Update: John Capitanio is a Neuroscience and Behavior Unit core scientist at the California National Primate Research Center and a research psychologist at the University of California, Davis.

I was one of those rare people who went off to college from high school already knowing that I wanted to be a psychologist. Human and animal behavior fascinated me. From the behavior of the chickens, rabbits and dogs that we raised, to the seemingly intractable differences of opinion that existed among Americans during the 1960s when I was in school, understanding why organisms behaved as they did was what interested me. As an undergraduate, I took the usual variety of psychology courses, but my interest remained unfocused. Then, one day in my Abnormal Psychology class, we had a guest lecturer who described the classic research of Harry Harlow on the effects of early deprivation on later social behavior in rhesus monkeys. I had just finished writing a paper on autism for that class and was struck by the similarities in behavior between autistic children and the behavior of the monkeys. I was also struck by how the behavioral deficits could be reversed in the monkeys. After class, I approached the instructor and asked if could work in her lab. I remember clearly going to the lab for the first time and seeing her groups of monkeys, and the impact that had on me. I was hooked!

But compelling as they were (and they still are!), it was not only the monkeys themselves that hooked me. My interest in monkey behavior solidified my interest in Psychology, for a number of reasons. First, there seemed to be so much going on in the monkeys’ social groups that seemed to affect their behavior – dominance relationships, male-female relationships, the presence of infants, whether it was the breeding season, even the spatial layout of the cage. What I observed in those cages highlighted for me the importance of development, the role of learning and the environment, and the physiological mechanisms underlying behavior – all traditional psychological topics. Certainly an evolutionary orientation is important – common descent is the reason, after all, why monkey behavior is similar to human behavior. But how the environment (and in particular the social environment) facilitated or hindered these evolution-based tendencies to behave in a particular way was what got me. The second reason I stuck with a psychological orientation to primatology was that psychology (at least the part that appealed to me) was interested in whole organisms – not molecules or cells, except insofar as they have an impact on a complete animal trying to get about in its world. Finally, a psychological orientation emphasized rigorous experimentation in an attempt to understand causal influences on behavior. Psychology departments still are places where training in methodology and statistics is strongly emphasized.

To a large extent, my education took the same path as yours would today if you were trying to make a career in primatology as a psychologist. I got a broad background in psychology as an undergraduate by taking a variety of courses. I did a student internship in a primate behavior lab (I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to gain practical experience in a lab while you are still an undergraduate!). I searched out (with my undergraduate advisor’s help) graduate programs where work was being conducted that was of interest to me, and in graduate school broadened my background even further with advanced coursework both inside and outside of Psychology. And after receiving my Ph.D., I went on to obtain additional post-doctoral training. It was at that point that I discovered a big hurdle in my career – getting a job as a primatologist is hard! Primates are complex creatures, and their care in captivity is expensive. Many small colleges and universities cannot afford to keep even a small colony of primates for research purposes. Zoos can be difficult places to try to conduct research because primates are there for other reasons – primarily for display purposes – and the extent to which you can experimentally manipulate situations is very limited. I spent a summer at an island colony where there were two dozen troops of rhesus monkeys to see if that was a feasible place to do research. I quickly came to appreciate the kinds of hurdles that field researchers have to overcome, but got frustrated by the lack of experimental control I had over the situation, and felt that the kinds of questions I was interested in (most of which are questions of the type ‘what causes x’) couldn’t be answered to my satisfaction in that environment.

So, what are the career options for someone with an interest in primates from a psychological perspective? As my experience shows, going the traditional academic route – a faculty position in a psychology department – is hard, but not impossible. If you love what you are doing, don’t mind working long and hard to reach your goals, and have the flexibility to relocate for the series of jobs you are likely to get, that’s a good start. You also need to have good ideas and be successful in getting support (grants, fellowships, institutional aid) for your research, since the cost of primate research is high. The traditional academic route, however, will not make you rich! If you divide your salary by the number of hours you work, you will quickly see that there are many more lucrative professions. Upon graduation, for example, a good computer programmer – hardworking, dedicated – with a BS degree will probably earn more money than you will with a Ph.D. If you’re going into it for the money, be advised that you can do better elsewhere!

What about if you don’t want to earn a Ph.D. and go the academic route? Other career possibilities include being a technician, an animal caretaker, or an enrichment coordinator. These jobs can be found both in academic labs and in labs in private industry, and generally require a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. They can offer reasonable salaries, opportunities for advancement, and stimulating work. You can learn about the availability of such jobs from reading Science magazine and other professional publications, but the best source is probably the Primate-Jobs section of the Primate Info Net website. I rely heavily on a full range of technicians for all of my research. They are active participants in my research program, and I value greatly their advice and insights. Without technical help, much of the research conducted by psychologically-trained primatologists couldn’t be done.

Are there ethical issues that you might have to consider if you are thinking about a career as a psychologically-oriented primatologist? It is important to realize that there are ethical issues involved in virtually any approach you may take to studying nonhuman primates (or any other living organism). Everyone has their own ‘zone of comfort’ about what activities they feel they personally can and cannot do comfortably with animals. Typically, this ‘zone of comfort’ shifts depending on the species under consideration, and it can also shift over time as new questions become of interest. Part of your education as an undergraduate and as a graduate student (indeed, for your entire career) should be to explore and understand your own comfort zone. For example, much (but not all!) of what a psychologist studies is best studied in carefully controlled situations in captivity. Some consider captivity itself to be unacceptable ethically. Those of us who do captive research, however, recognize that it is our responsibility to insure that our animals are not only physically healthy, but also psychologically healthy. Both are not only possible in captive situations but are essential for both ethical and scientific reasons. Others have concerns about ‘invasive’ research. This is a phrase that some people use very broadly, grouping together everything from drawing blood samples to administering drugs to performing any type of surgery. Different peoples’ comfort zones are located at different places along this continuum. Where is your comfort zone? Why is it located where it is? What assumptions about yourself and about animals does the location of your own comfort zone imply? How does it constrain the kinds of research questions you might ask? Of course, not all psychological research involves using such procedures. But research of this type (e.g., studies of stress, neuroscience studies) is leading to exciting developments in understanding both human and nonhuman health and behavior, and is of great interest not only to public and private funding agencies, but to the general public at large. As you progress in your education and career, you will have to find your own ‘zone of comfort’, and this will certainly influence your career choices. Keep an open mind (a necessity for a scientist!), and don’t shy away from dealing with complex ethical issues.

A psychological perspective on primate behavior focuses on some basic questions. How is an animal’s behavior and physiology influenced by its social environment, and how does the animal’s behavior and physiology shape its environment? Does the animal’s relationship with its mother facilitate or constrain its relationships with other animals when it gets older? What do animals know about their world and about each other, and how do they come to know it? How do the brain, the mind, and behavior interrelate? How are different species of primates – both human and nonhuman – similar to each other, and how are they different? A psychological perspective aims to help you ‘get into the mind’ of another creature. The research is very exciting, stimulating, and rewarding! You must be motivated, bright, flexible, inquisitive and creative. Get as much experience as you can at the undergraduate level, and plan on working hard. While all of these things will not guarantee you success, they will give you an edge in a highly competitive, but very rewarding, career.

Primate Info Net (PIN) is maintained by the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WNPRC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with countless grants and contributions from others over time. PIN is an ever-growing community effort: if you’d like to contribute, or have questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.