Tom Near came to NIU as an undergraduate in the CHANCE program at the insistence of people who saw his potential. In the summer of 1992, he participated in a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates project, collecting snake tissue samples for molecular genetic analysis in three Midwestern states. He also began conducting undergraduate research, learning molecular genetic and analytical techniques that he has since used very successfully in his career.
After leaving NIU, Near entered the Ph.D. program in Ecology, Ethology, and Evolution at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It was here that his interest in fish emerged, and he completed his Ph.D. in 2000, conducting molecular evolutionary research on a variety of fish species native to the central and southern U.S. This work continued during postdoctoral appointments at the Center for Population Biology and the Department of Evolution and Ecology at the University of California, Davis until 2003. He then accepted a position as assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee.
In 2006, Near accepted a joint position as assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and curator of ichthyology at the prestigious Yale University Peabody Museum of Natural History. He has authored 49 scientific journal publications primarily in the area of ecology and the molecular evolution of fish.