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.

Do I Want to Be 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 behavior.

These biologists may find employment with state and federal agencies, academic and private institutions, non-profit entities, and animal facilities. The work environments 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 evolutionary origins of the mating behavior of a certain 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.

Job Requirements

Degrees in evolutionary biology are found at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Those who wish to pursue research and teaching, however, must usually earn a master's or doctoral degree in evolutionary biology or another life science field. The following table lists the basic education and skill requirements for becoming an evolutionary biologist:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Bachelor's degree; master's and PhD for most research and teaching*
Degree Field Evolutionary biology or related life science**
Experience Requirements vary widely with position and hiring agency***
Key Skills Strong skills in science, critical thinking, complex problem solving, mathematics, active learning, and writing****
Computer Skills Scientific software used to analyze data, spreadsheet and word processing software such as Microsoft Office ****

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 reflect more multidisciplinary studies, combining evolution with ecology or systematics. Most have similar core requirements of general biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Evolutionary biology, genetics, development, and ecology may be some evolution-specific courses offered in an undergraduate program. Programs include many other life science courses for electives such as animal behavior, parasitology, mammalogy, plant systematics, and zoology.

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 biologist or technician. A certain number of courses must be in subjects related to wildlife or ecology; some evolutionary programs 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 experiences might count for the required work experience for certain job positions 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 graduating with 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: Find Employment with a Graduate Degree

After completing a graduate degree, one may qualified for jobs at the same places that offer jobs to those with bachelor's degrees in the field. An applicant with a master's or PhD may qualify for a much higher level position and allowed to be more involved in research. Those with a PhD can choose to stay with the university they earned their degree from and perform research. Teaching is usually a requirement for working at an academic institution. 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.

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 peer 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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