Taxonomy is a branch of biological or life science that focuses on the identification or discovery of species, and the taxonomist categorizes them accordingly. Consequently, this is a critical element of science and one that seeks to further our understanding of the world around us.
As is the case with the many divisions and jobs in science, becoming a taxonomist involves careful studying and an understanding of exactly what the role entails; this isn't just about working with animals: there is a comprehensive, date-driven side to the role.
This article deep dives into the world of taxonomy. We will discuss the role and its responsibilities, which skills you will need for success, and practical information such as hours, salary, and working conditions. Finally, we review the steps you need to take to discover if taxonomy is the best career for you, and how to get started if you think it is.
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What taxonomists do
Taxonomy refers to occupations that involve classifying and organizing data. Occasionally, taxonomy can focus on data from any sector, such as financial taxonomists, digital taxonomists, or business taxonomists. However, the established and common meaning refers to biological taxonomy, which is the scientific field of classifying organisms, such as plants and animals, as well as other natural materials, such as rocks or minerals.
A key part of the biological science discipline, taxonomists are instrumental in the categorization and analysis of different life-forms. Their work helps us understand the relationships between different species, supports the identification of new organisms, and contributes to related fields, such as environmental jobs, like conservation and climate studies.
Taxonomists can be based in several sectors, such as education, the government, the private sector or freelance. Whatever sector they might work in, taxonomists will probably spend time undertaking field work where they will be collecting species, photographing them, taking samples, and in some cases, performing dissections or other similar procedures.
Although the scope of the role is relatively focused, taxonomists have quite a few responsibilities. Here is a list of the main ones:
- Collecting biological specimens and logging them appropriately
- Analyzing the biological information of living organisms
- Mapping out this biological information to categorize organisms
- Academically researching biological information
- Identifying new trends, categorizations, or organization of organisms and backing this up with research and evidence
- Critically evaluating data
- Understanding, identifying and naming species according to categorization conventions and applying this to new organisms
- Communicating research, methodologies and rationale to audiences of varying understanding
- Training and development of new taxonomists
- Writing reports and articles
What the job is like
Being a taxonomist provides a varied working life, with time spent in the office and laboratory, as well as field-based tasks and some traveling. This section explores the taxonomist role in detail, including the working environment, the working hours, and job satisfaction in order for you to understand if it might be the job for you.
Taxonomists enjoy a structured and controlled working environment. Most of their day will be spent working in offices or laboratories, with the standard risks associated with desk-based work (such as correct seating and display equipment usage). Laboratory work might require using some personal protective equipment, and there may be the need to use or work in close proximity to certain chemicals.
The working environment will be reasonably social and collaborative, as teamwork is highly beneficial in this field, due to sharing ideas and inputs. That said, there will be long periods of time where you will need to concentrate and have time to work independently so you can focus on certain projects.
Some taxonomists are field based, which means they will be required to travel, sometimes to inhospitable places. In these situations, taxonomists will usually be accompanied by professionals who can help them navigate the local area and plan for any hazards.
Taxonomists will work a fairly standard working week, with weekly hours amounting to 40 or thereabouts. The working pattern will often be Monday to Friday, too. Nevertheless, depending on individual taxonomist roles and the sectors they operate in, taxonomists might need to work more atypical patterns if needed. This could include weekends, shift coverage, or longer times “on call” if traveling is involved, or a particular project is taking priority. It’s best to check with the individual employer in the interview process to understand their expectations.
Taxonomists, being a fundamental part of the biological sciences industry, generally experience very high levels of job satisfaction. A survey by Nature showed that 64% of respondents were satisfied with their career.
Taxonomists need to analyze and classify new species, and as time goes on, this becomes an ever-harder job. They might spend years focusing on one type of life-form, and if this lifeform happens to be undiscovered, the feeling of being part of a scientific breakthrough can be immensely rewarding.
Despite these high levels of satisfaction, research revealed that one area taxonomists are less satisfied about is the earning potential of the role. Only 54% of those surveyed were happy with their salary, and there was a big divide between those working in the field and those who work in academia.
Due to the slow recovery of the science industries due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent tentative investment in these areas due to the gradual economic recovery, the job market for taxonomists is experiencing muted growth. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 1,700 new job openings each year up to 2030, and an annual growth rate of 4%, which is slower than the national average. Although the job market is still a little jittery, there are still opportunities to move into taxonomy.
According to the BLS, the average salary for a taxonomist is $90,010 ($43.27 per hour). For comparison, the average salary in the US overall is $58,260 ($28.01 per hour). Entry-level employees earn on average $48,260 per year, with mid-level employees earning around $82,530 and top-level taxonomists can bring home around $133,830 on average.
The five US states that pay the most for the taxonomist role are the District of Columbia ($124,290), Maryland ($107,850), Connecticut ($105,710), New York ($104,780) and Massachusetts ($102,540).
Essential skills and qualities
Due to the technical and scientific nature of the role, and the elements of critical analysis that it commands, taxonomists need to have a specific set of professional skills and qualities. If you are interested in pursuing this career, then take some time to review the skills and qualities below and self-assess your fit to the role.
Here are the main skills and qualities for taxonomists:
- Analytical skills and critical thinking ability
- Communication skills, specifically focused on articulating technical information to a wide range of audiences
- Observational skills
- Researching and report-writing skills
- Mathematical and statistical ability
- Rationality and an ability to see things from different people’s points of view
- Logic skills
- High attention to detail
- Presentation skills
- Reflection ability and an aptitude for learning and self-development.
Steps to become a taxonomist
Everyone needs to begin their career somewhere. If you think that the above skills and abilities resonate with who you are, and that the role of taxonomist sounds right up your street, then maybe it’s time to think about how to get started in this profession. The following section outlines the steps to becoming a taxonomist.
Step 1: Determine if it’s the right job for you
Take careful time to assess if taxonomy is the right career path for you. There is a lot of training involved, so you want to be sure that you have made the right decision. For a good fit, not only will the role sound interesting and make sense from the perspective of salary and hours, but your natural skills — and the ones you enjoy using — should fit with what it takes to be a taxonomist. Think about whether your values and aspirations fit what is expected of the role. It obviously helps if you have a passing interest in life sciences too!
Another good resource to use to understand which roles are a good fit with your skillset and interests is a career assessment. One example is CareerHunter’s six-test assessment. This assessment is created by organizational psychologists and asks you questions based on your career and training, as well as other factors that shape a career. Based on this, you get a result which matches you with jobs and training. This approach will enable you to make the most out of your career.
Step 2: Focus on the right subjects at school
Becoming a qualified taxonomist will involve higher education, and so preparing for this will mean that you have to carefully consider which subjects to focus on at school. Naturally, the sciences will be a good place to start — not just life sciences or biology, but chemistry and physics as well. Physics often involves learning how to structure experiments and formulate research.
Other good subjects would be English language and mathematics to support the statistical and analytical elements of the role. If you have the opportunity to study it, Latin can be useful because of how biological classifications are written.
Step 3: Earn a bachelor’s degree
There are several good subjects to major in at university if you continue your journey to become a taxonomist. A bachelor’s degree in biology or life sciences would be a great fit, but degrees in another science (especially physics, as discussed above), ecology, botany, statistics or even mathematics, would be equally beneficial. There are many universities that are renowned for degrees in this area, so it’s worth looking around when considering where to go.
Step 4: Pursue further training
Whereas you can start your practical training to become a taxonomist as soon as you have graduated with a bachelor’s degree (or even earlier, as a school leaver), it is advisable to carry on with higher education and look at obtaining a master’s or doctoral degree (PhD). These degrees would be focused on a major in taxonomy.
The reason further education is important is that firstly, it makes your résumé stand out from the crowd. You will not only have the right credentials, but you will also demonstrate professional credibility. Completing your higher education will also dramatically increase your earning power. Companies and organizations will be more willing to offer high salaries to those candidates who can demonstrate a good understanding of the taxonomist discipline.
Being a taxonomist can be a tremendously rewarding role. Not only will you be helping the public and the scientific community advance their understanding of life, but you could also be instrumental in discovering and categorizing new species.
At the end of the day, taxonomy is a critical element of science, and as such, you need to ensure that the role is right for you and that you concentrate on the correct subjects at school and at university. Research the role and what you will be doing. This way, you can make an informed decision about taxonomy as a career and put your best foot forward in getting started in this really interesting profession. Good luck!
This is an updated version of an article originally published on 22 October 2014.