Hydrologists are involved in the monitoring, management and protection of water and water resources in commercial, environmental and academic settings.

They ensure the effective flow of water through channels and pipes for the engineering and control of water provision. Their work contributes to the efficient planning, development and sustainable use of natural and domestic water resources, ensuring water is supplied in the most cost-effective manner.

Hydrologists use detailed data sources, computer modelling packages and other resources to collect, analyse and interpret data. They play a key role in ensuring the safe, sustainable and environmentally sound management of natural and domestic water resources.

Responsibilities

Activities vary according to the role, but typically include:

  • working with specifically designed computer modelling packages to assess the most effective methods of managing available water in a particular area;
  • analysing the effect of environmental changes on water flow;
  • studying the effects on flows brought about by changes in land use, such as afforestation or crop irrigation;
  • planning responses to specific weather conditions, such as droughts and floods, and assessing the impacts of such events on water catchments and supplies;
  • undertaking hydrological modelling to allow the development of flood forecasting and drought management strategy;
  • assisting in the planning of water resource development by forecasting and monitoring water usage and rainfall;
  • estimating water yields, taking into account the utilisation of water in a specific natural drainage area ('catchment');
  • assessing the relationship between rainfall, run off, and soil and rock features for the catchment;
  • investigating factors affecting acidity, nitrate levels or other diffuse pollution of surface water;
  • calculating and auditing water resource systems and analysing this data;
  • determining licences for companies and bodies requesting to use river resources;
  • implementing relevant regulations;
  • dealing with enquiries from external bodies and individuals, such as water regulators, consultants and researchers;
  • providing project-management consultancy in installing new river flow gauges;
  • liaising with specialists, consultants and clients;
  • providing feedback on drought and water resource plans produced by water companies;
  • overseeing data collection on-site by hydrometrists and other staff;
  • supervising the collection, processing and evaluation of data for water resource planning and flood management;
  • applying hydrological and statistical techniques to water resource modelling and analysis;
  • developing computer systems to improve the efficiency of data collection and analysis;
  • keeping up to date with new research and techniques in all areas of hydrology.

With experience, you may take on the role of project manager with responsibility for the technical management of a wide variety of hydrology projects, including:

  • water resources planning;
  • reservoir and river flood risk assessment;
  • water quality;
  • drainage.

Extra activities are likely to include:

  • ensuring delivery of a project on time and to cost and quality targets;
  • contributing to the management of the business, including financial monitoring, business and strategy development;
  • seeking out and exploiting new opportunities.

Salary

  • Starting salaries typically range from £17,000 to £25,000.
  • Salaries for experienced hydrologists are likely to reach £23,000 to £32,000.
  • Senior hydrologists can earn between £28,000 and £45,000.
  • Principal hydrologists can earn in excess of £50,000.

Some employers provide performance-related pay schemes. Other benefits may include car allowance and share-option schemes in private consultancies.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours may include regular extra hours, but not usually shifts. Long hours, working under pressure, may be required in an emergency, such as a flood.

Flexible working is available at some companies/organisations, where there may also be some flexibility to allow occasional working from home. Part-time work and career breaks may be available with some employers.

What to expect

  • The amount of site-based work outside the office varies between roles. Time may be spent out of the office at meetings with clients, consultants, regulatory bodies and stakeholders.
  • Work is typically project-based, providing a good level of variety. Projects are often team-based, whilst independent work may involve liaising with colleagues and external agencies.
  • Self-employment/freelance work is sometimes possible. Hydrological expertise is often supplied on a consultancy basis and so the right background, experience and project management and client-handling skills become more important as your career develops.
  • Jobs are available in a range of locations in the UK. Hydrologists work in the water industry throughout the country and more locally for environmental bodies and civil engineering consultancies.
  • There are currently more men than women in the profession.
  • Travel within the working day is usual. Overnight absence from home and overseas travel may be required.
  • Overseas work is available, particularly through work with international consultancies.

Qualifications

There are no undergraduate degrees in the UK in hydrology as a subject in its own right. However, relevant degree subjects that cover elements of hydrology include:

  • civil and environmental engineering;
  • ecology;
  • environmental management;
  • environmental sciences;
  • geography (with a physical science base);
  • geology;
  • soil science.

Entry with an HND only is rare.

Detailed training in hydrology is usually covered at postgraduate level. Although not necessary for all jobs, a postgraduate degree is recommended, and increasingly required at senior level, due to competition for posts.

Postgraduate courses vary in focus, so it is important to choose a course that matches your career aims. Subject areas include:

  • aquatic resource management;
  • environmental engineering;
  • environmental management;
  • flood risk management;
  • hydrology and water quality;
  • water management;
  • water resources.

Contact individual institutions for course information and further details on entry requirements.

A small number of studentships (£1,000) aimed towards the costs of a Masters degree (MSc/MRes only) at a UK higher education institution are provided by the British Hydrological Society (BHS), together with the JBA Trust. Applications should be made via Studentship Award Scheme.

When choosing an undergraduate or further degree it is important to consider whether it is recognised and accredited by the professional body to which you may wish to apply for membership in the future, for example either the:

Skills

You will need to show evidence of:

  • sound technical knowledge;
  • strong oral and written communication skills;
  • numeracy and a good understanding of mathematical modelling and IT programming skills (depending on the role);
  • analytical skills;
  • people skills, in order to engage with a range of different groups, e.g. planners;
  • project-management skills;
  • a high level of commitment and self-motivation;
  • a logical, methodical approach and good organisational skills;
  • a flexible approach to work and the ability to adapt to change and deal effectively with varying situations.

A current full UK driving licence is usually required. Knowledge of a second language may be useful for some jobs.

Work experience

Relevant experience, such as a work placement in a relevant or related field, such as hydrometrics, is recommended.

It can be difficult to gain pre-entry work experience. Look across the environmental sector as a whole and try to gain work in a related area. Working on volunteer conservation projects shows commitment to the area and will help you develop your skills and make useful contacts.

Experience of working for charitable groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Rivers Trust is valuable. Experience gained on relevant postgraduate courses is also valued by employers.

While there are a variety of opportunities in the field, competition is strong because of the level of specialisation.

Employers

Typical employers include:

  • utility companies and public authorities that provide water and sewerage services;
  • government and environmental bodies, including the Environment Agency (EA), regional councils, the Scottish Environment
  • Protection Agency (SEPA) and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA);
  • consultancies, including civil engineering and environmental management and assessment companies;
  • research and development agencies, including the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) - part of the Natural Environment
  • Research Council (NERC) and the WRc Group;
  • educational institutions that undertake relevant teaching and research.

Occasional opportunities arise in industries whose activities affect surface and ground water.

Hydrologists are also employed by international organisations to develop and manage water resource strategies, particularly in areas where emergency relief is necessary.

Look for job vacancies at:

Vacancies are also handled by environmental and specialist recruitment agencies, such as Eden Recruitment.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

The level of training support provided depends on individual organisations. While many of the required technical skills are gained on the job, hydrologists may receive additional training in specific IT software, as well as soft skills such as time management.

Professional training is often provided by a mix of in-house staff, professional bodies and external consultants. Mentoring from an experienced colleague can be particularly beneficial and can help consolidate knowledge and build confidence.

Due to the technical nature of the work, hydrologists need to keep up to date with new techniques, technologies and legislation, particularly at the start of their career. Membership of a professional body is useful in terms of training, networking and continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities, see the:

CIWEM, for example, provides a recognised professional training and assessment programme. A range of professional activities, such as private study, seminars, conferences and technical meetings, are recognised as part of CPD.

CIWEM also accredits undergraduate and postgraduate environmental qualifications at a number of universities. Visit the website for further details and for a list of CIWEM-accredited universities.

Further study at Masters (if you don't already have one) and PhD level is also possible.

Career prospects

Promotion is based on merit and on gaining a broad range of experience in the practical aspects of hydrology. Progression through an organisation is the clearest way to develop in the field in the first two to five years.

It is possible to broaden your skills base by undertaking a secondment to other parts of the organisation's business or by changing department or research team.

There may be opportunities to work abroad in an international office.

It may be necessary to undertake further qualifications, depending on your career aims and whether you want to specialise in a particular area of hydrology, for example constructed wetlands and eco-hydrology.

Many hydrologists choose to undertake a professional qualification and gain chartership of a professional body relevant to their chosen specialisation. For example, those with appropriate engineering qualifications can achieve chartership with one of two professional bodies licensed by the Engineering Council:

  • Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE)
  • Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM)

Those with a scientific qualification would usually seek membership of CIWEM. Criteria for chartership vary depending on the professional body but you will need to show that you regularly undertake a range of CPD activities and have relevant experience at a specific level.

Depending on your area of expertise, there are currently six chartered status options relevant to hydrologists practising in the UK:

  • Chartered Engineer (CEng);
  • Chartered Environmentalist (CEnv);
  • Chartered Geographer (CGeog);
  • Chartered Meteorologist (CMet);
  • Chartered Scientist (CSci);
  • Chartered Water and Environmental Manager (MCIWEM C.WEM)

For more details see the British Hydrological Society (BHS).

Progression may be towards water resources management or senior-scientific posts within environmental bodies and agencies. Those hoping to get senior positions must develop people and project management skills, as well as skills in managing budgets.

Senior hydrologists need to feel comfortable making decisions on often controversial and sensitive issues. Responsibilities may include giving expert witness evidence in court or to public enquiries, or presenting complex issues to government.

There are other opportunities in engineering and environmental management consultancies for higher-level work. Hydrologists may move into managing and planning resources for utilities companies.

There also opportunities for hydrologists to work abroad, particularly in countries such as Australia. Employment in international organisations developing water resource strategies is possible.

Some hydrologists choose to pursue an academic career in research and there are opportunities at universities offering relevant courses.

With five to ten years' experience, a number of hydrologists move on to working independently on a consultancy basis or as part of a larger, multidisciplinary consultancy company.

Hydrologists working independently often have additional experience and qualifications. The BHS and CIWEM both have an online directory of consultancies.