A water quality scientist is responsible for safeguarding all aspects of water quality through scientific analysis and the setting of targets and standards in response to specific legislation. They compare test results with these standards, investigate shortfalls and take action to remedy problems.
Depending on the employer, they may be involved in providing solutions to water quality problems and water quality regulation.
Water quality scientists usually specialise in one of three areas:
- drinking water;
- surface water (rivers, lakes, estuaries).
More senior roles may involve significant liaison with businesses, the public and other water industry professionals.
Tasks differ according to the specialist area, particularly with regard to the degree of contact with the public, businesses and regulatory authorities, but all roles are likely to involve some or all of the following:
- taking water samples (although routine sampling may be carried out by technicians);
- carrying out laboratory testing of samples for chemical or microbiological parameters and, in the case of drinking water, assessment of the quality of taste and clarity;
- analysing statistical data on water quality samples;
- visiting sites of concern, for example, potential sources of pollution or contamination, and sources of complaints about drinking water quality;
- liaising with customers and representatives from regulatory authorities;
- investigating reasons for lapses in water quality and suggesting changes or solutions to these problems;
- providing advice on avoiding problems, for example, to businesses discharging effluent;
- negotiating charges for effluent discharges;
- contributing to projects concerning water quality improvement;
- checking customers' premises and the construction of drains;
- investigating pollution incidents from a scientific and legal viewpoint;
- arranging for emergency action in response to pollution-causing incidents;
- conducting research related to water quality and setting up field surveys;
- sharing information with water quality professionals from other agencies.
Work activities may vary according to the current issues of concern; an ongoing and serious problem with water quality may cause other activities to be suspended or minimised until it has been dealt with.
- Starting salaries for water quality scientists are the region of £17,000 to £22,000.
- With experience salaries of £22,000 to £45,000 can be reached. Higher salaries may be achieved with chartered status and supervisory skills.
Benefits may include a contributory pension scheme, company car and private healthcare scheme.
Salaries are mostly on fixed scales with progression based on experience. However, a system of salary progression related to achievement of individual targets and performance is becoming more common.
Income data from the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM). Figures are intended as a guide only.
Standard working hours are 9am to 5pm, but roles typically include regular extra hours. Most organisations provide 24-hour emergency cover, so employees often work extra time on a rota basis. Overtime payments and a standby allowance may be available and time off in lieu is often given for bank-holiday working. Extra hours might be expected in response to a serious incident.
Part-time work and career breaks are possible.
What to expect
- Working outdoors in all weathers is typical for field-based staff but not for regulatory or laboratory-based scientists.
- Self-employment/freelance work is not generally possible until you have gained sufficient experience and expertise to make consultancy a possibility.
- Women are now well represented in this area of work.
- Jobs are available in all areas, as water quality is monitored throughout the UK.
- Dress code depends on whether you work outdoors or in a laboratory.
- The day-to-day schedule may be unpredictable and stressful due to the need to be responsive to incidents.
- Absence from home overnight is uncommon as is overseas work or travel, except within consultancies.
- Travel within a working day is frequent. Part of each day may be spent travelling to sites of concern or to customers' or businesses' premises. Covering a large region may involve considerable daily travel.
This area of work is open to all graduates but will be especially relevant to those with a science degree. In particular, the following subjects are useful:
- environmental science;
Entry is possible with a relevant HND, for example subjects that have a strong element of analytical chemistry and/or biology. However it may be difficult to secure a job with a HND only because of the level of competition typical of all environmental roles.
If you have a HND you are more likely to be recruited to technician/sampling roles, with progression possible through experience and further study and training.
The water industry has a history of developing its own staff and seeking to fill vacancies through internal progression where possible. Laboratory experience within a work placement can aid HND entry. It is unlikely that you will be able to enter the career without a HND or degree.
Although a postgraduate qualification is not generally required, it may offer some advantage if your first degree is not closely related to the work. Postgraduate courses with work placements or with strong ties to the industry would be preferred. A number of courses are accredited by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM). For a list of institutions and courses, see CIWEM: Academic Accreditation.
You will need to show evidence of the following:
- good laboratory work skills;
- a sound analytical approach to problems;
- organisational skills;
- attention to detail;
- ability to communicate specialist information to the public and businesses;
- an awareness of the water industry, particularly water companies.
A driving licence is usually a requirement due to daily travel to sites.
As with all environmental careers, work experience, whether paid or voluntary, is often important.
Organisations offering voluntary work include:
It is a good idea to get membership of a relevant organisation to keep up to date with news in the industry. Student and graduate membership is available with CIWEM. This gives access to publications and opportunities to attend conferences and events.
Water companies provide a major source of employment within the industry. There are various companies that supply water and sewerage to England and Wales and a full list can be found at Ofwat: Water Company Contact Details.
Water and waste water services are provided in Scotland by Scottish Water. It acts as the wholesaler to the licensed water and sewerage suppliers.
In Northern Ireland, these services are delivered by Northern Ireland Water.
Other employers include regulatory bodies, such as:
- Environment Agency (EA) - responsible for overseeing the quality of fresh, marine, surface and underground water in England and Wales.
- Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) - oversees the quality of tap water, ensuring safe drinking water is supplied and it meets the standards set down in law.
Environmental protection in Scotland, including groundwater quality, is the responsibility of:
In Northern Ireland, pollution and groundwater quality are monitored by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
There are a few vacancies in consultancies and environmental organisations.
Look for job vacancies at:
- CIWEM Jobs Market
- Chemistry World Jobs
- Nature Jobs
- New Scientist Jobs
- Local and national press.
- Websites of water companies and regulatory bodies.
Useful directories for contact details include the ENDS Environmental Consultancy Directory.
Recruitment agencies are now quite active in advertising posts for both permanent and temporary staff. Large national agencies are the most likely to be used by water companies.
Employers generally provide on-the-job training. Formal training is usually provided for procedural and regulatory issues and is often delivered by relevant agencies or consultants. Self-directed study and distance learning are used by some employers.
Water quality scientists are required to keep their knowledge up to date as there are frequent changes within legislation concerning water quality. For this reason continuing professional development (CPD) is important.
The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) offers CPD courses covering topics such as communicating complex ideas and health and safety. It also has online CPD units which can be completed by members and non-members. They cover a variety of subjects such as disinfection, implementing an environmental management system and municipal waste water treatment. Find out more at CIWEM: e-learning.
Once you have built up some relevant experience you can become a member of CIWEM. To do so, you will need to submit a written report that details your environmental activities and demonstrates your responsibility in water management.
The larger water companies have graduate training schemes or management training programmes, and these tend to concentrate on commercial functions and water operations management, rather than water quality work. They typically provide structured training towards understanding all aspects of the business, as well as support for professional qualifications.
Environment officers are occasionally recruited by the Environment Agency (EA), which then puts them through structured training programmes including water quality.
At first, career progression is not usually rapid and you must first build up your expertise, knowledge and experience. Beyond that, progression is partly dependent on your motivation.
Some water quality scientists are happy to remain in their role, developing their own expertise and authority within a specialist area.
You may decide to gain chartered status with the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM). You will need a degree and relevant experience that demonstrates you have met 14 mandatory competencies.
Once you have achieved this you will be able to apply for registration with the Science Council. Having chartered status should aid career progression. Find out more at CIWEM: Membership.
The most obvious career move for ambitious staff within water companies is to become water operations managers, with responsibility for managing a range of facilities within the water industry and coordinating and directing all activities relating to water operations. However, there is stiff competition for these posts, particularly among graduates recruited onto graduate training schemes.
Other management roles include the management and supervision of sampling, treatment and laboratory facilities and staff. There are opportunities to manage water quality teams or to move into more generic environmental protection roles or national policy/research work within the Environment Agency (EA).
If you become an experienced water quality scientist who is recognised as an expert in your field, you may be able to move into consultancy, providing services to water organisations nationally and internationally. This is only likely with significant experience of research, publishing and/or management.