What Is a Toxicologist? A Career Guide

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Look at the toxicologist's role 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 specialise 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. You’ll find various areas of toxicology to work in, from forensics to medical. Within these disciplines, you can hone in to specialise further. Specialisations 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 many 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 assessment of their 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.

The role of medical toxicologists 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 during cases of illegal chemical use.

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 choosing modules in a subject related to the field, including chemistry, biomedical sciences, forensics, or environmental studies. 

Many undergraduate programmes may include the study of toxicology along with other subjects, including biochemistry and pharmacology. Universities such as Imperial College London or Birmingham also offer toxicology as part of Master of Science (MSc) programmes.

While a bachelor's degree may help you secure a job as a laboratory assistant or technician in toxicology, a more senior position will likely require a master's degree or even a PhD. According to the 2020 Job Market Survey data by the Society of Toxicology, more than 84 percent of responding toxicologists had a PhD [1].

Experience is essential, so working in a laboratory 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 when specialised in a particular area. These may include working towards becoming a Chartered Biologist or a Registered Toxicologist recognised by the UK Register of Toxicologists. Also, consider taking additional professional development courses or training to keep yourself current and current with discoveries in the field.

What skills do I need to become a toxicologist?

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

Attention to detail

When dealing with substances that could be dangerous to health, you must pay close attention to detail. You must also be patient, efficient, and able to gather results under pressure without compromising quality.

A logical mind

When conducting research, you need to be logical and independent. You must be open to all possibilities but logical in approach. 


Most toxicologists work in a team to conduct research and analyse 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. 


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


Being organised is critical 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, answers need to be provided 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 analysing 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 governmental organisations, 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 in the UK is £54,030, ranging from £44,000 to £67,000 [2]. Toxicologist salary data from the 2020 Toxicology Salary Survey indicated that 61.84 percent of respondents received additional pay in bonuses, commissions, stock gifts, or profit-sharing [1].

Career progression

Once you have begun working as a toxicologist, you can specialise in a niche area or move into related fields, such as environmental pollution or food safety. Experience and a PhD will be advantageous when moving into more senior positions. 

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 postdoctoral training programmes in toxicology. Toxicologists working in academia can progress to become professors, heads of departments, or deans.

Get started with Coursera.

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.

Article sources


International Journal of Toxicology. “Tenth Triennial Toxicology Salary Survey Table 1C, https://journals.sagepub.com/stoken/default+domain/SULLIVAN/full.” Accessed May 20, 2024.

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