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 identify, monitor and evaluate the impact of toxic materials, chemicals, potential new medicines and radiation on the environment and human and animal health.
You'll plan and carry out laboratory and field studies, taking into account the potential implications of future technology such as the long-term consequences of gene-editing technologies.
You'll typically work as part of a team with other specialists, including 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'll need to:
- isolate, identify and measure toxic substances or radiation and any harmful effect they have on humans, animals, plants or ecosystems
- plan and carry out a range of experiments in the field or laboratories, looking at the biological systems of plants and animals
- 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
- advise on the safe handling of toxic substances and radiation in production or in the event of an accident
- specifically within the NHS, study the effects of harmful chemicals, biological agents and drug overdose on people and advise on the treatment of affected patients
- liaise 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 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 using specialised techniques, including in vivo and in vitro tests
- use experimental data to assess a drug's 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.
- The salary range for highly experienced toxicologists can rise to £75,000 and beyond.
- Salaries for toxicologists working in analytical toxicology in the NHS start at £28,050 (Band 6). You can progress through the grades up to around £84,507 (Band 9).
Salaries may be lower in some public sector and contract laboratories. Location will also influence salary.
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 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 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 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.
- There isn't usually much travel involved in the role. Depending on the organisation, 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 few degree courses 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
- medical and veterinary sciences
- 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. Entry without a degree isn't possible.
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. Search postgraduate courses in toxicology.
You can also study for a PhD in toxicology or a related field such as pharmacology, medicines safety, biochemistry or molecular biology.
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.
You'll need to have:
- an organised and methodical approach to work, paying attention to detail
- excellent problem-solving skills
- excellent 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, 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.
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:
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. As your career progresses, you're likely to spend less time on practical and laboratory-based scientific work and more time on office-based and supervisory 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.
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 may be opportunities to move into consultancy work.