results of animal behavior studies. Research assistants may work in laboratories or in the field, depending upon the nature of the research project. These jobs may be full-time or part-time.
Full-time research assistants usually have either a bachelor's or masters degree. The usual requirement for a B.S.-level assistant is a major in the behavioral or biological sciences with some course work in animal behavior. Part-time assistants need not have a bachelor degree, but usually they have same background in behavior. Often, part-time assistants are students working toward a college degree. As is true for college teaching and research, competition for research assistant jobs can be intense. Breadth of training in allied fields (such as ecology, physiology, or biochemistry) and/or possession of particular practical skills (such as statistical analysis, computer programming, or electronics) can be helpful. The compensation for research assistant positions tends to be very low, but such positions can be stimulating, enjoyable ways to explore career options, and to build experience in particular areas of behavioral research.
Careers in Broadcasting and Science Writing – There are many career opportunities for educating the public about animal behavior through broadcasting and films, and writing articles and books. Education for these positions can range anywhere from a bachelor's degree in English, journalism, or communications, to a Ph.D. in science. In films, broadcasting, and science writing, the emphasis is more on the quality and appeal of the material produced than on educational background. Compensation for these positions ranges from low to high. Whereas some positions in this field may be sporadic, as in freelance writing or film production, others offer stable and moderate-paying opportunities. In addition, these careers offer considerable autonomy and a high degree of intellectual stimulation.
Careers in Advertising — Although not a field that one routinely associates with animal behavior, one of the biggest career areas directly associated with animal behavior study is advertising. While this may at first sound unexpected, advertisers are extremely astute observers of the behavior of human animals, particularly the psychology of choice, reinforcement, and personality. Advertising careers offer tremendous intellectual stimulation and opportunities for creativity. These jobs tend to be intense and demanding, and offer less autonomy than teaching positions. But the pay is considerably higher than in academia, and advertising positions do not require a Ph.D. and postdoctoral training, so behaviorists pursuing this path can begin their earning years far earlier than academics can.
Careers in Clinical Settings — Another large career area related to animal behavior is the analysis and adjustment of the behavior of humans or non-human animals. A tremendous benefit enjoyed by behaviorists that choose clinical careers is that they have the opportunity to directly make the lives of humans or non-human animals more enjoyable, well-adjusted, and fulfilling. These careers require demanding professional preparation, including, for psychiatrists, the M.D. degree. But obtaining clinical positions after that training is complete is often less competitive than in academia, and compensation is the highest among all animal behavior career categories.
Applied Animal Behavior Training -- In recent years, there has been an increasing demand for assistance in the training of domestic animals. Applied animal behaviorists utilize the basic methods of operant conditioning to modify or direct the behavior of animals, including companion, farm, zoo, and laboratory animals. Applied animal behaviorists typically specialize in the behavior of companion animals in relation to behavioral problems and training, the behavior of farm, zoo and laboratory animals (i.e animal management and welfare) and studies of the behavior of wild animals when these studies are relevant from an applied perspective, (i.e. wildlife management, pest management or nature conservation) as well as methodological studies.
Generally, individuals in this field have a background in psychology with special emphasis on the techniques and tools of behavioral modification. Animal trainers may hold classes for pet owners, operate pet "day care" programs, or schedule in-home visits to assist with training needs and behavioral problems. In addition to such independent business opportunities, applied animal behaviorists may find employment with organizations such as the ASPCA or Humane Society or wildlife management agencies. This field offers great flexibility of hours, but salary may vary tremendously, depending on the local demand for such services. The Animal Behavior Society offers a Certification in Applied Animal Behavior.
Where Can I Get More Information?
For more information about the science of animal behavior, begin at your local public or college library. Many books on animal behavior have been published in recent years. A librarian can help you locate them. Many scientific journals also report research on animal behavior, particularly Animal Behaviour, Behaviour, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, Ethology, Ecology, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, The Journal of Comparative Psychology, and Zoo Biology.
For more information about other careers that involve working with animals, write for: Careers in Animal Biology, published by the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. It is available from SICB Headquarters, 401 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL, 60611-4267. Another good source of information about careers working with animals is the Humane Society of the United States: HSUS National Headquarters, 2100 L St. NW, Washington, DC 20037. The American Association of Zookeepers (www.aazk.org) offers a brochure on careers in zookeeping. The Animal Behavior Society offers an excellent guide to advanced training in animal behavior in North America, Graduate Programs in Animal Behavior, available on the society's website (www. animalbehavior.org).