How to Become an Evolutionary Biologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Find out how to become an evolutionary biologist. Research the education requirements, and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in evolutionary biology.

Should I Become an Evolutionary Biologist?

Evolutionary biologists study the changes that occur in plants and animals over time. They also look at the generational history of certain organisms so they can understand their origins. As part of the main field of biology, evolutionary biology incorporates knowledge and skills from genetics, systematics, zoology, and behavioral biology.

Evolutionary biologists may find employment with state and federal agencies, academic and private institutions, non-profit entities, and animal facilities. The work environment of an evolutionary biologist can vary greatly. For example, they might work in a lab with genetic material from a certain plant species, or they might work outdoors, studying the evolution of mating behavior in a specific bird species. Those working in a lab usually maintain regular work schedules, but those who study in the field might need to travel and observe animal species overnight.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree; master's and PhD for research and teaching
Degree Field Evolutionary biology or related life science
Experience Requirements vary widely by position and hiring agency.
Key Skills Strong skills in science, critical thinking, complex problem solving, mathematics, active learning, computers, and writing.
Salary $74,720 per year (median salary for all biological scientists)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, University of Colorado, Job postings (July 2012), O*Net OnLine.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Some undergraduate program titles include only evolution, while others include multidisciplinary studies, combining evolution with ecology or systematics. Most have similar core requirements of general biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Evolution-specific courses may include evolutionary biology, genetics, developmental biology, and ecology.

Because a degree in evolution usually provides students with a broad array of biological science courses, graduates may be qualified for entry-level jobs as wildlife biologists or zookeepers. Some programs may even qualify as pre-health if the student chooses to complete courses that are required prerequisites for graduate programs in medicine.

Success Tips:

  • Plan ahead to match course requirements for certain job positions. Agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service usually have specific education requirements for positions as wildlife biologists or technicians. A certain number of courses must be in subjects related to wildlife or ecology; evolutionary programs may have more of these kinds of courses than others.
  • Participate in internships and research. Zoos, wildlife rehabilitation centers, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all offer internship opportunities and may count for college credit. Volunteer work may also be an option, especially when an internship program is highly competitive. Both opportunities may count as work experience when applying for jobs after graduation. Students involved in undergraduate research work closely with faculty from their program, forming professional relationships that can be beneficial when applying to graduate programs.

Step 2: Acquire a Job with a Bachelor's Degree

The field of evolutionary biology has many different career routes. Some in the field choose to go on to graduate school immediately after completing a bachelor's degree, while others choose to enter the workforce for a time and possibly stay there permanently without pursuing further education. Some positions that require only a bachelor's degree may offer raises in pay and position after working with the employer for a time and gaining more experience. Other positions that involve research may have a limit to how high a person can go without a graduate degree.

Success Tip:

  • Develop professional networks. Those who plan on entering a graduate program in the future may benefit from positive professional relationships built while working in the field. Many master's or PhD programs require professional letters of recommendations, which may come from coworkers or supervisors.

Step 3: Complete a Master's Degree or Doctorate in Evolutionary Biology

Many university departments that offer undergraduate degrees in evolutionary studies also offer graduate degrees. Because the faculty is the same, available course subjects might be similar, only offered at a more advanced level and with more of a focus on research. Seminars also provide more in-depth knowledge of certain topics.

Master's degree programs may be offered with thesis and non-thesis options. Students choosing the thesis option must be involved in some form of research. Some work completed in a master's program may apply to a PhD program. A PhD program requires coursework and a dissertation to be approved, written, and orally defended. Some examples of doctoral student research in the field include evolutionary relationships of certain groups of animals and determining certain steps in vertebrate evolution.

Success Tip:

  • Determine whether a university's program is supported by faculty with certain interests. Each university employs a limited amount of faculty members, each member with a specific research interest. The interests of the faculty with whom the student works may determine a graduate student's research. If students have a very defined research idea planned, some programs may be more desirable to enter because they have faculty with similar interests.

Step 4: Secure Employment after Graduate School

A position as a postdoctoral researcher (postdoc) is common after graduate school to gain more experience in a specific field before trying to start a research lab as a professor. It may be possible to stay with the university that granted the PhD to perform postdoc research, but postdoc positions at other institutions are commonly sought. Fellowships for those with a doctorate might also be available at zoos, with duties including developing and conducting research in certain areas of biology and using the information gained for conservation purposes. Teaching is also an option for someone wanting to work at an academic institution but not do research.

Success Tip:

  • Join a professional organization. Depending on one's education and interests, one may become a member of a professional society or organization that provides resources such as continuing education and access to published literature. This is a good way to stay updated with current information about one's field, as well as make professional connections.

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