If you have a scientific and analytical mind you may be suited to a career as a water quality scientist

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 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.

You may specialise in one of the following areas:

  • drinking water;
  • groundwater;
  • surface water (rivers, lakes, estuaries).

Responsibilities

As a water quality scientist, you'll need to:

  • take water samples (although routine sampling may be carried out by technicians);
  • carry out laboratory testing of samples for chemical or microbiological parameters and, in the case of drinking water, assess the quality of taste and clarity;
  • analyse statistical data on water quality samples;
  • 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;
  • 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 charges for effluent discharges;
  • 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.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for water quality scientists are in the region of £18,000 to £25,000.
  • With a few years' experience salaries of £25,000 to £35,000 can be reached.
  • Chartered status, considerable experience and greater responsibility can attract salaries of up to £45,000.

Benefits may include a contributory pension scheme, company car and private healthcare scheme.

Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

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 and 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.
  • The day-to-day schedule may be unpredictable and stressful due to the need to be responsive to incidents.
  • 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.

Qualifications

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:

  • biochemistry;
  • biology;
  • chemistry;
  • environmental science;
  • geology;
  • microbiology.

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 or 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.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • good laboratory work skills;
  • a sound analytical approach to problems;
  • organisational skills;
  • attention to detail;
  • the ability to communicate specialist information to the public and businesses;
  • an awareness of the water industry, particularly water companies;
  • a driving licence - this is usually a requirement due to daily travel to sites.

Work experience

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.

Employers

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:

Some consultancies and environmental organisations employ water quality scientists.

Look for job vacancies at:

Useful directories for contact details include the ENDS Environmental Consultancy Directory.

Professional development

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.

There are frequent changes within legislation concerning water quality so it's important that you keep up to date with CPD. 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 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.

Career prospects

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 CIWEM, in which case you'll need a degree and relevant experience. Achieving this will enable you to apply for registration with the Science Council. Having chartered status should aid career progression. Find out more at CIWEM Membership.

If you're ambitious, you could 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 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.