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How Do I Become an Ornithologist?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2016
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To become an ornithologist, the most common route is to earn an undergraduate degree in biology and then either or both a master's and a Ph.D. in a biology program with a strong focus on the biology of birds. Afterwards, graduates typically apply for membership with a professional ornithology society and commence work in this field. Occasionally, students are able to earn a degree in one of the very few programs solely devoted to ornithology; otherwise they will earn a different undergraduate degree. Additionally, some people are bird biology experts without having attended school. These paths are less traditional and most people will enter this profession by earning degrees in biology.

Ornithology is a subspecialty of biology, so the logical course to become an ornithologist is to first become an expert in biology. Students should plan to attend a college offering a bachelor's degree with this undergraduate major. If individuals intend to study ornithology in depth, they may want to look for schools that have a strong program in the biology of birds. This can help prepare them for Ph.D. or master's programs at a later point.

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Toward the end of an undergraduate program, students must weigh whether they wish to continue school. Some people with a bachelor's degree do become ornithologists and might work for researchers or at natural history museums. They tend to do this at a lower level of pay, have fewer job opportunities, and are unlikely to be able to get grants to initiate research, however. There are, thus, disadvantages to not attending graduate school.

To avoid limiting professional opportunities, most students continue their education to become an ornithologist by earning a Ph.D. or a master's degree in biology. The Ph.D. is usually a better degree to earn because it allows people to teach and research; whereas the master's degree (MS) may somewhat limit employment opportunities and pay. The MS is shorter, though, which can be appealing to students who would like to start working as an ornithologist sooner.

Since there are so few programs that only specialize in ornithology, students need to look for biology departments that have a number of faculty, who are ornithologists, or schools that have a strong ornithology subspecialty. It's usually easy to find this information by speaking with college biology departments, reading faculty bios, and finding out if a university participates in any ongoing bird research projects. Universities near large or protected bird colonies may be more likely to offer student research and study opportunities.

If the Ph.D. is sought, ideally students should also design a dissertation that focuses on ornithology. Some experts in this field suggest writing it in chapters that are publishable in scholarly publications. Being able to publish research before graduation can help people become more known in their field, make it easier to find work, and usually fulfill requirements for entry to professional organizations to become an ornithologist.

After finishing educational programs, individuals will become an ornithologist by finding work in the field. Professionals may commence work in a variety of research jobs, in direct animal care employment, as teachers, or as lecturers. Belonging to ornithology professional organizations usually assists graduates, and may even provide job search resources for members.

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