Many people dream of having a zoo research-related career... and rightfully so! Whether they are based at a zoo or aquarium, university or other institution, zoo researchers are responsible for acquiring the necessary knowledge to help zoos moving forward and continuously improve their roles in conservation, research, education and animal welfare. Of course such an exciting and rewarding career is a popular choice... but, on the down side, it is definitely not the easiest one to get to your paid dream position.
I recently had the honour to join the panel discussion on the 21st BIAZA Research Conference, in North Wales, as an early-career zoo researcher. The topic was "How to make zoo research happen and get it published" and it also included a discussion on how to get into it. One (very relevant) word stood out during that discussion: persistence. It may sound cliché to say so, but it is indeed the truth: the key to succeed in a zoo research career is to use your passion for it to drive you through the obstacles and challenges that may arise.
But how to even start?
I know how overwhelming it can be, at the start of your career, to look at all the different options and paths and struggle to choose the "best" one. There is not one right path but several ones that may lead you to success. A quick search through the professional backgrounds of different zoo researchers will show you a diversity of career paths, some of them more unusual than others. However, as diverse as these career paths are, they do share some similarities.
I have put together five tips that will help you getting to your dream zoo research position, based not only on personal experience but also on the experience of fellow zoo researchers that are further into their careers than I am. Lets have a look:
1. Study... Study Hard: Relevant Education!
A solid education is absolutely vital for a successful zoo research career. It will give you the opportunity to learn and further develop a wide range of skills: both research-related and personal ones. Starting with an undergraduate academic degree, usually within life sciences, you can either choose a more general subject, if you are not yet sure what research topics you want to specialise yourself in, or, depending on the country's education offer, a more specific one (some countries even offer zoo-specific degrees!). Pursuing postgraduate education (masters degree and perhaps even a PhD!) is something I definitely recommend, as it will allow you to further refine important skills and give your CV some extra shine, but of course whether you have/want to do it will also depend on your other career experiences.
Unfortunately, having a strong education background alone will likely not be enough to get you the job of your dreams (even if you are a rocking student with top marks!), due to the high competitive nature of this field. It will, however, widen the range of options of what to do as a next step.
2. Research-focused work experience.
There is no such thing as "too much" experience in research! The road to become a better researcher never really ends, because we can always take another step to learn something new or catch up with new methodologies. So why not starting as soon as possible? You can do research internships, placements and/or volunteer for relevant organisations. Yes, you can do it in a zoo - many zoos and aquariums offer research internships - but you can also do it in other institutions, such as conservation NGOs or even universities.
When to do it? Whenever you can! It could be while at university (once a week in your day off or perhaps during the summer break), you can have a placement year during your degree (some universities offer that option) or you can do it after you graduate! Be proactive, search for organisations of interest and see which ones fit in with your situation: how flexible are they with frequency and times of work? Can you fit it in with university work and/or a paid job? I must add a word of caution, however: do not "bite off more than you can chew" (I certainly have before...). Everyone is different and therefore you should find your own balance: be proactive and aim at doing as much as you can to build up your CV, but do not try to do too much at the same time just to end up jeopardising part of your work, or worse, your mental health.
Unfortunately, these work experience opportunities are very often unpaid. Some of them (not many) may be paid, but the competition for them will be high and you will probably need previous (unpaid) experience to get one of those anyway. I know it can sound a bit unfair to work for free, but think in a more positive way - it is a stepping stone to get to your dream job, and you will likely enjoy the experience so much that you will (almost!) forget you are not being paid.
How to support yourself in the mean time? Of course that depends on each person's economic and social situation, but in my case I had to simultaneously do other unrelated, yet paid, jobs to support myself while doing these unpaid experiences. Tiring? Yes. Sometimes a bit frustrating? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely YES!
3. Other experience: expand your horizons!
Another thing you can do to enrich both your skills set and CV is to gain experience in other areas that are not directly research-focused but that are still relevant to your career. Within the zoo environment, specifically, I highly recommend you to try and gain hands-on experience in different departments, as it will help you becoming a well-rounded zoo researcher. You could perhaps try the education side of zoos and develop valuable skills on one of the key missions of modern zoos. Or, as I did, try zoo keeping for a while. This will help you understand the logistics and challenges of zoo management, something that is very important when planning and doing research in a zoo. It will also help you break the communication barrier that is sometimes seen between zoo researchers and other zoo professionals: if you have experienced both sides, you are more likely to understand them.
Note that all these are fully realised careers in their own right, and you may realise that, actually, being a zoo keeper or educator (or other) is more your cup of tea than a full on research career. Either way, you will definitely find that these experiences will be very valuable throughout your professional life. Again, like in the previous point, these opportunities are often unpaid... but very rewarding!
4. Network your way to success!
That's right, networking is a key aspect in a zoo research career! What's the point of having a shiny CV and an impressive professional background if no one is aware of it? By meeting people in the same field, you will start building a network and getting your name out there. There are several ways of doing it. One that comes more naturally is to use the previous three points (education and work experience) to meet people: your colleagues, supervisors and managers are likely to be valuable connections that you may want to keep. You can also go to conferences, symposiums and other events. I know some of them can be quite intimidating at first, but there are a few that have a more informal atmosphere that will perhaps be more suitable to start with. For people that may struggle a bit more with social interactions, there are some good courses and workshops available that help overcoming this obstacle.
Another powerful tool that I personally love using for networking: social media! Yes, I know social media has a bad side too, but you can really use it to your advantage. LinkedIn is a very good one because it is very professionally-focused: just make sure you keep your profile up to date and that you are active in it (e.g. share a lot of zoo science in there!). Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are also very popular and therefore very good channels for networking, but of course as they are not strictly professional, it may be more challenging to use them while keeping the balance between personal and professional life. Furthermore, Facebook groups can be a fantastic way to socialise with like-minded people, share stories and also learn a lot.
5. The Fun One: Visit a lot of Zoos!
If you are a zoo enthusiast by default, you may already be doing this. Maybe you have been doing this your whole life... Perfect! For people that have the opportunity to do some travelling and visit some zoos and aquariums (locally, nationally and abroad), this is a great opportunity to experience first hand the massive diversity that is out there. Even only as a visitor, you can really learn a lot from a zoo visit: differences in zoo management (of course some details may not be visible from a visitor-only perspective), enclosure design, conservation programmes, research projects, education initiatives, etc etc... Even without realising, this knowledge can be a powerful tool in the future, for example when you are trying to design your research project and/or a multi-zoo study.
Summing it all up...
As I said before, there is not just one way of getting into a zoo research career, but whichever path you choose for yourself, I believe these five tips can help you succeed and get to where you want to be! If this is truly your passion, don't give up, even if you started in a totally different path and only realised it later on: it's never too late! Just persist through!
Ricardo is currently doing his PhD on captive parrot behaviour and welfare at the University of Birmingham (UK). Find out more about his background here.