Ethologist isn’t one of the professions that most readily comes to mind when thinking about careers related to animals… for most people, that is. If you’re looking into this occupation that combines the fields of biology and psychology, there’s a good chance that you have some knowledge of one or both of these subject areas. Ethologists are experts in the science of animal behavior, and to develop the knowledge, they need a college education. A bachelor’s degree is the minimum educational requirement for ethologists, but a master’s degree is necessary for more advanced and senior-level roles in ethology.

ethology degree

IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

What Is an Ethology Degree?

Simply put, ethology is the scientific and objective study of animal behavior. Ethologists usually focus on animal behavior as it presents under natural conditions, and they tend to view behavior as an evolutionary adaptive trait. “Behavioral ecology” is another term used to describe the field of ethology, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The field of animal behavior is concerned with understanding the causes, functions, development, and evolution of behavior.

  • The causes of behavior include all of the stimuli that affect behavior, whether external (food or predators) or internal (hormones or nervous system changes).
  • The function of behavior includes both the immediate effects of behavior on an animal, such as attracting a mate, and the adaptive significance of the behavior in a particular environment, such as huddling together in cold weather.
  • The development of behavior is concerned with the ways in which behavior changes over the lifetime of an animal.
  • The evolution of behavior is concerned with the origins of behavior patterns and how these change over generations of animals.

Most scientists directly involved in animal behavior are found within two disciplines: Ethology and comparative psychology. These disciplines overlap greatly in their goals, interests, and methods. Ethologists usually are trained in departments of biology, zoology, entomology, wildlife, or other animal sciences, whereas comparative psychologists are commonly trained in psychology departments.

The interdisciplinary field of ethology is now a well-recognized scientific discipline that has become the subject of numerous peer-reviewed journals that cover new developments in the field, including:

The desire to understand animals has made ethology a rapidly growing field. Since the turn of the 21st century, ethologists have re-examined many aspects of animal behavior that have long been considered understood by established experts, only to reach new conclusions.

Because ethology is considered a topic of biology, ethologists have been concerned particularly with the evolution of behavior and the understanding of behavior in terms of the theory of natural selection. In fact, Charles Darwin, whose book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals influenced many ethologists, is considered by some to be the first modern ethologist. 

How to Become an Ethologist

If you want to be an ethologist, you should start preparing for your career during high school. Sign up for plenty of science and math classes, including Biology I and Biology II. Consider taking Advanced Placement (AP) Biology if you want to get a feel for the rigors of a college-level course and potentially test out of an introductory-level class in college. Studying psychology in high school is also a good idea, since the field of ethology combines biology and psychology. Be sure to keep your grades up and take college preparatory-level courses in all subjects so that you will be ready to pass college-level writing courses and your general education requirements.

As you begin your college search, you will need to do a bit of research in selecting your degree program. You might be looking at a degree in ethology, animal behavior, animal sciences, evolutionary biology or even biopsychology. Some students opt for a broader major in biology or biological sciences, sometimes – but not always – with an academic concentration in ethology or animal behavior. During college, aspiring ethologists should do their best to gain field experience, which they can do through animal behavior internship opportunities in environments like the following:

  • Zoos
  • Aquariums
  • Parks, especially national and state parks
  • Wildlife refuges and rehabilitation facilities
  • Animal shelters
  • Science museums
  • Animal and conservation societies
  • The retail pet industry
  • Pet and animal training
  • Government agencies

In addition to gaining experience through internships completed off-campus, you may also find opportunities to gain laboratory research experience at school by serving as a research assistant under the guidance of faculty.

Some ethologists start their careers with only a bachelor’s degree, beginning in entry-level roles like analytics specialist, animal study technician or laboratory animal care and research support associate. However, if you want to advance to a role like the head of laboratory sciences or director of shelter behavior training, having an advanced degree can put you on this path. While a master’s degree or a doctorate isn’t required for all higher-level roles in ethology, employers often prefer candidates with a graduate education for these positions.

One great aspect of the field of ethology is that students have plenty of options as to how they pursue their careers. Some ethologists jump right into an entry-level role in the field with only a bachelor’s degree and some internship experience, and they never need to go to graduate school to reach their career goals. Others pursue a doctorate, undertake postdoctoral training, and work in senior research and leadership roles. 

What to Expect When Pursuing an Ethology Major

When pursuing a degree related to ethology – whether your declared major is ethology, animal behavior, biopsychology or evolutionary biology – you should be prepared to complete plenty of coursework in biology, including laboratory coursework. Foundational biology coursework in biological mechanisms and in evolution and ecology, along with introductory classes in psychology and animal behavior, are some of the first classes you’re likely to take as an undergraduate student of ethology.

More extensive studies in biology may include molecular biology, biological structure and function, animal physiology, organismal diversity, vertebrate anatomy and genetics. The more specialized coursework students take may include classes such as behavioral ecology, biological theories of behavior, neurobiology, the evolution of animal behavior and adaptive responses, mechanisms of animal behavior, animal communication and cognition, the social behavior of different types of animals and primate behavior and sexuality.

Students of ethology may benefit from studying other branches of science, including chemistry and physics. Math is also part of the field of ethology. Students may take classes such as biostatistics and mathematical models in biology, probability and statistics, differential equations and regression modeling.

Can You Earn an Ethology Degree Online?

Ethology degrees involve a considerable amount of laboratory work and hands-on field experience, so they are more complicated to earn online than degrees in subjects that encompass less laboratory work. That said, there are some degree programs that use a hybrid format to allow students to complete as much of their coursework online as possible, as well as a limited number of fully online ethology programs. Students should be aware, however, that online ethology programs still require fieldwork experiences that must be done in person and are often designed for working professionals in the field, which means that students may be expected to already possess a level of knowledge.

Don’t forget about your general education coursework. Both Bachelor of Science (BS) and Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree programs typically include general education coursework in the physical and social science, the humanities, the arts, mathematics and communication. BA degrees may include more liberal arts classes, while BS degree programs include more science and math classes. 

What to Know About Ethology Graduate Programs

At the graduate level, as at the undergraduate level, students of ethology can choose from several potential degree options. First, they should decide whether to seek a degree at the master’s level or the doctoral level. Most master’s degrees pertaining to animal behavior are either Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) degrees. A master’s degree in ethology or animal behavior may encompass studies in the core concepts of animal behavior along with neuroethology, behavior genetics, evolutionary psychology, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience and the biological basis of development.

At the doctoral level, the most common courses of study are the traditional Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). PhD programs tend to be research-focused, so students pursuing this path should be prepared to undertake a considerable amount of original research and write a dissertation. Ethologists may earn a PhD in biology, animal behavior, ethology or even a subject as specialized as animal cognition. Naturally, which type of PhD program you choose will affect which courses you will take.

A biology degree is the broadest of these options, and subfields of animal behavior, like animal cognition, are the narrowest subjects of study. A program of study with the title “animal behavior” might include core coursework in research strategies and current issues in animal behavior, with elective courses used to flesh out each individual student’s curriculum. A program that emphasizes animal cognition specifically might include coursework in the foundations of animal cognition as well as animal thinking, animal behavior across the senses, cognitive ethology, the evolution of cognition and apes and language.

Generally, DVM programs are more clinical in focus. These degree programs train students to work as veterinarians in clinical practice, although you can also leverage this advanced degree to acquire a role as a veterinary behaviorist. If you choose this doctoral degree program, you can expect to study not only the anatomy, physiology and behavioral ecology of different types of animal species but also the skills and techniques used in the clinical practice of veterinary medicine. As such, students whose primary interest is in animal behavior and evolution should consider whether learning to diagnose animals’ illnesses, perform veterinary surgical techniques and prescribe pharmaceutical medication fit their personal and professional strengths and interests. Not all ethologists perform job duties related to the clinical practice of veterinary medicine.

Some ethologists opt to pursue a management-focused degree, such as a Master of Business Administration (MBA), to prepare to work in leadership roles. Scientists who choose an MBA degree to build a set of management skills often select concentrations in management, leadership or project management, but specialized STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs also exist. 

Ethologist Salary and Employment

Earning your ethology degree is an accomplishment and a milestone, but it’s still only the first step in your professional career. What can aspiring ethologists expect after graduation?

Some of the work settings where ethologists are most likely to find employment include the following:

  • Colleges and universities: Many animal behaviorists work at colleges and universities, where they perform a combination of teaching and research duties. Professors at universities often apply for grants to fund the research they conduct in laboratories on campus.
  • Zoos, museums and conservation societies: Ethologists are sometimes hired to work at zoos, aquariums, museums, parks and similar settings to fulfill roles that range from research assistant or educator to animal behaviorist, curator or researcher and principal investigator.
  • Agencies, organizations and private-sector companies: Ethologists may work in research or in the hands-on management of animals in capacities such as managing wildlife populations, studying endangered species, improving livestock production and controlling pests.

For biologists as a whole, the median annual salary was $66,350 as of 2020, according to the BLS. The 23 percent of biologists working for the federal government earned the most money, with a median wage of over $81,000, while the 40 percent of the field working for state government reported earning somewhat lower wages, with a median of $59,660. Salary.com put the average annual salary for animal scientists, specifically, at the somewhat lower rate of $53,620 as of 2022. However, one factor that contributes to these salary differences is likely to be the level of education required. Ethologists have considerable career opportunities with only a bachelor’s degree, so many ethologists start their careers without the graduate degree that may be required for other job roles. As such, they tend to have a lower earning potential than their colleagues who pursue a higher level of education.

How lucrative could an ethology education be with the right experience and high-level position? For senior-level management roles in ethology, such as head of laboratory sciences for international pharmaceutical companies, salary ranges in the $150,000 to $200,000 ballpark aren’t unheard of. 

Additional Resources

Will I Be Accepted Into a Master’s Biology Program If My Undergrad Degree Isn’t in Biology?

Are There Programs Where I Take My Master’s and Ph.D. in Biology Simultaneously?

What Are the Best Degrees for Animal Lovers?