Water quality scientists safeguard all aspects of water quality through scientific testing and analysis
As a water quality scientist, you'll ensure that water quality targets and standards relating to specific legislation are met. You will test and analyse water samples and compare test results with these standards, investigate shortfalls and take action to remedy problems.
Depending on your employer, you may be involved in providing solutions to water quality problems and water quality regulation. More senior roles may involve significant liaison with businesses, the public and other water industry professionals.
Types of water quality scientist
You may specialise in one of the following areas:
- drinking water
- surface water (including rivers, lakes and estuaries).
As a water quality scientist, you'll need to:
- take water samples (although routine sampling may be carried out by technicians)
- carry out sample preparation, laboratory testing of samples for chemical or microbiological parameters and, in the case of drinking water, assess the quality of taste and clarity
- monitor, analyse and report on water quality data
- understand trends and patterns and assess compliance with regulatory standards and potential risks to consumers
- carry out daily laboratory quality control checks
- visit sites of concern, such as potential sources of pollution or contamination, and sources of complaints about drinking water quality
- liaise with customers and representatives from regulatory authorities
- lead investigations into atypical findings
- investigate reasons for lapses in water quality and suggest changes or solutions to these problems
- provide advice on avoiding problems, for example to businesses discharging effluent
- negotiate effluent discharges fees
- contribute to projects concerning water quality improvement
- check customers' premises and the construction of drains
- investigate pollution incidents from a scientific and legal viewpoint
- arrange for emergency action in response to pollution-causing incidents
- conduct research related to water quality and set up field surveys
- share information with water quality professionals from other agencies
- adhere to health and safety procedures.
- Starting salaries for water quality scientists range from £18,000 to £25,000.
- With a few years' experience, salaries are in the region of £25,000 to £35,000.
- Salaries for water quality scientists with chartered status, considerable experience and greater responsibility can be in excess of £50,000.
Salaries vary depending on a range of factors such as the size and type of company you work for, your skills and experience, and location.
Benefits may include a contributory pension scheme, company car and private healthcare scheme.
Figures are intended as a guide only.
Standard working hours are 37 hours a week, 9am to 5pm. Many organisations, however, provide 24-hour emergency cover, so you may have to work on an out-of-hours rota.
Extra hours may 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.
- The work is varied and your day-to-day schedule may be unpredictable and reactive as you will need to respond to incidents.
- 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.
- Self-employment and freelance work as a consultant may be possible once you have gained significant experience and expertise.
You'll usually need a degree in a science-related discipline. The following degree subjects are particularly relevant:
- environmental science
Entry is sometimes possible with a relevant HND, for example in a subject that has a strong element of analytical chemistry and/or biology. However, it may be difficult to secure a job with an HND only due to the level of competition. If you have an HND you're more likely to be recruited to technician or sampling roles, with progression possible through experience and further study and training.
It's unlikely that you'll be able to become a water quality scientist without an HND or degree.
Although a postgraduate qualification is not generally required, it can be useful. If you're thinking of further study, look for postgraduate courses with work placements or with strong ties to the industry. For a list of institutions and accredited courses, see the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) - Accredited Courses.
It's also possible to complete an apprenticeship, combining paid work with part-time study, to gain entry to a career in water quality. Search Find an Apprenticeship or check your local water authority website for opportunities.
You'll need to have:
- good laboratory skills
- excellent written and verbal communication skills
- interpersonal skills for liaising with customers, regulatory and health bodies, and other internal and external stakeholders
- the ability to analyse and interpret data
- attention to detail
- the ability to communicate specialist information to the public and businesses
- time management and organisation skills and the ability to prioritise your workload
- effective teamworking skills
- IT skills
- an awareness of the water industry, particularly water companies, and health and safety regulations.
You'll usually need a driving licence due to daily travel to sites.
Getting relevant work experience, either paid or voluntary, is important. You could do a year's industrial placement as part of your degree or look for internships and summer vacation schemes.
Organisations offering voluntary work include:
It's 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 in Scotland are provided by Scottish Water, which 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 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 - oversees the quality of tap water in England and Wales, ensuring safe drinking water is supplied and it meets the standards set down in law.
- Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Northern Ireland - regulates water quality and hydrological processes.
- Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) - responsible for environmental protection in Scotland, including groundwater quality.
- Drinking Water Quality Regulator (DWQR) - ensures the drinking water in Scotland is safe.
Some consultancies and environmental organisations also employ water quality scientists.
Look for job vacancies at:
Useful directories for contact details include the ENDS Environmental Consultancy Directory.
Employers generally provide on-the-job training with support from more senior water quality scientists. Formal training is usually provided for procedural and regulatory issues.
Continuing professional development (CPD) is important, for example to keep up to date with changes within legislation concerning water quality.
The CIWEM offers CPD courses on a range of relevant topics and also has online CPD units, which can be completed by members and non-members. Find out more at CIWEM training.
Once you've gained enough experience you can apply for chartered membership of CIWEM. If you have a Masters degree, and have gained CIWEM chartered member status, you can also apply for registration as a Chartered Scientist (CSci).
The larger water companies have graduate training schemes or management training programmes, although 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.
You may decide you're happy to remain in your role, developing your own expertise and authority within a specialist area.
There are opportunities to move into a water operations manager role, 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 and research work within bodies such as the Environment Agency or Scottish Environment Protection Agency.
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.