If you have a methodical, scientific mind and enjoy carrying out experiments, a career in toxicology may be for you
As a toxicologist, you'll look at the impact of toxic materials and radiation on the environment and human and animal health. You'll plan and carry out laboratory and field studies that help to identify, monitor and evaluate this impact and will also consider the use of future technology.
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'll be:
- isolating, identifying and measuring toxic substances or radiation and any harmful effect they have on humans, animals, plants or ecosystems;
- planning and carrying out a range of experiments in the field or laboratories, looking at the biological systems of plants and animals;
- analysing and evaluating statistical data and researching scientific literature;
- writing reports and scientific papers, presenting findings and, in the case of forensic work, giving evidence in court;
- advising on the safe handling of toxic substances and radiation, in production or in the event of an accident;
- specifically within the NHS, studying the effects of harmful chemicals, biological agents and drug overdose on people and advising on the treatment of affected patients;
- liaising with regulatory authorities to make sure you're complying with local, national and international regulations.
If you work in the pharmaceutical industry, one of your most important tasks will be making sure any potential new drugs are safe to test on humans. This will involve:
- carrying out risk assessments;
- doing various tests using specialised techniques, including in vivo and in vitro tests;
- using experimental data to assess a drug's toxicity and create a safety profile;
- balancing potential benefits against any risks.
- Starting salaries for graduate toxicologists in private sector industry range from £20,000 to £30,000.
- Toxicologists working within the NHS earn around £26,000, rising to £35,000 with experience.
- The salary range for highly experienced toxicologists in the public or private sector can rise to £75,000 and beyond.
Salaries may be lower in some public sector and contract laboratories and location will influence salary.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
You'll usually work regular hours from 9am to 5pm but may be required to be flexible if you're carrying out experiments. Some weekend or evening shifts might have to be covered on occasions depending on the priority of the work.
What to expect
- The work can be very 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 widely available but you may have to be prepared to relocate to achieve career progression. 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 you'll be able to do consultancy work. You may find it difficult to take a career break due to rapid technical changes in the industry.
- Travel within a working day is occasionally needed but you wouldn't usually need to be away overnight. Depending on the organisation, you may get the opportunity to travel overseas for collaborative work or scientific conferences.
You need to have a degree to become a toxicologist. While there are few degree courses specifically in toxicology, there are many in related subjects, such as pharmacology or biomedical sciences that contain a significant toxicology component.
Subject areas likely to be of use include:
- biological, biomedical and biochemical sciences;
- food, crop, soil and environmental sciences;
- forensic, chemical and physical sciences;
- medical and veterinary sciences;
You need to make sure that your degree gives you a sound background in chemistry and a good understanding of biological systems. Entry without a degree or with a foundation degree only isn't possible.
You don't need to have a pre-entry postgraduate qualification but you may want to take one if you feel your first degree wasn't completely relevant. A Masters course that combines toxicology or forensic science with subjects such as analytical chemistry or immunology might be particularly helpful for toxicology work.
If you want to specialise in a particular area of toxicology it might be worth considering a specific postgraduate course in a related subject such as pharmacology, food science or environmental management. Search for postgraduate courses in biochemistry.
You will need to show:
- an organised and methodical approach to work;
- excellent problem-solving skills;
- good teamworking skills to work collaboratively in multidisciplinary teams;
- the ability to collect and analyse large amounts of experimental data;
- a high degree of self-motivation and a proactive approach to work;
- excellent written and oral communication skills, for presenting data and communicating results.
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, can help you develop practical skills and build up useful contacts.
You could also look for student membership of a professional organisation such as the British Toxicology Society (BTS). It will provide you with networking opportunities and keep you informed of developments in toxicology.
Employers include private companies in a range of industries, government departments and contract research organisations (CROs). 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;
- ecotoxicology - environmental hazard assessment in government, 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 or food;
- occupational - within companies, liaising with the Health and Safety Executive.
Look for job vacancies at:
Job prospects are fairly good and direct entry into the profession following your degree is common, particularly in contract research organisations.
Once you're in the job, you may want to work towards a Masters or PhD relating to 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.
You can also take relevant advanced qualifications at diploma level through the following organisations:
- American Board of Toxicology
- The Royal College of Pathologists (RCPath)
- Royal Society of Biology (RSB)
In addition to practical laboratory-based and good laboratory practice (GLP) training, you're likely to receive training in project and study management, data interpretation, report writing and presentation skills. If you're involved in forensic work you will be trained in court reporting as well.
Toxicologists working within the NHS have to undergo specific training, which varies depending on the entry route to the profession. Get more information from Health Careers Analytical Toxicology.
It's likely that as your career progresses, you'll spend less time on practical and laboratory-based scientific work and more time on office-based and supervisory work. You can progress into project management, having the responsibility of directing others. There may be opportunities to move into consultancy work.
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:
- safety pharmacology;
- toxicology of biotechnology products.
Once you've gained some experience, you'll be able to apply to become a Registered Toxicologist on the UK Register of Toxicologists. To become registered you need to:
- have a degree in a relevant science;
- have at least five years' subsequent toxicological experience;
- pass assessment of suitability for registration, for example by published works or reviews;
- be currently engaged in the practice of toxicology;
- provide two senior toxicologists as referees.
Gaining entry to the UK Register gives you automatic membership of EUROTOX - Federation of European Toxicologists and European Societies of Toxicology.