How to become an Arachnologist

So you want to be an Arachnologist?

You just need to immerse yourself in the world of eight-legs: read, watch, connect, share & study.

I recently did an interview with a high school student from Indiana, who wanted to be an Arachnologist. This is not a common occurrence, in terms of a high school student expressing interest in this field of study, and because there are actually relatively few Arachnologists out there to act as role models!

I Tweeted about the interview, and a few people were quite intrigued by this, and asked me how they could train to be an arachnologist: a question worthy of a blog post! So, here are some thoughts and ideas, separating into three categories: elementary school, high school and finally, students entering college or University.

The younger years:

Kids like bugs. Children are naturally fascinated by arachnids: often not exhibiting as much fear as adults. They are curious, keen observers, and sponges for neat factoids about spiders and their relatives. At this age, responsibility for fostering arachnophiles really falls upon parents and teachers. Within the classroom, teachers should be encouraged to take kids outside, think about doing units/projects about natural history, and see about getting special activities into the classroom that focus on ‘biodiversity’. To me, it matters less that these activities are about spiders (or insects), but that they are celebrations of the natural world. It’s about keeping kids keen on the natural world continually engaged and interested in the natural world.

Parents can do a lot outside of the home – connecting with local naturalist clubs could help connect youngsters with some mentors and experts. Getting kids out to “Bug shows” is also a great idea – these are sometimes done through local museums, colleges or community centres. I always like to scroll through photos from these kinds of events: you can really see the enthusiasm on kids’ faces! Birthday parties could also be an opportunity to bring in biologists instead of clowns or princesses. A few quick web searches will reveal a suite of amazing workshops out there.

Bug shows: keeping kids exciting about arthropods. Photo by Sean McCann.

Bug shows: keeping kids exciting about arthropods. Photo by Sean McCann.

The teenage years:

I currently have two teenagers in my house, and this is a very interesting age: an age where habits get set, interests develop, and passions for hobbies either solidify or disappear. In the classroom setting this is where some students can really get turned on to science and biology, and for those keen on natural history, most students find the curriculum doesn’t satisfy as they are looking for a lot more. The high school student who interviewed me is a good example: she wanted to take courses more related to insects and spiders but such courses just don’t exist at high school – if lucky, they may just show up as part of the biology unit.

For those teenagers wanting to become arachnologists, some work is required. It may be possible to connect with local naturalists, or perhaps the nearest museum or college/University. These places may help facilitate the interests, and may even allow opportunities to have volunteers work with an insect of arachnid collection. Getting into an actual lab or research museum could be a positive life-changing experience for a teenager, but certainly isn’t an opportunity available to everyone.

I think during the teenage years the Internet and social media are invaluable tools. Heaps of information is available thought organizations such as the American Arachnological Society, or the International Society of Arachnology. Facebook groups or Twitter can also be a great way to connect with other Arachnologists: I personally use Twitter all the time to discuss spiders with colleagues from around the world, and these networks can also help spread the news about exciting discoveries in Arachnology.

Unfortunately it is rather difficult to recommend specific “spider courses” for teenagers wanting to become arachnologists. Instead, becoming an arachnologist at this age is really about learning what you can, wherever you can, and trying to connect with other arachnologists. For those wanting more academic pursuits, the best advice I can give to aspiring arachnologists is to become a good naturalist: observe, record, and be fascinated about the natural world. Good things will always come from this! In school, take the sciences and maths, especially biology, and when it’s time to head to College or University, think about selecting one that offers some courses in entomology.

Arachnologists get to study these cool things... Photo by Sean McCann.

Arachnologists get to study these cool things… Photo by Sean McCann.

Off to college!

There are virtually no Arachnology programs at colleges or Universities, and instead college student should look to the sister discipline of Entomology. Many (most?) Universities offer some introductory entomology courses, and in these courses it may be possible to get some exposure to Arachnology. The instructors of these course can probably help point to other resources or local people with additional expertise or interest in arachnids.

When seeking an undergrad program, I do advise aspiring arachnologists to take a strong Biology or Zoology Major: this will give a great grounding and foundation and be perfect for a springboard to graduate school. It’s certainly worth considering selecting a University that has an entomology program, or at least a Department or solid offerings of insect-themed courses, and has some arthropod-themed research happening.

If time and money permits, there are some “spider courses” out there and perhaps it’s worth taking one of those (although I have never taken one, I have heard they can be quite worthwhile). At the very least, do LOTS of reading, including books like The Biology of Spiders and field guides like Rich Bradley’s (for North America), and stay active on social media.

Becoming an arachnologist is about finding good mentors: these people may or may not be arachnologists, but their encouragement and support is so important and can change lives. This was certainly the case for me, and an entomologist at University of Guelph helped facilitate my interests in Arachnids and gave me a desk to work at, and offered plenty of encouragement. My independent undergraduate research project about spiders set me on a path to becoming an arachnologist.

It’s a bit of a shame, and a bit of a mystery that Arachnology just doesn’t show up on the radar for very much of K-12 nor does it show up in undergraduate programs: becoming an arachnologist with a deeper level of training really happens at graduate school, so for those who are really passionate about arachnids may need to take a long view and plan on moving on to a Master’s degree. This certainly doesn’t mean you can’t be an arachnologist in other ways! (Some great Arachnologists I know don’t have advanced degrees). However, the more advanced training can help formalize and structure the learning process.

Meet Catherine! She's an Arachnologist, and is searching for spiders... Photo by Sean McCann

Meet Catherine! She’s an Arachnologist, and is searching for spiders… Photo by Sean McCann

How do you know you are an Arachnologist?

This is a great question, and a difficult one to answer! There certainly isn’t a certificate or plaque that you get once you become trained as an Arachnologist. As you accumulate knowledge you will also realize that there is so much we don’t know about Arachnids. New species are described all the time, and we continually hear amazing stories about their natural history. Expertise is all relative, and once some expertise is acquired, the limits of our knowledge become exposed.

You don’t need to publish in scientific journals or do experiments on spiders to become an Arachnologist. You do have to learn some biology and arachnid natural history, and do your best to share what your know with others. Bottom line: once you have acquired enough knowledge about Arachnids, and people start looking to you for advice and answers to their own questions about our eight-legged friends, you can probably call yourself an Arachnologist.

So, to sum it up: to become an Arachnologist you need to read, watch, connect, share & study.

But..

Are there jobs for Arachnologists? That’s a topic for another post…

 

Robb Bennett: a most exceptionally wonderful person (and Arachnologist). Photo by Sean McCann.

Robb Bennett: a most exceptionally wonderful person (and Arachnologist). Photo by Sean McCann.

 

 

Advertisements

16 thoughts on “How to become an Arachnologist

  1. Fantastic stuff! To become an arachnologist, the most important thing is definitely to spend time observing spiders!

    Two notes to add to the younger/teenage years categories:

    Students can start their own natural history or even spider-specific clubs in elementary school if they are keen! Last year I was invited to come to a couple lunch-hour meetings of the spider club of a local elementary school and it was awesome. A group of grade 2 and 3 students who were interested in learning about spiders asked the librarian if she could teach them, and she helped them set up their club, and found people like me to come talk to them. I guess the key thing is to find a teacher or parent who is willing to sponsor such a club, although of course the students could just do their own thing as well.

    Bugguide (http://bugguide.net/node/view/15740) is an excellent resource and community where naturalists can post photographs and notes about the spiders (and insects) they find and get IDs from experts. I have learned a lot of what I know about spider identification so far from this site!

    • GREAT comment, Catherine – thank you. Indeed, starting their own ‘spider club’ is a terrific idea. I’m glad you raised that. And those groups can also connect to other folks via social media. Excellent idea. Yes, the key thing is indeed finding a teacher/parent to sponsor such an activity.

      Thanks also for mentioning BugGuide – I meant to do that but it slipped my mind! It can be a terrific resource (although sometimes variable in quality, I find, for Arachnids)

  2. I would add that documentation of your finds is becoming ever easier with inexpensive digital cameras and smartphones. I have found that honing my photography skills while out on a spider ramble is a great way of keeping track of our finds. Not only that, but photographic documentation of the fauna we see can often be useful for science as well!
    Another aspect to bring up is that younger spider enthusiasts should be encouraged to keep some spiders as pets. A large jumping spider (for example) is fascinating to observe, and provides a lot of experience in spider behaviour. Spiders often behave very naturally, even in smaller enclosures, and so the data you can glean from watching them in a cage is often very transferable to field situations. In addition, local spiders can be held for a few weeks of observation, then released if necessary.

    • Excellent comments, Sean: Thanks! indeed, the phones on smartphones are getting truly amazing, so there’s almost no excuse for not taking photos of the cool spiders you can find out in the wilds of the world. I also love your other point – i certainly kept *all* kinds of pets when I was a kid, and it helped me to fall in love with nature.

  3. To spider fans who might be in California this summer, the one-week “spider camp” offered at San Francisco State University’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus in August is a dream. I took it 15 years ago and benefited immediately–plus it was one of the most enjoyable weeks of my life. Comfortable camping, beautiful setting, seriously informative, surrounded by friendly people just as devoted to wildlife as you are: how could you top it? Highly recommended. SF State doesn’t offer it every year, though. https://www.sfsu.edu/~sierra/Course_spiders.html

  4. I have a few things to add from my own experience, having spent many years as an amateur. Most arachnologists are highly supportive of amateurs, and some more generous than seems humanly possible. If you want to get into arachnology, you will find a supportive group. Love for spiders is the only bond we need. (I’m not familiar with the workings among other groups of arachnids.)

    When it comes to scholarly research and publications, it appears that the arachnological community does not care what your credentials are. You just have to know your stuff. If you know your stuff and give it your all, the opportunities come. I don’t have a degree, although I attended some college (3 years), and yet I’m now looking at as many as two publications co-authored with other arachnologists this year.

    Sure, there are people in the community who discourage amateurs, but there are more who go out of their way to empower them. Find those who empower and ask them how you can help contribute to the field. You’ll be doing arachnology in no time, and arachnology will be better for it.

    I do have to add one caveat though. Everything in life is harder without a degree. The person with a degree is assumed to be capable. The person without has to prove it over and over. Without a degree, you get fewer opportunities, work harder for the opportunities that you do get, and get paid less. To get the same opportunities and pay as a degreed person, you have to be much better than the norm. Hardest of all, most big institutions have strict policies about only hiring those with degrees. So get a degree if at all possible, but know that it’s not a prerequisite for participation in arachnology.

    • Thanks, Joe – a wonderful comment – it is much appreciated. I agree very much with everything you say – the Arachnological community is as rich with amateurs as it is with “professionals”, and at least in my country, amateurs far outnumber the professionals. Indeed credentials matter less than someone’s knowledge base. But your caveat is important, and I believe that those with a degrees must be far more open and non-judgemental of those without those formal credentials.

      In response to the comment on FB – it’s very true that the post is geared towards more formal education – mainly because that’s the perspective I wanted to write about, largely because the initial post idea come from that context. However, it’s completely correct that “becoming” an arachnologist is possible at any age or career stage, and perhaps I should consider writing a post in the future about that exact topic i.e., how to become an arachnologist more through non-traditional routes. However, Joe, I may ask you to co-write that with me, because you have a wonderful depth of experience and expertise that would prove valuable in such a post!

      • I’d be glad to help with that post. I may have a bias though, because everything I have ever been paid to do I taught myself. I have a system for learning that works for me far better than formal education does, at least at undergrad levels. The system is simple: pick a project, dive in, discover what you don’t know, learn it, and repeat until it’s done. I don’t retain information that I’m not applying to some project. Anyway, that sort of approach might be helpful for those not interested in taking the academic route.

  5. Pingback: Recommended Reads #52 | Small Pond Science

  6. I very much enjoyed reading this post. Whilst not an arachnologist myself, I am interested in all things wildlife and don’t discount spiders and their relatives from this (tho I will admit I find them harder to handle, but I’m working on that)!

  7. Pingback: Spiderday (the second) | Arthropod Ecology

  8. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 08/05/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

  9. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge! I have recently been considering becoming an arachnologist, currently I have 3 jumping spiders as pets and am so in love. Quite often I do catch and release. (I actually emailed you a couple months ago asking about releasing spiders found in the house, not sure if you remember, but I greatly appreciate your response!) In addition to the 3 jumpers, I have a garden orb spider living in my kitchen window (have you ever seen one of those in action during meals? It’s so neat to watch!) My curiosity with arachnids has stemmed from childhood, so to be able to study them professionally will be a dream come true! I just started a Facebook page called Spiders of North America (link here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1740436739516827/ ), and hope to have others join and share their interest and photos. I wish for it to be a place of education for everyone, including myself! There is so much to learn about our 8 legged friends, and the thought of learning more about them makes my heart race! Thank you again, your blog is amazing, as always!

  10. Pingback: Arachtober | Arthropod Ecology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s