CAREERS IN HERPETOLOGY AND HERPETOCULTURE
How to make a living working with reptiles
Careers in Herpetology and Herpetoculture
"How do I prepare for a career working with reptiles?"
There are a lot of people who contact zoos, museums, and websites asking just that question. While there are some pamphlets available that briefly address the question (ASIH, no date; SSAR, 1985), there are few other published resources available (Barthel (2004); Sprackland and McKeown, 1995, 1997; Sprackland, 2000). There are some guides to entering the academic world of biology (i.e., Janovy, 1985), but these generally focus on career paths in the university world, while the field of biology is far broader than herpetology or even organismal zoology. This section, then, gives professional colleagues a resource that may help them answer specific questions from their clients.
Many people do not consider a career in herpetology or zoology until they reach the stage where it has become obvious that their collections have outgrown their personal resources. They either wish to expand their contact with large reptiles in a zoological park setting or perhaps wish to engage in meaningful field or laboratory studies. Among the ranks of this group are many seasoned and competent herpetoculturists, and they form a significant group seeking information about how to “turn pro.”
Career Option I: The Private Sector
There are probably more paying opportunities in the private sector than can be found among the zoological parks and academic markets combined, though it may also be safe to say relatively few private sector jobs will pay a living wage. Among the jobs that can be classified as “private sector” are those that receive funding as commercial, for-profit ventures. Typical jobs would include animal dealers, pet shop workers, breeders, lecturers, and writers. For most of these positions, success will be based largely on experience and knowledge—from whatever source you obtained it—and less so on formal academic training. Some notable herpetologists came from the ranks of the privately employed sector, including Lawrence Klauber, Constantine Ionides, E. Ross Allen, Steve Irwin, and Hans-Georg Horn, as well as many of the most knowledgeable contemporary reptile breeders.
Working in the private sector generally has two paths available to you. First, you may work for someone who owns a reptile-related business. Pay is variable in such situations, and may be based more on the financial condition of the business than on any experience you may bring. Perhaps the more financially rewarding route is to operate a business of your own. Many commercial breeders start by specializing in a single species (such as leopard geckos) or a genus (such as rat/corn snakes). From there you may branch out to handle other species, or you may remain a specialist dealer and supply your personal passion for exotic reptiles with a private collection.
There are also herpetological supply businesses, school lecturers, and reptile food suppliers, among other possibilities. The key to making any of these ventures work is to tackle them as serious business activities. Take some business classes, or buy some good books about writing a business plan (essential for getting loans) and operating a small business. Take advantage of free advisory services of friends in business or the U.S. government’s SCORE program (Service Corps Of Retired Executives), where experienced business people will review business plans and loan requests, discuss accounting and inventory control, and be available to help in a myriad of ways that will make you life easier and business more likely to succeed.
Career Option II: Zoological Parks
It was once true that if you were willing to clean cages and apprentice under an “old timer,” you could get a position at even the most prestigious of zoos. By the last third of the 20th century, though, a variety of factors at zoological parks had changed drastically. Operating costs, including salaries and benefits, utilities, insurance, cost of animals, and greater competition for visitor’s dollars all made it essential to streamline the operations and assure better-trained staff from their date of hire. People wishing to work in the animal care departments were routinely expected to have completed a two-year associate’s degree in biology, animal husbandry, or zookeeper training. Now it is much more likely that a zoo will want new hires to possess a bachelor’s degree and have a few years’ experience as either a zoo volunteer or part-time worker. Moving into management may require you to have a master’s degree as well.
Why all this focus on academic qualifications? There are several reasons, and we’ll examine each in detail. First, of course, is that many employers see completion of a college degree as an indicator of your ability to take on a long term project, with all its ups and downs, and finish. An associate’s degree program at one of the few community colleges that offers such a course of study will consist of far more hands-on (or “practical”) time working in a small zoo that a student would get in a traditional university setting. The two-year course is vigorous, and potential zookeepers will be trained across the lines of the zoo world, being exposed to bird and large mammal care, administration and administrative duties associated with a broad spectrum of possible career positions. The more traditional and popular four-year university degree route may entail little practical zoo keeping experience, but provides a very broad range of classes that include English (good communication skills are expected of new hires), math, history, Western Civilization, philosophy, chemistry, physics, biology, and a variety of optional, or elective, courses. There is rather little focus on zoology during the four year program, so a candidate who can “tough it out” is seen as being a well-rounded individual with a solid background in sciences and who can complete a long-term project that appears to have little direct bearing on the final goal.
The second reason for wanting a strong college background in new zookeeper hires is because animals are becoming more expensive to acquire, maintain, and replace. Zoo managers rightly expect modern keepers to know considerably more about the anatomy, physiology, behavior, and diseases of the animals for which they will have responsibility. The keeper is the first line of action for keeping animals healthy and recognizing when something may be wrong, and the better trained the keeper, the better he or she should be at handling that responsibility. College teaches students how to do research, and the working zookeeper may have to use library, on-line, or professional contact sources to get information necessary to the well being of animals.
Breeding was once the rare and much-heralded accomplishment of few zoos, and then only for large, usually mammalian charges. The pre-1965 efforts were often on so-called “postage-stamp collections” of animals, where zoos would try to obtain one specimen each of as many species as possible. With the mid-1960s enforcement of the U.S. Lacey Act, establishment of the Endangered Species Act and the beginning of CITES, zoos were limited in their abilities to acquire new animals. It quickly became fashionable, responsible, and fiscally necessary to learn to breed more species and use progeny to populate zoo collections. During the pioneering days of captive husbandry, zookeepers with a greater knowledge of physiology, reproductive biology, and the natural history of the animals in their care had a decided advantage over other keepers. Such staff members became crucial to the continued success of many zoo missions, helping drive the recruitment of new employees with a more solid and diverse background in the science of biology.
Third, many zoos have come under increased scrutiny both by the general public, wanting to be sure that the zoo’s mission is actually being accomplished, and by groups who advocate against the keeping of any animals in captivity at all. Today’s zookeeper needs to know how to educate the public to the needs of animals and the important roles played by well-run zoological parks. An indispensable part of being such a zookeeper is to have a broad view of the mission coupled with exceptional speaking and/or writing skills. Every keeper is also an ambassador for their zoo and the value of all zoos to the visiting public. Employers often equate your ability to handle these tasks with the training you received in university.
Career Option III: Academia
The academic world has much to offer, but also makes considerable demands. Careers under this heading include primarily university positions—almost all of which have teaching responsibilities as well as research—and the small number of museum curators. For an entry into any of these fields a candidate must certainly hold a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) degree, and most jobs now also require you to have held a postdoctoral position as well. There has been a fair amount of discussion since the middle 1990s to create a new post-Ph.D. degree, the chancellorate, but most critiques argue that by the time a student would attain that degree, they would be facing retirement age!
An academic herpetologist may have the greatest freedom to explore the topics of personal interest, especially in a museum setting, but even there the job will require expertise and skills that extend beyond studying reptiles. University and museum professionals enter the profession as assistant professors or assistant curators. They will be charged with setting up a research program that is funded by grants—which they must raise with limited institutional help. Earning a grant means having a solid research proposal, excellent writing and budgeting skills, and the resources that will guarantee the promised results if you are funded. Your employer will also expect a certain quantity of peer-reviewed publications (those that appear in the scientific or technical journals) from you. If, after three to seven years, depending on the employer, you meet these goals, you will probably be offered a promotion to associate professor or associate curator and tenure. Tenure means that, barring an extremely serious breach of responsibility, you have a job for life.
But it is not as easy as the previous paragraph describes to get tenure. You will also need to serve on committees, provide input on institutional projects, and establish some sort of interaction with the broader community. Each of these tasks is designed to give you the chance to be seen as an authority in your subject and prepare you for increased responsibilities in the future. Your success or failure will also weigh in on whether or not you earn tenure. On top of all this, university faculty are also expected to teach, which means that you will essentially be charged with two very distinct jobs.
College education is not for everyone, and with the increased competition for available entry slots in each year’s classes coupled with ever increasing tuition and related expenses, it should be a well-planned and carefully considered step (Sprackland, 1990). For those of you still in high school—or for parents whose children want to prepare for a career in herpetology—I shall offer some basic advice on how to prepare for college. The sooner you can start your efforts, the better, because you will need three solid years of the right kinds of high school courses in order to be seriously considered for admission to a good university. Opt for the college-prep route, and take three or more years of math (algebra, geometry, algebra II, and calculus), three of laboratory-based science (biology, chemistry, and physics), and work to excel in English, particularly composition. By the junior year of high school you should be researching colleges. Find out which schools offer degrees and courses of interest; not all schools offer zoology paths, and of those that do, not all offer courses in herpetology. Start reading one of the major scientific journals (Copeia, Herpetologica, and Journal of Herpetology) and study where the authors are who have interests that coincide with yours. Each scientific paper includes the author’s address and, almost universally, e-mail address.
When you find authors you wish to contact, do so. Write a brief polite letter introducing yourself and expressing interest in studying herpetology. Ask for information about the author’s university, its courses, degree offerings, and admission requirements. Plan early, because entry requirements vary somewhat among universities.
If you choose to go the community or junior college route, there are some differences in your procedure from what you would do to get into a four-year school. You do not need the same rigorous high school course load to enter a community college, and entry requirements vary from none to minor. There is little difference to the student between the first two years of college whether at community or four-year colleges, and in many cases the former is a better educational deal. Why? Because unlike four-year colleges, community colleges do not employ graduate students to teach. Faculty almost universally have at least a master’s degree plus several years’ experience as instructors, providing a considerable potential edge over the graduate student teacher.
Once enrolled at community college, you must meet two objectives if you wish to eventually earn a solid bachelor’s or higher degree. First, be sure to register in courses that will transfer credit to the four-year school you plan to attend. If this is not possible—some universities do not recognize some community college courses as adequate—then have an alternative university to aim for or go directly to the four-year school of your choice. Second, take every course as seriously as you can. Work to earn an A average, especially in science, math, and English composition courses. Don’t waste your time at community college, assuming it is the easy alternative to a four-year school; this is rarely the case. Many community college instructors are leaders in their respective fields. The late Albert Schwartz was a herpetologist who probably did more than any other zoologist to study and document the herpetofauna of the Caribbean islands, and he is still extremely highly regarded by his peer community. Yet for his entire career, Schwartz taught only at a community college. Several distinguished herpetologists are doing just that even today.
When enrolling at university should you sign up for the bachelor of arts or bachelor of science program? There is a small difference, though few students (or graduates) know what it is. In the bachelor of science (BS) track, you have almost all of your courses determined by a university-set plan. You are required to take specific classes and have very few elective options. The bachelor of arts (BA) is more liberal; it still has a considerable number of required courses, but you have far more latitude in elective class choices. Because my interests were so broad in my undergraduate days, wanting to study paleontology, Latin, and philosophy as well as zoology, I opted for the BA program. Had I taken a BS route, I could not have taken such a range of classes and still graduated in four years.
Graduate School and Post Graduate Options
Graduate school is definitely not for everyone, though it is absolutely essential if you wish to obtain an academic career or a position as a senior zoo employee. Collections managers and zoo keepers typically opt for a master’s degree, which provides advanced coursework and a chance to engage in some project or activity that has a direct bearing on the requirements of an advanced career path. A doctoral degree is a research degree, meaning the recipient has been trained to conduct original studies. This is the degree needed for professorial and curatorial positions. The vast majority of people who plan to earn a doctorate do not need to earn a master’s degree en route.
Master’s programs take from 18 months to three years of full-time effort, and include a large number of courses, some research or work as research assistant in a lab, and often require a written thesis based on library or research work. Some master’s programs will require you to either work as a research assistant or as a teaching assistant, supervising laboratory sessions. Doctoral programs in the United States start off similar to the master’s route, and with classes, lab or teaching duties. Upon completing a set of qualifying examinations, the student becomes a candidate for the degree and begins working on an original research project, which will eventually be written up as a thesis. If the thesis passes faculty scrutiny, the Ph.D. is awarded. U.S. doctoral programs typically span five to seven years of full-time effort, after which the herpetologically oriented graduate faces a daunting job market. If you want a Ph.D., go ahead and earn it, but do not assume it is a guarantee of an academic job. During the particularly tight job market of the 1980s and 1990s, my contemporaries joked that Ph.D. stood for “Pizza Hut Delivery.” (This seemed somewhat appropriate given that we survived graduate school by ordering astronomical numbers of Pizza Hut pizzas to our labs; now “the hut” could pay our salaries!)
If you decide to enter graduate school, begin your job hunt no later than a year before you plan to get a master’s degree, or two-and-a-half years before a Ph.D. Once again, read the journals, attend conferences, and find out where people are with whom you would be compatible as a new colleague. Whose research could complement yours and help you on the road to tenure? Make those contacts early and make sure you have people who will vouch for you when those precious jobs become available.
The American Ph.D. Model
The American route to the doctoral degree is found in schools in many countries, and is perhaps the most complicated of the few models currently practiced. It begins while the prospective student is still an undergraduate, in the junior or senior year of university. To even be considered for a doctoral program, you must have a stellar grade point average (GPA) across the four or five undergraduate years, with an especially high GPA in the math and science core. Top tier schools are looking at cutoff GPAs in the 3.8 to 4.0 range, while the least competitive schools might accept a 3.0 GPA.
In addition to solid grades, the application committee will expect to see high scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or acceptable substitute standardized test. Letters of recommendation and a well-written statement of your intentions are also given high ranking in the evaluations process. More than one of my university contemporaries has remarked that the whole purpose of four years of English composition classes was to prepare for writing the two-paragraph graduate school application essay!
Once you enter the program you will have a finite amount of time to prepare for written and oral examinations that are supposed to cover the entirety of your science coursework from your freshman year onwards. It is not for naught they are called both “comprehensives” and “qualifying” exams! If these are successfully passed (you are generally allowed two attempts to pass each test), you become a candidate for the doctoral degree. NOW you may begin your research project and start writing the thesis.
The thesis must be approved by a committee of professors, and then you are subjected to one more examination at which faculty may ask questions to probe the depth of your knowledge about your thesis topic, analytical methods, related literature, and so forth. Once you pass the oral examination—and paid all your outstanding fees—the university will award you with a Ph.D.
Career Option IV: Miscellaneous
Perhaps none of the previous categories applies to your interests. That still leaves a considerable number of possible careers that will allow at least some work with reptiles. Most require a bachelor’s degree, though a job announcement will often claim “master’s degree preferred.” Among the choices are—
Government biologist—Positions with federal and state wildlife agencies sometimes allow study of herpetofauna. Among the obvious agencies are fish and wildlife, game, and environmental services. However, biological work is also undertaken by the U.S. Geological Survey, forest services, and occasionally in military research (the U.S. Army and Navy long operated a considerable snake venom research facility).
Teacher—Both primary and secondary school teachers have numerous opportunities to acquaint children with the natural world. In many states the teacher must hold a degree in a content area—say biology or zoology—while other states accept applicants whose degree is in education. Check carefully to determine the requirements for the state in which you wish to teach.
Community College Instructor—As tertiary schools have increased their dependency on lower-paid part-time instructors (who typically do not receive health or retirement benefits), the ranks of part timers has exploded. While the working conditions are extremely variable, part-timers can expect to have limited or no campus office space, no faculty standing, and perform the same teaching duties as full-time colleagues, but for 40% to 70% of the hourly pay rate. The rare full-time opening in this market is considerably more attractive, and carries no research, grant-seeking, or “publish-or-perish” responsibilities. Generally, the candidate must have a master’s degree in biology, teaching experience, and the ability to teach some combination of general biology, microbiology, and anatomy and physiology.
Writers—Natural history writing has its ups and downs, but many a herpetologist has earned at least some money from commercial publication. Choose a niche, such as writing about herpetoculture or more broadly about a specific group of animals, to get started. Financial success will ultimately depend on reliability, excellent writing skills, and the ability to expand to reach broader audiences. The more biological or scientific topics you can cover, the more your potential income. Although herpetology is my grand passion, I have also published on the topics of education, philosophy, sub-micron electronics, non-metal conductors, evolution, venom research, and history.
Photographer/illustrator—Just as a financially successful nature writer must reach a wide audience, so too must the photographer or illustrator. Few, if any, of these professionals make a living wage by only illustrating reptiles; there is more security in animals and general nature shots.
Veterinarian—A secure field if you do not plan to care only for reptiles. Like graduate school in general, there are serious academic hurdles to meet, and competition for openings (there are fewer vet schools than medical schools) is fierce.
Colleges and Universities with major herpetology programs--
(Author's list of top schools is in BOLD)
Colleges with Two Year Zookeeper Training Programs
Harcum College, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
Jefferson Community College, Watertown, New York.
Moorpark College, Moorpark, California.
Pikes Peak Community College, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Santa Fe Community College, Gainesville, Florida.
U.S. Universities with Herpetological Programs and Associated University Museums
Harvard University (Museum of Comparative Zoology), Cambridge, MA.
University of California at Berkeley (Museum of Vertebrate Zoology), Berkeley, CA.
University of Colorado at Boulder (Museum of Natural History), Boulder, CO.
University of Florida (Florida State Museum), Gainesville, FL.
University of Kansas (Museum of Natural History), Lawrence, KS.
University of Michigan (Museum of Zoology), Ann Arbor, MI.
University of Oklahoma (Museum of Natural History), Norman, OK.
University of Texas at Arlington (Museum of Natural History), Arlington, TX.
Non-U.S. Universities with Herpetological Programs
Oxford University, Oxford, England.
Cambridge University, Cambridge, England.
University College London, London, England.
James Cook University, Townsville and Cairns, Queensland, Australia.
University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia.
University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia.
University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia.
University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW. Australia.
University of Wales, Bangor, Wales.
Ackerman, Lowell (ed.). 1997. The biology, husbandry and health care of reptiles. 3 volumes. TFH Publications, Neptune, NJ.
ASIH, no date. Career opportunities for the herpetologist. American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, Washington, D.C.
Asma, Stephen. 2001. Stuffed animals and pickled heads: the culture and evolution of natural history museums. Oxford University Press.
Barthel, Tom. 2004. Cold-blooded careers. Reptiles 12(12): 64-75. Burcaw, G. Ellis. 1975. Introduction to museum work. American Association for State and Local History, Nashville.
Cato, P. and C. Jones (eds.). 1991. Natural history museums, directions for growth. Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock.
Janovy, John. 1985. On becoming a biologist. Harper & Row, NY.
Myers, George. 1970. How to become an ichthyologist. TFH Publications, Neptune, NJ. Basically the same info needed to become a herpetologist; slightly dated.
Pietsch, T. and W. Anderson (eds.). 1997. Collection building in ichthyology and herpetology. American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists Special Publication 3, Lawrence, KS.
Rajan, T. 2001. Would Darwin get a grant today? Natural History 110(5): 86.
Sprackland, Robert. 2001. To the parents of a young herpetologist. Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society 36(2): 29-30.
Sprackland, Robert. 1990. College herpetology: is it for you? Northern California Herpetological Society Newsletter 9(1): 14-15.
Sprackland and Hans-Georg Horn. 1992. The importance of the contributions of amateurs to herpetology. The Vivarium 4(1): 36-38.
Sprackland and Sean McKeown. 1997. Herpetology and herpetoculture as a career. Reptiles 5(4): 32-47.
Sprackland and Sean McKeown. 1995. The path to a career in herpetology. The Vivarium 6(1):22-34.
SSAR. 1985. Herpetology as a career. Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Cleveland.
Winsor, Mary. 1991. Reading the shape of nature: comparative zoology at the Agassiz Museum. University of Chicago Press.
Zug, George, L. Vitt, and J. Caldwell. 2001. Herpetology: an introductory biology of amphibians and reptiles. Second edition. Academic Press, San Francisco.
...is the author of The Professional Guide to Lizards and Giant Lizards. You may learn more about his work and download free PDFs of some of his articles at his website, Robert Sprackland's Herpetology World.