Toxicologists investigate any potential adverse impact that materials, chemicals, potential new medicines, natural substances and radiation might have on human and animal health and the environment
You'll plan and carry out laboratory and field studies to assess the possible risks and harmful effects of these substances, taking into account the potential implications of future technology such as genomics, digital tools, in silico/in vitro developments and the long-term consequences of gene-editing technologies.
As well as helping to avoid injury from chemicals and managing accidental exposure of both humans and the environment, you'll also work to understand and manage the risks chemicals pose depending on different exposure scenarios.
You'll typically work as part of a multidisciplinary team, which may include other specialists such as computational toxicologists, genetic toxicologists and histopathologists.
Types of toxicologist
You may work in different areas of toxicology, which include:
The tasks you carry out will vary depending on your specific area of work, but in general you may need to:
- isolate, identify and measure substances or radiation and any harmful effect they have on humans, animals, plants or ecosystems
- plan and carry out a range of carefully controlled studies of specific chemicals to evaluate whether and how they can be used safely
- help to establish regulations on the use of substances in order to protect public health and the environment
- advise on the safe handling of toxic substances and radiation in production or in the event of an accident
- analyse and evaluate statistical data and research scientific literature
- write reports and scientific papers, present findings and, in the case of forensic work, give evidence in court
- specifically within the NHS, laboratory analysis, diagnose poisoning, including harmful chemicals, biological agents and drug overdose, and advise on the treatment of affected patients
- liaise with regulatory authorities to make sure you're complying with local, national and international regulations and guidelines.
If you work in the pharmaceutical industry, one of your most important tasks is to make sure any potential new drugs are safe to test on humans. You'll need to:
- carry out risk assessments
- perform various tests and trials using specialised techniques, including in vivo and in vitro tests
- use experimental data to assess a drug's potential toxicity and create a safety profile
- balance potential benefits against any risks.
- Starting salaries for graduate toxicologists range from around £20,000 to £30,000.
- With experience, you can earn in the region of £30,00 to £60,000. Salaries for highly experienced toxicologists can rise to in excess of £75,000.
- Salaries for toxicologists working in analytical toxicology in the NHS start at £31,365 (Band 6). You can progress through the grades up to around £91,004 (Band 9). See the NHS Agenda for Change – pay rates for current salary levels.
Salaries vary depending on the sector and area of toxicology you work in, your skills and experience, and location. Salaries may be slightly higher in the pharmaceutical industry and consultancy, rather than in chemicals, agrochemicals, contract research and government, for example.
You may receive additional benefits such as shares, health cover and a company pension.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
You'll usually work regular hours from 9am to 5pm but may need to work flexibly if you're carrying out experiments. In some roles, you may have to cover some weekend or evening shifts depending on the priority of the work.
What to expect
- The work can be rewarding as you're able to make a substantial contribution to public safety, either by identifying toxic chemicals or enabling safer ones to be developed.
- Jobs are available throughout the UK but you may need to relocate to progress. Industrial and contract research work is concentrated in the South, Midlands and North West, with some opportunities in Scotland.
- Self-employment or freelance work is sometimes possible. If you have substantial experience there are opportunities to do consultancy work.
- There isn't usually much travel involved in the role. Depending on the organisation, however, you may get the opportunity to travel overseas for collaborative work or scientific conferences.
You need a degree to become a toxicologist. While there are very few degrees specifically in toxicology, there are a number that combine toxicology with other subjects such as biochemistry and pharmacology.
Relevant degree courses include:
- biological, biomedical and biochemical sciences
- food, crop, soil and environmental sciences
- forensic, chemical and physical sciences
- medicine, medical science and veterinary medicine
- pharmacology and pharmacy
You need to make sure that your degree gives you a sound background in chemistry and a good understanding of biological systems.
Although you don't need to have a pre-entry postgraduate qualification, there are a number of Masters courses available in toxicology and related areas that can help develop your knowledge and skills. Search postgraduate courses in toxicology.
You can also study for a PhD in toxicology or a related field such as pharmacology, medicines safety, biochemistry, computational toxicology or molecular biology.
Analytical toxicologists working in the NHS undergo specific training via the NHS Scientist Training Programme. Get more information from Health Careers: Analytical toxicology.
You'll need to have:
- an organised and methodical approach to work, paying attention to detail
- analytical, critical thinking and problem-solving skills
- written and oral communication skills, for presenting data and communicating results to both scientific staff and non-scientists
- good teamworking skills to work collaboratively in multidisciplinary teams
- the ability to work on your own and manage your time effectively
- a flexible approach to work and the ability to embrace change
- the ability to multitask and work to tight deadlines
- the ability to collect and analyse large amounts of experimental data
- a high degree of self-motivation and a proactive approach to work.
Employers always value relevant work experience and some degrees provide related placements as part of the course. These, along with part-time work in a research laboratory or organisation, can help you develop practical skills and build up useful contacts.
Student membership of a professional organisation such as the British Toxicology Society (BTS) is also useful for networking opportunities and keeping up to date with developments in toxicology and safety sciences.
Employers include private companies in a range of industries, government departments, contract research organisations (CROs) and consultancies. You may find work in the following areas of toxicology:
- academic - universities or research centres
- analytical and clinical - large district hospitals and specialist regional toxicology units of the NHS, or contract research organisations
- ecotoxicology - environmental hazard assessment in government, water companies, industry and private consultancy
- forensic - private forensic laboratories, forensic departments of hospitals or within government departments such as the Home Office
- industrial and pharmaceutical - various industries including chemical, biotechnology, pharmaceutical, consumer products and food
- occupational - within companies or government liaising with the Health and Safety Executive.
Look for job vacancies at:
- British Toxicological Society (BTS)
- Nature Jobs
- New Scientist Jobs
- NHS Jobs and NHS Scotland Recruitment
Jobs are also advertised on LinkedIn.
Once in the job, you'll receive practical laboratory-based and Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) training. You may also receive training in project and study management, data interpretation, report writing and presentation skills. If you're involved in forensic work you'll be trained in court reporting as well.
You'll need to take part in continuing professional development (CPD) throughout your career in order to keep up to date with the latest toxicological developments. You can do this by attending lectures, seminars, workshops and conferences or through taking further qualifications such as the Royal Society of Biology International Diploma in Toxicology. CPD schemes are available through organisations such as the:
If you don't already have a further qualification, you may want to do a Masters or PhD in your specific area of toxicology. For example, if you're working in environmental or ecotoxicology, you could take a Masters in a subject such as pollution science, waste management or aquatic resource management. This could be helpful for longer-term career progression and some employers may support and even sponsor you to do this while working.
With experience, you can apply to become a Registered Toxicologist on the UK Register of Toxicologists. To become registered, you need to:
- have an honours degree in a relevant science or equivalent qualification
- have at least five years' subsequent toxicological experience
- be currently engaged in the practice of toxicology
- provide details of a minimum of 12 months' relevant CPD activities
- provide two senior toxicologists as referees.
Gaining entry to the UK Register gives you automatic membership of EUROTOX - Federation of European Toxicologists & European Societies of Toxicology.
Once you've gained experience as a toxicologist, it's possible to move into a senior toxicologist position and then into a management role such as director of toxicology. As your career progresses, you're likely to spend more time managing whole projects, leading teams of staff and overseeing strategy.
There is scope to specialise within toxicology or to move into related scientific fields. Opportunities depend on your background and experience, but specialist areas include:
- developmental toxicology
- ecosystems - aquatic, terrestrial toxicology
- environmental pollution
- food safety
- safety pharmacology
- toxicology of biotechnology products.
Becoming a registered toxicologist can enhance your career prospects as it demonstrates your experience and competence in the role.
There are opportunities to progress into project management, having the responsibility of directing others. There are also opportunities to move into consultancy work.
Example career paths are available on the British Toxicology Society website.