What Is a Toxicologist? A Career Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Take a look at the role of a toxicologist as a potential career choice. Discover the specifics of toxicology, duties, salary, and how to qualify for toxicologist roles.

[Featured Image]:  A toxicologist, wearing a white lab coat, head covering and blue gloves is working in the laboratory.

A toxicologist is responsible for investigating the adverse effects of chemicals on the health of humans, animals, and the environment. This may include new medicines, illegal drugs, materials, natural substances, and radiation. Toxicologists work in various areas, for many different types of employers, after pursuing education to a high level. Job opportunities and progression options are excellent for those who specialize in the right area.

What does a toxicologist do?

A toxicologist works in the laboratory and the field as part of a team, studying the risks associated with substances and conducting risk assessments on exposure scenarios to decide the best resources to keep the public safe. Part of the role is assessing the effects on future technology and developments relating to the findings, such as drug treatments, building materials, and consumer products. 

Areas of toxicology

The toxicology field is wide-reaching. There are various areas of toxicology that you can work in, from forensics to medical. Within these disciplines, you can hone in to specialize further. Specializations include:

  • Clinical toxicology: Providing toxicological diagnosis for poisoned patients

  • Regulatory toxicology: Assessing health hazards

  • Occupational toxicology: Investigating health risks of chemicals in the workplace

  • Forensic toxicology: Providing information to the legal system on illegal drugs and chemicals

  • Medical/pharmaceutical toxicology: Investigating the unwanted effects of drug treatments

  • Environmental toxicology: Investigating the impact of chemicals on the environment

  • Aquatic toxicology: Investigating the effects of chemicals on marine organisms

  • Terrestrial toxicologist: Focusing on the effect on organisms following exposure to artificial or natural chemicals in soil

  • Neurotoxicologist: Studying the effects of toxic systems on the nervous system

What are the primary duties and responsibilities of a toxicologist?

The primary duties and responsibilities will vary depending on the specialty area, but generally, a toxicologist carries out a wide range of tasks. Researching substances, conducting experiments, and producing reports are everyday tasks for most toxicologists. Other typical duties and responsibilities you can expect to perform as a toxicologist include:

  • Researching and identifying any substances harmful to humans, animals or the environment

  • Participating in controlled experiments to evaluate the safety of chemicals and risk assess usage

  • Devising regulations for the uses of certain substances and providing advice on their handling

  • Complying with regulatory bodies to ensure safe practices within local, national and international guidelines

  • Producing reports, presenting findings, and advising on effective treatment for organisms or environments affected by adverse chemicals

  • Providing rigorous quality control and data management.

Medical toxicologists' role would include diagnosing poisoning and advising on effective treatment. This may consist of people who have come in contact with certain chemicals or ingested them as a drug overdose.

Forensic toxicologists might have to present findings and evidence in court if chemicals were used illegally.

What qualifications are required to become a toxicologist?

To work as a toxicologist, you need a bachelor's degree as a minimum. This should be in toxicology or majoring in a subject related to the field such as chemistry, biomedical sciences, forensics, or environmental studies.

However, many opportunities will require a higher qualification and a bachelor’s degree. While a bachelor's degree may help you secure a job as a laboratory assistant or a laboratory technician in toxicology, a more senior position will likely ask for a master's degree or even a PhD. According to the 2020 Job Market Survey data by the Society of Toxicology, many employed toxicologists have a PhD [1].

Read more: What Is a PhD?

Experience is essential, so working in a laboratory of any kind and ensuring your degree covers this aspect is critical. You can look into certifications to enhance your chances of gaining a position. While it isn’t essential to have a certificate, the more knowledge, and experience you have in the field, the better your chances. This may also be useful if you want to specialize in a particular area. These may include working towards becoming a Chartered Biologist or an American Board of Applied Toxicology certification. Also, consider taking additional professional development courses or training to keep yourself current and up to date with discoveries in the field.

What skills do I need to become a toxicologist?

In addition to some specific technical skills that come with the territory, toxicologists should possess some critical workplace skills essential to the role, including excellent communication and data analysis skills, and attention to detail. 

Attention to detail

It’s essential to pay close attention to detail when dealing with substances that could be dangerous to health. You must be patient, efficient, and able to gather results under pressure without compromising quality.

A logical mind

You need to be logical with an independent mind when conducting research. You must be open to all possibilities but logical in approach. 

Teamwork

Most toxicologists work in a team to conduct research and analyze findings. This means you need excellent teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others. You may work with people and bodies outside your team on projects impacting public health. 

Communication

Being able to communicate well both verbally and in writing is essential. Much of a toxicologist's work translates complex information into a way the public can understand. This could be through writing reports or presenting findings to your team, the public, or relevant public bodies. 

Organization

Being organized is critical when working in a laboratory setting to ensure everyone follows health and safety procedures. Labels should be clear, and everyone in the lab needs to know what they should be doing, especially as you are likely to work with hazardous chemicals. 

Time management

Working as a toxicologist can be time-dependent, for example, when working on a public health problem that needs answers quickly to ensure the health and safety of others. Working to deadlines and time frames is part of the role. 

Data analysis

As a toxicologist, your role includes conducting research and analyzing the data. Therefore, toxicologists are skilled in collecting and translating data into something meaningful, writing reports and presenting findings.

Where can I work once I’m qualified as a toxicologist?

The chemical, pharmaceutical, and consumer product industries are the biggest employers of toxicologists. Once qualified, you can work in several areas. 

Academia is the next biggest employer for toxicologists, followed by government, consulting firms, and research foundations. Those working in academic institutions tend to be in schools of medicine or public health or placed in large hospitals. They may also teach in smaller colleges as part of some scientific and engineering courses.

Government roles tend to be in forensics, occupational health, or concerned with environmental factors, while research foundations and consulting firms are likely to cover a variety of areas.

What do toxicologists earn?

According to Glassdoor,  the average salary for a toxicologist is $99,803, with an estimated additional pay of $26,896 [2]. Glassdoor further reports a salary range o $86,000 to $210,000 per year for toxicologists per year. Toxicologist salary data from the 2020 Toxicology Salary Survey include the following [1]:

  • 19.31% reported a base salary of $120,000–149,999

  • 25.49% reported a base salary of $150,000–199,999

  • 14.23% reported a base salary of $200,000–249,000

  • 6.52% reported a base salary of more than $250,000

  • 61.84% received additional pay in the form of bonuses, commission, stock gifts, or profit-sharing

Career progression

The employment of medical scientists, including toxicologists, is expected to grow 17 percent between 2020 and 2030, which is a rate that exceeds the average [3]. Once you have begun work as a toxicologist, it is possible to specialize in a niche area or move into related fields, such as environmental pollution or food safety.  

To move up into more senior positions, experience and a PhD will be an advantage. If you already have a doctoral degree in a related field, you can progress your career by working as a postdoctoral fellow in a toxicology laboratory. Doing so boosts experience in project management, grant writing, and team management. You can find government-funded and industry-based post-doctoral training programs in the field of toxicology. Toxicologists working in academia can progress to become professors, heads of departments, or deans.

Get started

A career as a toxicologist begins with earning a science-related bachelor's degree. If you’re interested in learning more about a toxicology career and are unsure where to start, check out this beginner's Evidence-Based Toxicology course offered by Johns Hopkins University on Coursera as a starting point. 

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Article sources

  1. International Journal of Toxicology. “Tenth Triennial Toxicology Salary Survey Table 1C, https://journals.sagepub.com/stoken/default+domain/SULLIVAN/full.” Accessed June 16, 2022.

  2. Glassdoor. “Toxicologist salaries,https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/us-toxicologist-salary-SRCH_IL.0,2_IN1_KO3,15.htm?clickSource=searchBtn&countryRedirect=true.” Accessed June 16, 2022.

  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook. Medical Scientists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/medical-scientists.htm#tab-1.” Accessed June 16, 2022.

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