A program that focuses on the theoretical and empirical study of the principles and processes underlying the origin and maintenance of biological taxonomic diversity; related biogeographical and evolutionary patterns; and studies of the origin, diversification, distribution, and extinction of species and lineages. Includes instruction in phylogenetic analysis, structural development and molecular evolution, classification and taxonomic theory, biological nomenclature, taxonomic assignment, evolutionary theory, biological surveys and inventories, computer modeling, and database building.

Systematic biologists focus on classifying the varying types of organisms according to their diverse traits.

Despite the earth's complex biodiversity, most of its inhabitants have been neatly catalogued according to their evolutionary roots. Systematic biologists work to sort plants, animals, and other organisms into categories based on their common traits or ancestries. This is no simple process; each organism has its own species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, and domain. This hierarchy is known as a taxonomy, and it represents the evolutionary history of each living thing, with each divergence signifying a new development.

Field scientists will occasionally discover new organisms that must be organized so as to better understand their place in the natural order. Systematic biologists use a system called binomial nomenclature to assign scientific names to each organism; this consists of two Latinate words, the first being the genus the organism belongs to and the second a unique word, which is often descriptive or a reference to the scientist who made the discovery.

Work in systematic biology may include...

  • Maintaining specimen collections and records
  • Answering questions from the public
  • Identifying species based on visual characteristics
  • Researching evolutionary history
  • Writing and revising reports and papers

Systematic biologists are often responsible for managing scientific libraries and databases. They may be employed by universities, natural history museums, or environmental organizations. Many work as educators or environmental outreach coordinators, running programs that help the public to understand the field. Most systematic biologists do conduct research and publish their findings.

Most systematic biologists begin by obtaining a Bachelor's degree in biology with coursework in evolutionary biology, taxonomic theory, ecology, and genetics. It's recommended that students put a particular emphasis on botany, zoology, or microbiology at the undergraduate level. This is also one of very few fields where it is useful to know Latin, and it can be helpful to understand data science, geography, computer programming, or paleontology. Those who want to continue and hone their studies pursue Master's or Doctoral degrees, often under the umbrella of evolutionary biology programs.

The work of systematic biologists makes it possible to understand the natural world, even as someone without a background in the sciences. If you love putting things in their proper place so they're easier to find, this could be an exciting career.

For more information, please follow the links below:

  • The Society of Systematic Biologists advances the science of systematic biology in all its aspects of theory, principles, methodology, and practice, for both living and fossil organisms.
  • The Systematics Association is an organization committed to furthering all aspects of systematic biology through conferences on key themes related to systematics and lectures on policy and topical issues in evolution and ecology.
  • The Willi Hennig Society promotes the field of Phylogenetic Systematics, honoring Hennig’s strategy for recognizing and naming groups of organisms, or taxa only in cases where they are evolutionarily real entities.