Hydrology Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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Get the truth about salaries in the field of hydrology. Read the job duties and learn about education requirements and career prospects to decide if a hydrology career is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career in Hydrology

Hydrology professionals are at the front lines of the battle to protect water from disease, pollution and wasteful practices. In addition to a career as a hydrologist, there are other career paths that integrate hydrology principles, such as an environmental scientist and an environmental engineer. The table below compares these choices:

Hydrologist Environmental Engineer Environmental Scientist
Career Overview Hydrologists study and analyze surface and underground water, precipitation and its distribution. Environmental engineers work with environmental hazards, including pollution, waste treatment and site remediation. Environmental scientists investigate and recommend courses of action to mediate sources of pollution and other hazards that can affect the environment.
Education Requirements Bachelor's in natural sciences; master's needed for most positions Bachelor's degree in environmental engineering or related area Bachelor's degree in environmental science or another natural science; grad degrees needed for advanced positions
Program Length 4-5 years full-time, depending on inclusion of a master's degree 4 years full-time 4 years full-time for undergrad, 1-2 years full-time for master's degree
Certification and Licensing Licensure required in some states; certification is advisable Professional Engineer (PE) license advised; certification is recommended Certification is recommended
Experience Required None for entry-level None for entry level Entry-level work as field analyst, technician or research assistant
Job Outlook for 2012-2022 Average (10%)* Rapid (15%)* Rapid (15%)*
Mean Salary (2014) $81,930* $86,340* $72,050*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Hydrologist

By working in tandem with other scientists, engineers and public officials, hydrologists study ways to preserve and control the water supply while solving pollution problems and monitoring marine life. They use computers to analyze data, which is collected by way of specialized sensing equipment and in-person field expeditions. You may specialize in a specific area of hydrology, such as groundwater hydrology, surface water hydrology or hydrometeorology.

Requirements

According to the BLS, depending on the firm or agency, a bachelor's degree may be all you need to qualify for an entry-level position as a hydrologist. However, most positions call for a master's degree. Because a major in hydrology is rare, you may be adequately prepared by majoring in a field like geosciences, environmental science or engineering; some of these programs have hydrology concentrations. In these programs, you may learn about water resources management, geology, hydrologic field procedures and environmental science.

Some states require hydrologists to obtain licensure. Though specific licensure requirements differ by state, in order to qualify to sit for a licensure exam, you must fulfill education and experience components.

Below are a few examples of what employers were looking for in November 2012:

  • An engineering and consulting firm in Washington advertised for a hydrologist with a bachelor's or master's degree in hydrology, geomorphology, fisheries biology or natural resources, 5 years of qualifying work experience, National and Washington State Environmental Policy Acts experience and the physical ability to navigate rough terrain.
  • A firm in central New Jersey sought a senior hydrologist with a bachelor's in hydrology or a related field (master's preferred) and at least 10 years of experience in hydrologic investigations. Applicants needed knowledge of the Hydraulic Engineering Center-River Analysis System (HEC-RAS) computer program.
  • An environmental engineering firm in California was looking for a project hydrogeologist with training and experience in soil and groundwater investigations and sampling. Though a bachelor's degree in geology, hydrogeology or engineering geology was acceptable, a master's degree and 3-8 years of experience in the environmental industry was preferred.

Standing Out

One way to stand out in the field is to gain certification from the American Institute of Hydrology (AIH). With a degree that included specific coursework in hydrology, science and calculus and 5 years of experience beyond your degree, you may qualify to sit for a 2-part exam leading to professional certification as a professional hydrologist - surface water, hydrologist - groundwater and hydrologist - water quality.

The BLS reported that hydrologists with computer modeling experience may have better employment chances. Additionally, familiarity with data analysis, digital mapping, geographic information systems, remote sensing and global positioning system equipment can prime you for entry into the field. To enhance these skills, look for continuing education classes that may be offered at universities or colleges.

Environmental Engineer

A main concern of environmental engineering is public health. Marrying engineering principles with biology, chemistry and soil science, environmental engineers attack environmental problems from different angles. This can be broken down into areas that include air and water pollution, waste disposal, climate shifts, recycling and the sustainability of resources. They examine proposed construction projects with an eye toward environmental impact and the most effective treatment of hazardous waste and non-hazardous waste. It's also through their research and investigations that government regulations are developed for the water supply and the effective treatment of industrial wastewater.

Requirements

The BLS stated that the minimum education qualification for environmental engineers was a bachelor's degree in environmental engineering or a similar field. Some environmental engineering programs have concentrations in water resources management or provide courses relevant to hydrology. Possible coursework may include water quality management, groundwater hydrology and hydraulic engineering. You can also find schools that offer 5-year programs leading to joint bachelor's and master's degrees in environmental engineering. When comparing engineering degree programs, look for those that are ABET-accredited since these programs are often preferred by employers and required for professional licensure.

The BLS noted that engineers are encouraged, if not required, to become licensed. In order to become licensed, you must first complete an ABET-accredited degree program. Upon graduation, you may qualify for the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying's (NCEES) Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, which qualifies you to become an engineer-in-training (EIT) or engineer intern. After a suitable amount of supervised work experience, which is at least 4 years in all states, and meeting any other state requirements, you may qualify to sit for the Professional Engineer (PE) examination. Once you pass the PE exam, you may apply for state licensure. Depending on your state, you may be required to complete continuing education credits in order to retain the license.

Here are a few requirements from employers who were seeking environmental engineers in November 2012:

  • A company in Pennsylvania was looking for a senior environmental engineer with a bachelor's degree in environmental or civil engineering or an allied field and experience in planning and reporting on the operations of wastewater plants.
  • An Iowa conservation concern was looking for a full-time environmental engineer with at least a bachelor's degree and 2-5 years of work experience in environmental engineering. Qualified candidates were physically fit in order to access all areas of the facilities and could function effectively in hot and cold temperatures.
  • A manufacturing facility in Delaware hired an environmental engineer who specialized in wastewater and water treatment to ensure the facility complied with regulations and to perform regular compliance assessment analyses of the facility. Candidates had at least a bachelor's degree in engineering, environmental science or a related field and at least 5 years of experience in environmental work that focused on wastewater and water handling.

Standing Out

Because potential employers place a premium on experience, look for cooperative degree programs that meld classroom and practical learning. You can also distinguish yourself in the field by becoming a Board Certified Environmental Engineer through the American Academy of Environmental Engineers (AAEE). Once you obtain an accredited engineering degree, a PE license and at least 8 years of full-time environmental engineering experience, you may qualify to sit for an AAEE exam in 1 or more specialties, including water supply and wastewater engineering, among others. AAEE noted that if you don't hold a PE license, you may still qualify for certification if you've completed 20 years of qualifying work experience.

Environmental Scientist

While environmental scientists work most of the time in comfortable settings, such as laboratories and offices, the nature of the job can call for them to make frequent field trips to install and monitor data-gathering equipment and inspect the target environment in person. Therefore, environmental scientists aren't strangers to inclement weather. With the overall purpose of the job being environmental protection, these scientists utilize their individual training in areas such as geosciences, chemistry, biology, geology and physics. They determine threats to the environment and develop solutions that can control or negate impending hazardous situations.

Requirements

As noted by the BLS, you may qualify for an entry-level position like a laboratory or office technician, research assistant or field analyst, with a bachelor's degree in environmental science, biology, chemistry or a similar field. If you enroll in an environmental science bachelor's program, you can expect to cover a broad range of environmental concepts, such as natural resource conservation, water quality and climate change. You also study how humans affect natural environments and investigate ways that humans can lessen their impact on the environment. A master's degree is often needed for advancement, and you'll need a doctorate if you want to participate in advanced research or university-level teaching.

Here's what employers in November 2012 were seeking:

  • An environmental and ecological services company in Ohio wanted an entry-level environmental scientist with a bachelor's degree in biology or a related field and experience in identifying wetland habitats. Candidates also needed experience in 3 or more areas of focus, such as plant identification, fish and invertebrate identification, wetlands boundary delineation and stream habitat assessment.
  • A California environmental consulting firm was looking for an environmental scientist with a bachelor's degree in environmental science, biology, geology or a similar area and 2-5 years experience in performing hazardous material inspections, Phase I and II environmental site assessments and soil and groundwater sampling. Candidates needed a current Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) license and 40-hour Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard (HAZWOPER) certification.
  • An environmental consulting firm in Texas was seeking an experienced environmental scientist with a master's degree in ecology, botany or a related field and expertise in Trimble Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Standing Out

The BLS mentioned that aspiring environmental scientists may want to participate in internships with environmental organizations. The National Council for Science and the Environment coordinates an environmental internship clearinghouse to help facilitate the search for relevant internships for postsecondary students. Additionally, you might find that your marketability increases by developing a proficiency in computer modeling, geographic information systems and data analysis.

Voluntary certification can also enhance your stature in the field. Multiple organizations offer relevant certifications, including the AAEE. If you have at least a bachelor's degree in environmental science or a similar field and 8 years of professional experience, you may qualify to sit for certification exams for any of the specialty areas, which include surface water resources and groundwater and the subsurface environment.

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