Being a herpetologist, or a scientist specializing in reptiles and amphibians, could be an exciting career choice for anyone passionate about these incredible animals (Vitt, 2014).
But if this is a route you would like to pursue, how do you go about starting a career in herpetology?
A herpetologist will generally need a Bachelor’s degree in a scientific field and hands-on experience working with reptiles or amphibians. Depending on the herpetology position, a higher degree, such as a Master’s or PhD, may also be required.
Many employers are understanding of the difficulty in obtaining a degree in herpetology, however, and will take hands-on experience into consideration.
Don’t let the difficulty of finding a herpetology degree program scare you away from pursuing a career in herpetology.
Thankfully, hands-on experience with reptiles and amphibians is becoming easier and easier to acquire, and is sometimes even considered a replacement for a degree for certain positions.
How Can I Study Herpetology in College?
Typically, a herpetologist will have a degree in science such as biology, ecology, zoology, or another natural science.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find a school offering a degree specifically in herpetology (although we made a list here).
At a graduate level, there may be more ability to customize your degree to fit your goals. Many herpetologists start out with a generalized scientific undergraduate degree, before specializing in their graduate degrees.
Larger schools may have herpetology classes, even if they don’t have a herpetology degree, or a herpetology club. They may also have a science lab with live reptiles or amphibians.
The more you talk to fellow students, professors, and advisors, the more likely you are to find others at your school that share your passion. This may allow you to create opportunities for yourself to develop herpetological experience.
For example, a herpetology club or science class outing could be focused on herping, and teach proper herping methods and identification of native species. A trip to a zoo or museum could be focused on the institution’s herpetological collections.
Keep in mind that some organizations also offer herpetology programs outside of a school setting, and these can provide an excellent basis of education. For example, the author of this article is a graduate of The Amphibian Foundation’s Master Herpetologist Program.
Learn more about where to study herpetology in this article on our blog.
How Can I Gain Hands-On Experience?
Many herpetologists start out with a more generalized science degree, and find a way to gain herpetological experience by working or volunteering with reptiles and amphibians at a facility like a zoo or museum.
I personally began volunteering with reptiles and amphibians with no educational background in science, and only later started pursuing further scientific education.
Hands-on experience is crucial when looking to start a career in herpetology. While graduate-level degrees often allow a greater ability to choose a niche topic of study, it can still be hard to find a herpetology-focused degree.
Thankfully, many organizations understand this, and accept candidates with a general degree and hands-on experience.
Start by brainstorming what organizations exist in your area that might keep reptiles and amphibians such as:
- Natural History Museums
- Science Museums
- Non-Profit Organizations
Spend some time reading the websites for your local organizations. This will likely give you a sense of whether they might be a good fit, and if they typically accept volunteers or interns.
Experience with keeping pet reptiles or amphibians will likely be a plus when applying for a volunteer position or internship with an organization, as it demonstrates your interest and shows that you have at least a base level of knowledge of their care.
Keep in mind that a position working with live animals, especially in an entry level position, may include the less glamorous jobs such as cleaning enclosures. But remember that this is still excellent hands-on experience that can go on a resume.
What Do You Want to Specialize In?
It’s important to keep in mind that herpetology is an extremely broad field! Since herpetology encompasses all reptiles and amphibians, most, if not all, herpetologists pick a much smaller subset of animals to specialize in.
Some may even pick a category as narrow as a specific family, such as ambystomid salamanders or ranid frogs, or even narrower- perhaps even just one or two species.
Even within the range imposed with a smaller subset of animals, there are many jobs herpetologists may hold.
Some may work in captive management, such as behind the scenes care of a zoo or museum’s herpetological collection.
Others work in conservation, breeding endangered species for release into the wild.
Still others work in research, either observing live animals in the wild or captivity, or working with preserved specimens of deceased animals.
The type of reptile or amphibian you want to work with, and the capacity in which you want to work with them, will also have a huge impact in determining the best course for you to take in gaining education and experience and you work towards starting your career.
That said, you do not have to have all of these details figured out in advance! Many herpetologists, myself included, figure out the specifics of what they want to do while in the process of obtaining the education and experience with which to start a career.
Who Can Help You Along The Way?
Think about what herpetologists may be in your community. There are likely more than you realize!
The same institutions that could offer a volunteer or internship positions will likely have professional herpetologists working for them. Many may be happy to answer questions from an aspiring herpetologist.
Just remember – be polite and courteous, and understand if they are not able to assist you.
If you are looking to communicate through email or phone, spread your search further. You may be able to find a great contact in another city, state, or even country!
Find books that are tailored to your interests within herpetology. Thankfully, a wide enough range of herpetology-related books exist that you can find one on most related topics.
Many authors will have a contact page or email address on their website. Try reaching out to some favorite authors. Again, be polite and courteous, and understanding if they are not able to assist you.
This article was written in collaboration with another Master Herpetologist certified by the Amphibian Foundation.
Vitt, L. J., & Caldwell, J. P. (2014). Herpetology an introductory biology of amphibians and reptiles. Academic Press.
Amphibian Foundation Master Herpetologist Program, Amphibian Foundation