Hydrogeologists study the distribution, flow and quality of water underground (as opposed to hydrologists who are primarily concerned with surface water). This involves:
- interpreting technical data and information from maps and historical documents to build a conceptual model of groundwater flow and quality;
- designing and completing an investigation, which may include environmental measurement and sampling or an ongoing monitoring regime, in order to confirm or develop the model;
- using modelling techniques to enable predictions to be made about future trends and impacts on groundwater flow and quality.
The work of a hydrogeologist ultimately leads to better management of natural resources or better protection of the groundwater.
The responsibilities of a hydrogeologist vary considerably according to the sector, employer and area of specialism. However, typical activities may include:
- applying a knowledge of fundamental geology to develop an understanding of how the rock types and structure in an area impact on groundwater occurrence and movement;
- understanding and interpreting maps, geographical data, historical evidence and models to build up a picture of the groundwater regime and/or land contamination, often based on incomplete information;
- using computers to model groundwater flow, chemistry and temperature according to geological formations, surface water flow and man-made influence;
- undertaking field work and site visits for investigative and monitoring purposes;
- designing and commissioning boreholes, and sampling and measuring groundwater and surface water;
- undertaking environment impact assessments of groundwater abstraction and management activities;
- analysing collected information to assess and predict the impact of activities such as landfills, construction developments, mining or agriculture on groundwater quality and resource availability;
- liaising with other hydrogeologists, hydrologists, ecologists, engineers and other professionals in related fields;
- ensuring compliance with environmental legislation and keeping up to date with technological and legislative developments;
- writing reports for clients, which can be understood by people who don't necessarily have a technical background;
- answering technical queries and providing advice to clients and the public in writing and over the telephone;
- managing projects and contractors;
- working within health and safety guidelines.
Hydrogeologists working for charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) overseas may be involved in:
- finding new water supplies for remote villages or refugee camps;
- siting new wells;
- testing water quality;
- protecting water supplies from pollution;
- decontaminating wells.
- Starting salaries for hydrogeologists with a relevant Masters degree can be up to £25,000 per year.
- Salaries for hydrogeologists with around five years' experience, typically range from £30,000 to £40,000 per year.
Experienced professionals and managers may earn in excess of this.
Salaries tend to be higher in private companies and consultancies than in the public sector.
Additional benefits may include a company car, medical insurance and a pension scheme.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours tend to be 9am to 5pm in the public sector, but longer for those working in the private sector. Long working hours may be required during field work, at busy periods or when deadlines are approaching. Weekend working is unusual. Flexitime and part-time work is available with some employers.
What to expect
- Work is typically office based, but site visits and field work can form an essential aspect of the work, especially within consultancy. These can take place throughout the year and in all weather conditions. Site visits may be in remote and hard-to-reach areas. Some roles have an element of laboratory work.
- Experienced hydrogeologists may become self-employed as a consultant once they have built up a wide background of experience and a good reputation.
- Hydrogeologists work throughout the UK in a range of sectors, and opportunities are available in all parts of the country.
- Travel is typical within the working day, and there may be occasional overnight absences from home.
- There are opportunities for overseas work.
A good first degree in geology, environmental science, geophysics, science or engineering, with a postgraduate qualification (Masters or PhD) in hydrogeology, geochemistry, engineering, geology or environmental science is usually required.
HND or foundation degree holders may find employment in technician-level roles with some employers.
Entry without a degree, HND or foundation degree is not possible due to the scientifically challenging nature of the work.
Employers generally expect a Masters degree in hydrogeology or a related subject that includes groundwater, particularly those recruiting for international vacancies. Search for postgraduate courses in hydrogeology.
Some employers recruit graduates from relevant degree disciplines and support them through Masters study, either full or part time, while employed with them.
Relevant courses offered at MSc level include:
- MSc Hydrogeology at the University of Birmingham - School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences
- MSc in Hydrogeology and Water Management at Newcastle University - Civil Engineering and Geosciences
- MSc Hydrogeology at Strathclyde University - Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
There are other Masters courses available that include an element of groundwater training.
Due to the numerical nature of the course, some MSc providers may require AS or A-level mathematics (or an equivalent through your degree course or through appropriate tuition) as well as a relevant degree.
Some MSc students receive funding through an industrial sponsor or a university scholarship. Others fund their own study. Contact individual institutions for entry requirements and details of funding opportunities available.
You will need:
- an excellent level of numeracy;
- scientific knowledge across the range of disciplines;
- mathematical modelling skills;
- the ability to visualise geology and conceptualise groundwater flow in three dimensions;
- the skill of drawing conclusions from incomplete information;
- the capacity to evaluate complex data;
- project management skills;
- an organised and flexible approach to work;
- commercial awareness;
- teamworking skills;
- oral and written communication skills, including report writing;
- IT skills.
A driving licence is often a requirement.
Relevant work experience is a major advantage. This can be summer work, industry projects or voluntary activities. Be prepared to gain experience in a range of geological or environmental organisations, for example the Environment Agency (EA), as opportunities for work experience purely in hydrogeology can be hard to find.
Hydrogeologists are employed in a range of sectors. Typical employers include:
- environmental and engineering consultancies, ranging from those with just a few employees to those with several hundred, working for private clients and governments both in the UK and overseas;
- research organisations, e.g. the British Geological Survey (BGS), the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH);
- government regulators, e.g. the Environment Agency (EA), the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA);
- water supply companies, especially those that use groundwater as a major part of their water supply;
- mining or quarrying organisations whose work may have an impact on, or require the management of, groundwater;
- the nuclear industry;
- waste disposal companies that operate landfill facilities;
- other large industries that have significant contaminated land issues, e.g. pharmaceuticals, steel, and chemical;
- universities with specialist courses, for specific academic research and lecturing posts;
- renewable energy companies and organisations, where the evaluation of renewable-energy schemes and ground-source heat schemes is needed;
- overseas aid organisations that are developing safe water supplies in developing countries.
Look for job vacancies at:
- CIWEM Jobs Market
- Earthworks Jobs
- ENDS jobsearch
- Geological Society Jobs
- Green Jobs Online
- New Civil Engineer
- New Scientist Jobs
- Websites of individual employers.
- National and local press.
For a list of organisations that employ hydrogeologists in the UK see the UK Groundwater Forum.
Speculative applications can be effective. Business directories are also useful for sourcing potential employers.
The larger engineering and environmental consultancies run graduate training programmes that help graduates develop the wider skills necessary for a career as a hydrogeologist (degree/Masters courses cover the technical speciality).
Most organisations will provide induction training. This will involve some time shadowing more experienced colleagues. Some organisations support new hydrogeologists through a relevant MSc if they don't already have one.
On-the-job training and external courses are usually provided throughout your career in order to keep you up-to-date with new technologies and developments within the industry. Employers may support the development of other skills such as:
- project management;
- technical report writing;
- contract management;
- managing risk;
- health and safety;
- customer care.
Membership of a professional body is useful in terms of training, networking and continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities. Professional bodies in this sector include the:
- Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM)
- Geological Society
- International Association of Hydrogeologists (IAH)
Attending conferences is another good way to keep up to date with developments in the industry and to network with colleagues.
Many employers will encourage you to become chartered with a relevant professional body. You will need to show that you regularly undertake a range of CPD activities and have relevant experience at a specific level.
Further study at PhD level is also possible.
Many hydrogeologists choose to become chartered with a relevant professional body, most commonly the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM). Those with a geology degree may choose to follow the chartership route via the Geological Society.
Obtaining chartered status demonstrates that you have a good level of experience and professionalism, as well as a commitment to the profession.
You will need to show that you regularly undertake a range of continuing professional development (CPD) activities and have relevant experience at a specific level. Check with the relevant professional body for a full list of requirements.
There are opportunities for a varied career within hydrogeology, both in the UK and overseas. Career progression is dependent on skills and ability, but can be fast within groundwater specialisms.
It is possible to progress into team leader positions that involve making decisions about planning and use of resources, as well as managing people.
Opportunity for technical progression is significant and leads to a specialist role, sharing knowledge and experience of a specific aspect of geoscience with colleagues.
- groundwater resource evaluation and drinking water supply;
- contaminated land investigation and remediation;
- groundwater modelling and risk assessment;
- dewatering and groundwater engineering.
A small number of opportunities also exist in teaching and research in higher education institutions.
Some hydrogeologists move careers into environmental policy development.
Hydrogeologists are becoming increasingly involved in the development of the energy sector, for example through the exploitation of groundwater as a thermal regulator (ground source heating and cooling) and the protection of groundwater resources in relation to shale gas exploitation and nuclear waste disposal.
The interaction of groundwater and surface water and its role in flooding, and the ecology of groundwater and hydroecology is also topical.