If you don’t mind the idea that you will get bitten, scratched, and defecated on by almost every type of reptile and amphibian…then you can learn how to become a herpetologist!
Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians, but many people asking “how” to become a herpetologist really mean, “How can I be involved in working with reptiles and amphibians,” rather than necessarily wanting to know how to plan for a research career in herpetology.
The steps of getting a degree for people who are interested in pursuing herpetology involves majoring in college in biology or a biological subfield such as ecology or environmental studies, and then specializing in reptiles and/or amphibians. However, lots of people who have other careers become really good herpetologists by reading, getting together with other people interested in herpetology (such as a local, regional, or state herp society), and having experiences with herps in the field or as pets. College requirements in the field of herpetology are a strong background in biology with additional courses in genetics, mathematics, wildlife ecology, and other special areas that are of interest. Most herpetologists get degrees in biology or similar but specialize in reptiles and amphibians in some way.
What all of these jobs have in common is training in a biological field. The herpetological emphasis is put there by the worker! For example, a person might be trained in ecology and do environmental impact studies for the government. If that person is also a herpetologist, reptiles and amphibians might be the animals studied to evaluate changes in the environment. A medical researcher with training in hematology might, if interested in herpetology, study some aspect of the blood of reptiles or amphibians. It is rare to find a job that considers someone to be a herpetologist first!
Below is a list of some of the possible career paths that can focus on herpetology. These jobs, at a minimum, typically require a college degree (usually in biology, zoology, environmental science, wildlife management, or similar) and having a master’s degree can be very beneficial as well here. Some of these careers (research scientist/professor) absolutely require a doctorate in an appropriate field (typically a biology doctorate or biology subfield). The careers that require advanced degrees (PhD’s) usually allow for greater freedom in the type of work you are doing and allowing for you to pursue your own interests, as conducting your research is a large part of the job.
The goal of herpetological research, as with other branches of biology, is to learn as much as possible about our special interest and to communicate this knowledge to others. Publication of this research in journals is how scientific knowledge is communicated and most employers look for people who have shown an ability to do research and also to publish it. Developing writing skills should therefore be considered a must in college.
Professor/ Research Scientist: This job is often what people think of when they talk about doing research. A professor usually runs a lab that focuses on their specialty (e.g., evolution of snakes) and often involves formal college-level teaching. These jobs can include many facets of biology, such as ecology, taxonomy, genetics, evolution , physiology, etc., it all depends on the person’s research focus!
Museum Career: Can include curator positions (similar in many ways to professor, but may be without formal classroom teaching and requires some aspect of the maintenance of the museum’s herpetology collections), as well as general collections management, and lab management that supports the research being done at the museum.
Nonprofit Organization: Can include teaching/educating the public about the animals (often with a conservation focus as these jobs are often through a conservation organization), lobbying for policy related to these animals, and sometimes using social media use to share findings.
Environmental Consultant: These jobs usually require performing field surveys specific to state or local laws, often to assess whether endangered species occur where land development is planned and then write reports on the findings. Consultants may scout out and delineate specific habitats or record species on-site and keep an eye out for any state or federally listed species. This requires lots of field work, meaning working outdoors in different environments and weather.
Zoo Career: Taking care of the animals at the zoo. This would include cleaning cages/tanks, being involved in breeding programs, feeding animals, and helping with medical intervention if necessary. May include working with the public as well (show-and-tell with various animals at the zoo).
Fisheries and Wildlife Management (Government Agencies): These jobs are with state and federal agencies and can include assessing habitat, monitoring animal populations for management purposes, reviewing permit applications, and working on special projects as assigned.
Medical Research: Medical research involving herps can take many forms. Some examples include snake venom research related to immunology (developing antivenoms to treat snake-bite victims), and drug development from venoms (e.g., Gila monster venom is used in diabetes drugs) . Many of these job holders have a medical degree, a PhD or both!
Veterinarian: Taking care of the animals (pets or zoos) – and becoming specialized for herps.
Breeding reptiles/amphibians: Depending upon where you live, this will require space, permits, and a great deal of knowledge about the animals, although it would not necessarily require an advanced degree. A good understanding of genetics and the animal’s ecology is still vital for this career path.
There are many other possible avenues that could be explored if working with herps as a career is the goal!
A great website to learn more is
SOCIETY FOR THE STUDY OF AMPHIBIANS AND REPTILES
By: Sara Ruane, PhD, Assistant Professor,Department of Biological Sciences, Rutgers University-Newark and Lisa Rothenburger, Somerset County 4-H Agent, Rutgers Cooperative Extension