Occupation Profile for Hydrologists

Research the distribution, circulation, and physical properties of underground and surface waters; study the form and intensity of precipitation, its rate of infiltration into the soil, movement through the earth, and its return to the ocean and atmosphere.


Significant Points

  • Environmental scientists and hydrologists often work in offices, laboratories, and field sites.
  • Federal, State, and local governments employ 43 percent of all environmental scientists and hydrologists.
  • Although a bachelor’s degree in an earth science is adequate for a few entry-level jobs, employers prefer a master’s degree; a Ph.D. degree generally is required for research or college teaching positions.
  • Job prospects are expected to be favorable, particularly for hydrologists.


$66,260.00 Median Annual Wage 0 Average Job Openings Per Year
1.2 Average Unemployment Percentage 0.0 Percentage That Completed High School
8,000 Employment Numbers in 2006 6.9 Percentage That Had Some College
10,000 Employment Numbers in 2016 (est.) 93.0 Percentage That Went Beyond College Degree

Sample Job Titles
Environmental Consultant
Geophysical Laboratory Chief
Groundwater Consultant
Hydraulic Engineer
Hydrologic Engineer
Water Resources Program Director

  • These occupations often involve coordinating, training, supervising, or managing the activities of others to accomplish goals. Very advanced communication and organizational skills are required. Examples include librarians, lawyers, aerospace engineers, physicists, school psychologists, and surgeons.
  • A bachelor's degree is the minimum formal education required for these occupations. However, many also require graduate school. For example, they may require a master's degree, and some require a Ph.D., M.D., or J.D. (law degree).
  • Extensive skill, knowledge, and experience are needed for these occupations. Many require more than five years of experience. For example, surgeons must complete four years of college and an additional five to seven years of specialized medical training to be able to do their job.
  • Employees may need some on-the-job training, but most of these occupations assume that the person will already have the required skills, knowledge, work-related experience, and/or training.

Most environmental scientists and hydrologists need a master’s degree. A Ph.D. is usually necessary for jobs in college teaching or research.

Education and training. A bachelor’s degree in an earth science is adequate for a few entry-level positions, but environmental scientists increasingly need a master’s degree in environmental science, hydrology, or a related 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 generally is necessary for college teaching and most research positions.

Some environmental scientists have a degree in environmental science. Many, however, earn degrees in life science, chemistry, geology, geophysics, atmospheric science, or physics and then apply their education to the environment. They often need research or work experience related to 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. Undergraduate environmental science majors typically focus on data analysis and physical geography, which are particularly useful in studying pollution abatement, water resources, or ecosystem protection, restoration, and management. Understanding the geochemistry of inorganic compounds is becoming increasingly important in developing remediation goals. 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, which is the gathering of geologic data. 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 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, a bachelor’s degree in a hydrologic science is sufficient for positions consulting about water quality or wastewater treatment.

For environmental scientists and hydrologists who consult, courses in business, finance, marketing, or economics may be useful. In addition, combining environmental science training with other disciplines such as engineering or business, qualifies these scientists for the widest range of jobs.

Other qualifications. 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 (GIS) will be the most prepared to enter the job market. Familiarity with the Global Positioning System (GPS)—a locator system that uses satellites—is vital.

Environmental scientists and hydrologists must have good 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 results to company managers, regulators, and the public are important aspects of the work. Because international work is becoming increasingly pervasive, knowledge of a second language can be an advantage. Those involved in fieldwork must have physical stamina.

Certification and advancement. 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. (Information on engineering and natural sciences managers is located elsewhere in the Handbook.)

The American Institute of Hydrology offers certification programs in professional hydrology. Certification may be beneficial for those seeking advancement.

Nature of Work

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 provide environmental site assessments and advice on indoor air quality and hazardous-waste-site remediation.

Environmental scientists conduct research to identify, abate, and eliminate hazards that affect people, wildlife, and their environments. These workers analyze measurements or observations of air, food, water, and soil to determine the way 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. They often use this understanding to design and monitor waste disposal sites, preserve water supplies, and reclaim contaminated land and water to comply with Federal environmental regulations. They also write risk assessments, describing the likely affect of construction and other environmental changes; write technical proposals; and give presentations to managers and regulators.

Hydrologists study the quantity, distribution, circulation, and physical properties of bodies of water. 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 water quality.

Many environmental scientists and hydrologists work at consulting firms, helping businesses and government agencies comply with environmental policy, particularly with regard to ground-water decontamination and flood control. They are usually hired to solve problems. Most consulting firms fall into two categories: large multidisciplinary engineering companies, the largest of which may employ thousands of workers, and small niche firms that may employ only a few workers. When looking for jobs, environmental scientists and hydrologists 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 they will work with people in other scientific disciplines. In smaller specialty firms, however, they work more often with business professionals and clients in government and the private sector.

Environmental scientists who work on policy formation may help identify ways that 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.

Many environmental scientists do work and have training that is similar to other physical or life scientists, but they focus on environmental issues. Many specialize in subfields such as environmental ecology and conservation, environmental chemistry, environmental biology, or fisheries science. Specialties affect the specific activities that environmental scientists perform, although recent understandings of the interconnectedness of life processes have blurred some traditional classifications. For example, environmental ecologists study the relationships between organisms and their environments and the effects of factors such as population size, pollutants, rainfall, temperature, and altitude, on both. They may collect, study, and report data on air, soil, and water using their knowledge of various scientific disciplines. Ecological modelers study ecosystems, pollution control, and resource management using mathematical modeling, systems analysis, thermodynamics, and computer techniques. Environmental chemists study the toxicity of various chemicals, that is, how those chemicals affect plants, animals, and people. (Information on geoscientists, who also study the Earth, is located elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Environmental scientists and hydrologists in research positions with the Federal Government or in colleges and universities often have to find funding for their work by writing grant proposals. Consultants face similar pressures to market their skills and write proposals so that they will have steady work.

Work environment. Most entry-level environmental scientists and hydrologists spend the majority of their time in the field, while more experienced workers generally devote more 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. Travel often is required to meet with prospective clients or investors.

Researchers and consultants might face stress when looking for funding. Occasionally, those who write technical reports to business clients and regulators may be under pressure to meet deadlines and thus have to work long hours.

Related Occupations

Sources: Career Guide to Industries (CGI), Occupational Information Network (O*Net), Occupation Outlook Handbook (OOH)

Median annual earnings of environmental scientists were $56,100 in May 2006. The middle 50 percent earned between $42,840 and $74,480. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $34,590, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $94,670.

Median annual earnings of hydrologists were $66,260 in 2006, with the middle 50 percent earning between $51,370 and $82,140, the lowest 10 percent earning less than $42,080, and the highest 10 percent earning more than $98,320.

Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest number of environmental scientists in 2006 were as follows:

Federal executive branch $82,490
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 57,280
Engineering services 56,080
Local government 52,100
State government 50,590

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, beginning salary offers in July 2007 for graduates with bachelor’s degrees in an environmental science averaged $38,336 a year.

In 2007, the Federal Government’s average salary for hydrologists was $82,217.

For the latest wage information:

The above wage data are from the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey program, unless otherwise noted. For the latest National, State, and local earnings data, visit the following pages:

  • Environmental scientists and specialists, including health
  • Hydrologists
  • Job Outlook

    Employment of environmental scientists and hydrologists is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations. Job prospects are expected to be favorable, particularly for hydrologists.

    Employment change. Employment of environmental scientists is expected to increase by 25 percent between 2006 and 2016, much faster than the average for all occupations. Over the same period, employment of hydrologists should increase by 24 percent, also much faster than the average. Job growth for environmental scientists and hydrologists should be strongest in private-sector consulting firms. Growth in employment of environmental scientists and hydrologists will be spurred largely by the increasing demands placed on the environment and water resources by population growth. Further demand should result from the need to comply with complex environmental laws and regulations, particularly those regarding ground-water decontamination, clean air, and flood control.

    Much job growth will result from a continued 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. In addition, environmental scientists will be needed to help planners develop and construct buildings, transportation corridors, and utilities that protect water resources and reflect efficient and beneficial land use.

    Demand for hydrologists should also be strong as the population increases and moves to more environmentally sensitive locations. As people increasingly migrate toward coastal regions, for example, hydrologists will be needed to assess building sites for potential geologic hazards and to mitigate the effects of natural hazards such as floods, landslides, and hurricanes. Hydrologists also will be needed to study hazardous-waste sites and determine the effect of pollutants on soil and ground water so that engineers can design remediation systems. 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.

    Many environmental scientists and hydrologists work in consulting. Consulting firms have hired these scientists to help businesses and government address issues related to underground tanks, land disposal areas, and other hazardous-waste-management facilities. Currently, environmental consulting is evolving from investigations to creating remediation and engineering solutions. At the same time, the regulatory climate is moving 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 to preventive management will provide many new opportunities for environmental scientists and hydrologists in consulting roles.

    Job prospects. In addition to job openings due to growth, there will be additional demand for new environmental scientists and hydrologists to replace those who retire, advance to management positions, or change careers. Job prospects for hydrologists should be favorable, particularly for those with field experience. Demand for hydrologists who understand both the scientific and engineering aspects of waste remediation should be strong. Few colleges and universities offer programs in hydrology, so the number of qualified workers may be limited.

    Job prospects for environmental scientists also will be good, but less favorable than for hydrologists because of the larger number of workers seeking to enter the field.

    Funding for Federal and State geological surveys depend largely on the political climate and the current budget. Thus, job security for environmental scientists and hydrologists may vary. During periods of economic recession, layoffs of environmental scientists and hydrologists may occur in consulting firms; layoffs are much less likely in government.


    Environmental scientists and hydrologists held about 92,000 jobs in 2006. Jobs for hydrologists accounted for only 9 percent of the total. Many more individuals held environmental science faculty positions in colleges and universities, but they are classified as postsecondary teachers.

    About 35 percent of environmental scientists were employed in State and local governments; 21 percent in management, scientific, and technical consulting services; 15 percent in architectural, engineering and related services; and 8 percent in the Federal Government. About 2 percent were self-employed.

    Among hydrologists, 26 percent were employed in architectural, engineering, and related services, and 18 percent worked for management, scientific, and technical consulting services. In 2006, the Federal Government employed about 28 percent of 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 21 percent worked for State agencies, such as State geological surveys and State departments of conservation. About 2 percent of hydrologists were self-employed, most as consultants to industry or government.

    • Mathematics — Knowledge of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, statistics, and their applications.
    • Engineering and Technology — Knowledge of the practical application of engineering science and technology. This includes applying principles, techniques, procedures, and equipment to the design and production of various goods and services.
    • Sales and Marketing — Knowledge of principles and methods for showing, promoting, and selling products or services. This includes marketing strategy and tactics, product demonstration, sales techniques, and sales control systems.
    • Medicine and Dentistry — Knowledge of the information and techniques needed to diagnose and treat human injuries, diseases, and deformities. This includes symptoms, treatment alternatives, drug properties and interactions, and preventive health-care measures.
    • Physics — Knowledge and prediction of physical principles, laws, their interrelationships, and applications to understanding fluid, material, and atmospheric dynamics, and mechanical, electrical, atomic and sub- atomic structures and processes.
    • Equipment Maintenance — Performing routine maintenance on equipment and determining when and what kind of maintenance is needed.
    • Coordination — Adjusting actions in relation to others' actions.
    • Active Learning — Understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making.
    • Writing — Communicating effectively in writing as appropriate for the needs of the audience.
    • Troubleshooting — Determining causes of operating errors and deciding what to do about it.
    • Near Vision — The ability to see details at close range (within a few feet of the observer).
    • Stamina — The ability to exert yourself physically over long periods of time without getting winded or out of breath.
    • Explosive Strength — The ability to use short bursts of muscle force to propel oneself (as in jumping or sprinting), or to throw an object.
    • Oral Comprehension — The ability to listen to and understand information and ideas presented through spoken words and sentences.
    • Hearing Sensitivity — The ability to detect or tell the differences between sounds that vary in pitch and loudness.
    • Core — Monitor the work of well contractors, exploratory borers, and engineers and enforce rules regarding their activities.
    • Core — Evaluate research data in terms of its impact on issues such as soil and water conservation, flood control planning, and water supply forecasting.
    • Core — Measure and graph phenomena such as lake levels, stream flows, and changes in water volumes.
    • Supplemental — Administer programs designed to ensure the proper sealing of abandoned wells.
    • Core — Answer questions and provide technical assistance and information to contractors or the public regarding issues such as well drilling, code requirements, hydrology, and geology.
    • Monitoring and Controlling Resources — Monitoring and controlling resources and overseeing the spending of money.
    • Guiding, Directing, and Motivating Subordinates — Providing guidance and direction to subordinates, including setting performance standards and monitoring performance.
    • Assisting and Caring for Others — Providing personal assistance, medical attention, emotional support, or other personal care to others such as coworkers, customers, or patients.
    • Repairing and Maintaining Electronic Equipment — Servicing, repairing, calibrating, regulating, fine-tuning, or testing machines, devices, and equipment that operate primarily on the basis of electrical or electronic (not mechanical) principles.
    • Getting Information — Observing, receiving, and otherwise obtaining information from all relevant sources.
    Related College Curriculum
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