Environmental scientists and hydrologists often split their
work between offices, laboratories, and field sites.
Federal, State, and local governments employ over half of
all environmental scientists and hydrologists.
Although a bachelor’s degree in an earth science is adequate
for a few entry-level jobs, employers increasingly prefer a
master’s degree; a Ph.D. degree is required for most high-level
research or college teaching positions.
The strongest job growth should be in private-sector consulting
Environmental scientists and hydrologists use their knowledge
of the physical makeup and history of the Earth to protect the
environment, study the properties of underground and surface waters,
locate water and energy resources, predict water-related geologic
hazards, and offer environmental site assessments and advice on
indoor air quality and hazardous-waste-site remediation.
Environmental scientists conduct research to identify
and abate or eliminate sources of pollutants or hazards that affect
people, wildlife, and their environments. These workers analyze
and report measurements or observations of air, food, water, soil,
and other sources and make recommendations on how best to clean
and preserve the environment. Understanding the issues involved
in protecting the environment—degradation, conservation, recycling,
and replenishment—is central to the work of environmental scientists,
who often use their skills and knowledge to design and monitor
waste disposal sites, preserve water supplies, and reclaim contaminated
land and water to comply with Federal environmental regulations.
Many environmental scientists do work and have training that
is similar to other physical or life scientists, but is applied
to environmental areas. Many specialize in some specific area,
such as environmental ecology and conservation, environmental
chemistry, environmental biology, or fisheries science. Most environmental
scientists are further classified by the specific activity they
perform, although recent advances in the understanding of basic
life processes within the ecosystem have blurred some traditional
classifications. For example, environmental ecologists
study the relationships between organisms and their environments
and the effects of influences such as population size, pollutants,
rainfall, temperature, and altitude. Utilizing their knowledge
of various scientific disciplines, they may collect, study, and
report data on air, food, soil, and water. Ecological modelers
study ecosystems, the control of environmental pollution, and
the management of resources. These environmental scientists may
use mathematical modeling, systems analysis, thermodynamics, and
computer techniques. Environmental chemists may study the
toxicity of various chemicals—how those chemicals affect plants,
animals, and people.
Hydrologists study the quantity, distribution, circulation,
and physical properties of underground and surface waters. Often,
they specialize in either underground water or surface water.
They examine the form and intensity of precipitation, its rate
of infiltration into the soil, its movement through the earth,
and its return to the ocean and atmosphere. Hydrologists use sophisticated
techniques and instruments. For example, they may use remote sensing
technology, data assimilation, and numerical modeling to monitor
the change in regional and global water cycles. Some surface-water
hydrologists use sensitive stream-measuring devices to assess
flow rates and the quality of water. The work hydrologists do
is particularly important in flood control and environmental preservation,
including ground-water decontamination.
Many environmental scientists and hydrologists work at consulting
firms, advising and helping businesses and government agencies
comply with environmental policy, particularly with regard to
ground-water decontamination and flood control. Environmental
scientists and hydrologists at consulting firms are generally
hired to solve problems. Most firms fall into two categories:
large multidisciplinary engineering companies, the largest of
which may employ more than 15,000 workers, and small niche firms
that may employ fewer than 50 workers. When entering the field,
prospects should consider the type of firm and the scope of the
projects it undertakes. In larger firms, environmental scientists
are more likely to engage in large, long-term projects in which
their role will mesh with those of workers in other scientific
disciplines. In smaller specialty firms, however, they may be
responsible for many skills beyond traditional environmental disciplines,
such as working with environmental laws and regulations, making
environmental risk assessments, writing technical proposals, giving
presentations to managers and regulators, and working with other
specialists on a variety of issues, including engineering remediation.
Environmental scientists who determine policy may help identify
how human behavior can be modified in the future to avoid such
problems as ground-water contamination and depletion of the ozone
layer. Some environmental scientists work in managerial positions,
usually after spending some time performing research or learning
about environmental laws and regulations. (Information on geoscientists, whose work is closely related
to that of environmental scientists and hydrologists, is located
elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Most entry-level environmental scientists and hydrologists spend
the majority of their time in the field, while more experienced
workers generally devote more of their time to office or laboratory
work. Many beginning hydrologists and some environmental scientists,
such as environmental ecologists and environmental chemists, often
take field trips that involve physical activity. Environmental
scientists and hydrologists in the field may work in warm or cold
climates, in all kinds of weather. In their research, they may
dig or chip with a hammer, scoop with a net, come in contact with
water, and carry equipment in a backpack. Travel often is required
to meet with prospective clients or investors. Those in laboratories
may conduct tests, run experiments, record results, and compile
Environmental scientists and hydrologists in research positions
with the Federal Government or in colleges and universities frequently
are required to design programs and write grant proposals in order
to continue their data collection and research. Environmental
scientists and hydrologists in consulting jobs face similar pressures
to market their skills and write proposals so that they will have
steady work. Occasionally, those who write technical reports to
business clients and regulators may be under pressure to meet
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
A bachelor’s degree is adequate for a few entry-level positions,
but environmental scientists are increasingly needing a master’s
degree in a natural science. A master’s degree also is the minimum
educational requirement for most entry-level applied research
positions in private industry, in State and Federal agencies,
and at State geological surveys. A doctoral degree is necessary
for college teaching and most high-level research positions.
Many environmental scientists earn degrees in life science, chemistry,
geology, geophysics, atmospheric science, or physics and then,
either through further education or through their research interests
and work experience, apply their education to environmental areas.
Others earn a degree in environmental science. A bachelor’s degree
in environmental science offers an interdisciplinary approach
to the natural sciences, with an emphasis on biology, chemistry,
and geology. In addition, undergraduate environmental science
majors should focus on data analysis and physical geography, particularly
if they are interested in studying pollution abatement, water
resources, or ecosystem protection, restoration, or management.
Understanding the geochemistry of inorganic compounds is becoming
increasingly important in developing remediation goals. Those
students interested in working in the environmental or regulatory
fields, either in environmental consulting firms or for Federal
or State governments, should take courses in hydrology, hazardous-waste
management, environmental legislation, chemistry, fluid mechanics,
and geologic logging. An understanding of environmental regulations
and government permit issues also is valuable for those planning
to work in mining and oil and gas extraction.
Students interested in the field of hydrology should take courses
in the physical sciences, geophysics, chemistry, engineering science,
soil science, mathematics, aquatic biology, atmospheric science,
geology, oceanography, hydrogeology, and the management or conservation
of water resources. In some cases, graduates with a bachelor’s
degree in a hydrologic science are qualified for positions in
environmental consulting and planning regarding water quality
or wastewater treatment. Curricula for advanced degrees often
emphasize the natural sciences, but not all universities offer
The American Institute of Hydrology offers certification programs
in professional hydrology. Certification is recommended for those
seeking advancement and for those seeking to upgrade their knowledge.
For environmental scientists and hydrologists who enter the field
of consulting, courses in business, finance, marketing, or economics
may be useful. In addition, combining environmental science training
with other disciplines such as engineering, or a technical degree
coupled with a master’s degree in business administration, qualifies
these scientists for the widest range of jobs. Environmental scientists
and hydrologists also should have some knowledge of the potential
liabilities associated with some environmental work.
Computer skills are essential for prospective environmental scientists
and hydrologists. Students who have some experience with computer
modeling, data analysis and integration, digital mapping, remote
sensing, and geographic information systems will be the most prepared
to enter the job market. A knowledge of the Geographic Information
System (GIS) and Global Positioning System (GPS)—a locator system
that uses satellites—is vital.
Environmental scientists and hydrologists must have excellent
interpersonal skills, because they usually work as part of a team
with other scientists, engineers, and technicians. Strong oral
and written communication skills also are essential, because writing
technical reports and research proposals and communicating technical
and research results to company managers, regulators, and the
public are important aspects of the work. Those involved in fieldwork
must have physical stamina.
Environmental scientists and hydrologists often begin their careers
in field exploration or, occasionally, as research assistants
or technicians in laboratories or offices. They are given more
difficult assignments as they gain experience. Eventually, they
may be promoted to project leader, program manager, or some other
management and research position.
Because international work is becoming increasingly pervasive,
knowledge of a second language can be a valuable skill to employers.
Environmental scientists and hydrologists held about 81,000 jobs
in 2004. Jobs for hydrologists accounted for only 10 percent of
the total. Many more individuals held environmental science faculty
positions in colleges and universities, but they are classified
as college and university faculty. (See the statement on teachers—postsecondary
elsewhere in the Handbook.)
About 44 percent of environmental scientists were employed in
State and local governments; 15 percent in management, scientific,
and technical consulting services; 14 percent in architectural,
engineering and related services; and 8 percent in the Federal
Government. About 5 percent were self-employed.
Among hydrologists, 22 percent were employed in architectural,
engineering, and related services, and 18 percent worked for management,
scientific, and technical consulting services. In 2004, the Federal
Government employed about 2,500 hydrologists, mostly within the
U.S. Department of the Interior for the U.S. Geological Survey
(USGS) and within the U.S. Department of Defense. Another 15 percent
worked for State agencies, such as State geological surveys and
State departments of conservation. About 5 percent of hydrologists
were self-employed, most as consultants to industry or government.
Employment of environmental scientists is expected to grow about
as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014, while
employment of hydrologists should grow much faster than average.
Job growth for environmental scientists and hydrologists should
be strongest at private-sector consulting firms. Demand for environmental
scientists and hydrologists will be spurred largely by public
policy, which will oblige companies and organizations to comply
with complex environmental laws and regulations, particularly
those regarding ground-water decontamination, clean air, and flood
Job opportunities also will be spurred by a continued general
awareness regarding the need to monitor the quality of the environment,
to interpret the impact of human actions on terrestrial and aquatic
ecosystems, and to develop strategies for restoring ecosystems.
Many environmental scientists and hydrologists work in consulting.
Consulting firms have hired these scientists to advise and help
businesses and government comply with new regulations on issues
related to underground tanks, land disposal areas, and other hazardous-waste-management
facilities. Currently, environmental consulting is maturing and
evolving from investigations to remediation and engineering solutions.
At the same time, the regulatory climate is evolving from a rigid
structure to a more flexible risk-based approach. These factors,
coupled with new Federal and State initiatives that integrate
environmental activities into the business process itself, will
result in a greater focus on waste minimization, resource recovery,
pollution prevention, and the consideration of environmental effects
during product development. This shift in focus from reactive
solutions to preventive management will provide many new opportunities
for environmental scientists and hydrologists in consulting roles.
Some opportunities are expected for environmental scientists
at State geological surveys, stemming from the need to conduct
environmental site assessments for local governments to help improve
the flow of railroad and automobile traffic in urban areas. In
addition, environmental scientists will be needed to help planners
and communities develop and construct buildings, transportation
corridors, and utilities that protect water resources and reflect
efficient and beneficial land use.
Opportunities will be better for hydrologists as the population
increases and moves to more environmentally sensitive locations.
For example, as people increasingly migrate toward coastal regions,
hydrologists will be needed to assess building sites for potential
geologic hazards and to mitigate the effects of natural hazards
such as floods and landslides. Hydrologists also will be needed
to conduct research on hazardous-waste sites in order to determine
the impact of hazardous pollutants on soil and ground water so
that engineers can design remediation systems. Demand is growing
for hydrologists who understand both the scientific and engineering
aspects of waste remediation. As States design initiatives to
improve water resources by preventing pollution, there should
be opportunities for hydrologists in State government. Increased
government regulations, such as those regarding the management
of storm water, and issues related to water conservation, deteriorating
coastal environments, and rising sea levels also will stimulate
employment growth for these workers.
Federal and State geological surveys depend to a large extent
on the public climate and the current budget. Thus, job security
for environmental scientists and hydrologists within a State survey
may be cyclical. During periods of economic recession, layoffs
of environmental scientists and hydrologists may occur in consulting
firms; layoffs are much less likely in government.
Median annual earnings of environmental scientists were $51,080
in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $39,100 and
$67,360. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $31,610, and the
highest 10 percent earned more than $85,940.
Median annual earnings of hydrologists were $61,510 in May 2004,
with the middle 50 percent earning between $47,080 and $77,910,
the lowest 10 percent earning less than $38,580, and the highest
10 percent earning more than $94,460.
Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest
number of environmental scientists in May 2004 were as follows:
Management, scientific, and technical consulting
Architectural, engineering, and related
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers,
beginning salary offers in July 2005 for graduates with bachelor’s
degrees in a environmental science averaged $31,366 a year.
In 2005, the Federal Government’s average salary for hydrologists
in managerial, supervisory, and nonsupervisory positions was $77,182.
Environmental scientists and hydrologists perform investigations
for the purpose of abating or eliminating sources of pollutants
or hazards that affect the environment or some population—plant,
animal, or human. Many other occupations deal with preserving
or researching the natural environment, including conservation scientists
and foresters, atmospheric scientists, and some biological scientists and engineering technicians.
Environmental scientists and hydrologists have extensive training
in physical sciences, and many apply their knowledge of chemistry,
physics, biology, and mathematics to explain certain phenomena
closely related to the work of geoscientists.
Using their qualitative and quantitative problem-solving skills,
physicists; chemists; engineers; mathematicians; surveyors, cartographers,
photogrammetrists, and surveying technicians; computer systems
analysts; and computer scientists and database administrators
may perform similar work in environment-related activities.
Sources of Additional Information
Information on training and career opportunities for environmental
scientists is available from:
Information on obtaining a position as a hydrologist or an environmental
protection specialist with the Federal Government is available
from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal
Government’s official employment information system. This resource
for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed
through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov/ or through an interactive
voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or TDD (978)
461-8404. These numbers are not tollfree, and charges may result.
Source: Bureau of
Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational
Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition,