A career as a hydrologist would suit you if you are good at interpreting data and are interested in the environment and sustainability

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.

Responsibilities

As a hydrologist, you'll need to:

  • work with specifically-designed computer modelling packages to assess the most effective methods of managing available water in a particular area
  • analyse the effect of environmental changes on water flow
  • study the effects on flows brought about by changes in land use, such as afforestation or crop irrigation
  • plan responses to specific weather conditions, such as droughts and floods, and assess the impacts of such events on water catchments and supplies
  • undertake hydrological modelling to allow the development of flood forecasting and drought management strategy
  • assist in the planning of water resource development by forecasting and monitoring water usage and rainfall
  • estimate water yields, taking into account the utilisation of water in a specific natural drainage area ('catchment')
  • assess the relationship between rainfall, run off, and soil and rock features for the catchment
  • investigate factors affecting acidity, nitrate levels or other diffuse pollution of surface water
  • calculate and audit water resource systems and analyse this data
  • determine licences for companies and bodies requesting to use river resources
  • implement relevant regulations
  • deal with enquiries from external bodies and individuals, such as water regulators, consultants and researchers
  • provide project-management consultancy in installing new river flow gauges
  • liaise with specialists, consultants and clients
  • provide feedback on drought and water resource plans produced by water companies
  • oversee data collection on-site by hydrometrists and other staff
  • supervise the collection, processing and evaluation of data for water resource planning and flood management
  • apply hydrological and statistical techniques to water resource modelling and analysis
  • develop computer systems to improve the efficiency of data collection and analysis
  • keep 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 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.
  • With experience, more senior hydrologists can earn £45,000.
  • Principal hydrologists can earn in excess of £50,000.

Some employers provide performance-related pay schemes. Other benefits may include a 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, 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, while independent work may involve liaising with colleagues and external agencies.
  • 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 a 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's important you 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 studentship bursaries are available, in which the British Hydrological Society (BHS) in partnership with the JBA Trust, will provide £1,500 towards the costs of a Masters degree (MSc/MRes only) at a UK higher education institution. Applications should be made via Studentship Award Scheme.

The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) collaborates with universities across the UK and internationally to provide approximately 150 studentships for students studying PhDs. See CEH Studentships for more information.

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 full UK driving licence - usually a requirement.

Work experience

You should try to gain relevant experience by completing a work placement in a relevant or related field, such as hydrometrics.

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.

Competition is strong because of the level of specialisation, so you'll need to be as proactive as possible in your search for a work experience opportunity.

Employers

Typical employers include:

  • water supply companies - see Water UK for details of water and sewerage operators
  • 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.

You may also find opportunities with international organisations that 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.

Professional development

You'll receive on the job training for the technical aspects of the job and may also 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.

It's important to keep up to date with new techniques, technologies and legislation, throughout your career. Membership of professional bodies, such as the BHS and the CIWEM, is useful in terms of training, networking and continuing professional development (CPD).

Further study at Masters (if you don't already have one) and PhD level is also possible. See the CIWEM website for a list of accredited university courses.

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.

You can 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 also be opportunities to work abroad in an international office.

It's not possible to become a 'chartered hydrologist' but you can undertake a professional qualification and gain chartered status with a professional body relevant to your chosen specialisation. There are several options for this, including:

  • Chartered Engineer (CEng)
  • Chartered Environmentalist (CEnv)
  • Chartered Scientist (CSci)
  • Chartered Meteorologist (CMet)
  • Chartered Geographer (CGeog)
  • Member of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (MCIWEM)

See the BHS for full details.

Pursuing an academic career in research is one direction you can take your career, while another is to set up an independent consultancy, or to work as a consultant as part of a larger, multidisciplinary consultancy company.