Thursday, March 10, 2016

"How do I become an entomologist?"

I am asked this question with enough frequency that I figure it is about time I wrote down an answer. Mind you, I may not the best authority on this. I failed higher academia in spectacular fashion, and am now a writer first and entomologist second. In my defense, I went to college in the 1980s when molecular biology became all the rage. Thankfully, entomology has evolved significantly over the decades, in mostly positive ways.

Are you sure you want to be an entomologist?

There are more career opportunities in entomology than ever before, and which one you select will largely drive your educational path. Please be advised that you may have several different careers over your lifetime, and that by the time you leave the university and enter your profession, things may have once again changed dramatically. Let's look at some of the stereotypes and fantasies about entomology careers; then we will talk about real opportunities and educational paths. Finally, we will look at ways to get a head start on an entomology career from high school or even elementary school.

Margarethe Brummermann in the field
Great Expectations

Social media and YouTube have made science, and scientists, glamorous in ways that could not have been imagined only five or ten years ago. Unfortunately, you might be getting the wrong impression. Entomologists are not always flying off to exotic, unexplored rainforests and deserts collecting species new to science. Sure, some lucky professionals get to do this, but not often. Most of their time is spent writing grants to fund such expeditions; and in the lab maintaining live specimens, curating preserved collections; supervising and training staff, students, and volunteers; and doing other administrative tasks.

Skill Sets

There is a great deal of repetition of tasks, and if you get bored easily, you might consider another line of work. Do you write well? Good, because you will be expected to publish in scientific journals. You should hone your communication skills regardless because you will need to work well with others, from administrators to the general public. Computer skills will always be valued, and if you can repair the vehicle that breaks down on every field outing, you'll be a real hero. In short, scientific skills are not the only ones you will need, and probably not the most important.

Great People

The good news, maybe the best news, is that the overwhelming majority of entomologists are truly outstanding human beings. They are helpful, kind, dedicated, and have a degree of curiosity unmatched by those in any other discipline. They have a great sense of humor, too. The lifespan of most entomologists seems to be extraordinarily long, despite the dangerous chemicals they may use in the course of their work. I think that humor and curiosity thing comes into play here.

Mark Zloba in the lab at the Eulett Center in Ohio
A World of Possibilities

The standard career for most entomologists continues to be in the area of "economic entomology." That is, entomologists are employed by government agencies and the private sector to control insect pests in agricultural and forest ecosystems. Medical entomologists will be under increasing demand to combat arthropod-borne diseases at home and abroad. My personal hope is that the demand for "exterminators" in residential and commercial neighborhoods will decrease as customers begin to understand the alternatives to chemical insecticide applications in the home or business; but, for now at least, the pest control industry is another major employer of entomologists.

Universities hire entomologists as professors, collection managers, researchers, and other positions of importance. You will be expected to produce research and publish about it to attract both new students, and government and corporate funding for your department.

But Wait, There's More!

Slightly more obscure careers include forensic entomology, whereby entomologists help solve crimes through interpretation of insect evidence at crime scenes. Veterinary entomologists help protect and treat our pets and livestock when they become vulnerable to arthropod parasites. Live insect exhibits at zoos and museums are becoming ever more popular, and entomologists take care of those animals. Insects are also reared in laboratories as food for other captive animals like reptiles; and increasingly as food for people, too. Still other insects are bred in laboratories as biological controls for crop, nursery, and garden pests. Those include some very tiny wasps and flies.

Abigail Parker collecting at night
Educational Paths

Most American universities no longer offer undergraduate degrees in entomology. Some entomology departments have folded altogether, or merged with "plant pathology" or related fields of agricultural science. Many students find their way into entomology by accident, taking a class in the subject and getting hooked. They pursue advanced degrees in entomology from there. Departments of "ecology and evolutionary biology" give perhaps the greatest freedom to students wanting to pursue research opportunities, so do explore that avenue. Do your homework to find a university, public or private, that works for you and worry about paying for it later. You do not want to find yourself in a setting where there is gender bias, racism, and other forms of abuse that stifle your individuality and undermine your determination and mental well-being.

What You Can Do Right Now

Anyone of almost any age can participate in entomology through several avenues. Here is what I would recommend for young people, especially:

  • Volunteer at a natural history museum, insect zoo, botanical garden, or other institution that has an entomology component.
  • Seek mentors. You can often find mentors by volunteering as mentioned above. Find one who is trustworthy and encouraging.
  • Participate in 4-H, FFA, Explorer Scouts (if that is still a "thing." It was in my high school days), and other youth programs that are career-oriented.
  • Go online. There are infinite resources you can use and participate in, from social media that can help you find mentors, to "citizen science" endeavors like i-Naturalist, Project Noah, Odonata Central, Moth Photographers Group, and many others. There are "forums" for people who breed insects and arachnids in captivity, and e-mail listservs of professional entomologists where you can "lurk" and/or ask questions. Ask a librarian to help you get started.

You can't ever start too young!
Be Yourself!
Above all else, be true to who you are. Use your instincts. Go where your "gut" tells you, but know that your path may change many times until you find one that agrees with you. Rarely do people choose entomology. Usually, entomology chooses you, because you are an exceptional individual who is not ruled by cultural "standards" that demand you earn x-dollars of income, be an obedient little cog of a worker, and never question anything. You should be proud of being unique.

Sources: "Bioscience Careers: Entomologist"
"Careers in Entomology"
"Entomology Education & Careers"
"Careers in Entomology". Note that the Young Entomologists' Society sadly no longer exists.


  1. From Rebecca Di Donato on Facebook:

    "What?! It's *not* going to be glamorous??? But I wanted to frolic through the meadows with my butterfly net!

    But, seriously, great article. I've just embarked on a two-year research Masters studying ants. When I started my undergrad in 2010, entomology was so far off my radar I would have laughed if someone suggested it, but after two units and an inspiring Associate Professor, I was hooked!"

  2. From Alex Harman on Facebook:

    "I liked that a lot! For your tips, I can attest that 'go online,' 'find a mentor,' and 4-H are extremely helpful. I'd also include that social media, which most people use anyway, can be very helpful to meet other insect folks, and there are FB groups for nearly any category of insects."