Zahirul Islam has a BSc Agriculture degree from the Bangladesh Agriculture Institute, Dhaka; and MSc and Ph.D degrees from Imperial College, University of London. He worked briefly for the Mennonite Central Committee and the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation. His career as an entomologist started in 1977 when he joined the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and began working with David Catling on the Deepwater Rice Pest Management Project. He worked for BRRI for 24 years and then spent six years at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). At IRRI, he developed an IPM training course which was later offered in eight Asian countries. Upon his return to Bangladesh, he served on its Agriculture Commission and taught insect ecology at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Agricultural University.