What do you want to become?
Alternate Career Titles: Toxicology Specialist
Career Overview: Toxicologists use elements of science and medicine to assess and determine the harmful effects of chemicals
Career Salary Range: $35,000 to $60,000
Estimated Years of Schooling Required: 4
Required Minimum Degree/License: Bachelor’s Degree in Toxicology
Become a Toxicologist
A Toxicologist uses modern science and medicine to find scientifically sound answers to questions relating to the impacts chemicals have on humans, other living organisms and the environment. Toxicologists also seek to determine what risks a chemical poses, and under which circumstances these risks exist. They achieve this through discovering new concepts, evaluating product safety, providing education and consulting for public safety and awareness. For example, Toxicologists seek to answer questions like: How much exposure to a certain chemical would it take to cause harm to the human body? Which chemicals are dangerous if ingested? What are side effects of chemicals on the nervous system?
In this role, professionals may find themselves assessing the risk of using chemicals in any given circumstance, designing and implementing controlled studies or identifying new ways to determine potentially harmful effects of chemical agents. Furthermore, Toxicologists may be responsible for assisting in the establishment of human health rules and regulations, while conducting comprehensive research and sharing results with their institutions or the public. What makes this career especially interesting to some learners is that, as a Toxicologist, they experience the excitement of cutting edge science-based research. Additionally, they experience the satisfaction of contributing to the health of the current population and of future generations.
There are four primary types of Toxicologists: industrial, forensic, regulatory and occupational. Industrial Toxicologists provides support through the on-site incident command structure and by exploring health-related issues. Alternatively, Forensic Toxicologists are responsible for using pharmacology and chemistry to interpret legal investigations pertaining to drug use, poisoning and death. Then, Regulatory Toxicologists work to develop regulations to reduce and control exposure to dangerous chemicals. Lastly, Occupational Toxicologists are tasked with understanding and managing workplace biological and chemical hazards.
“As a Toxicologist, specifically a Forensic Toxicologist, my career is very rewarding and exciting because there are no two cases exactly alike, and therefore we are constantly challenged intellectually,” Sabra Botch-Jones, a Toxicologist practicing in Boston, Massachusetts said.
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Education & Training
Although there are a number of degree and education pathways that can lead an individual to a career in healthcare as a Toxicologist, most learners start with a Bachelor’s Degree in toxicology or a related science such as biology or chemistry. Ideally, courses taken during these formative years should help learners decide which subject within toxicology appears most interesting to them. During this educational period, many learners obtain work experience in research laboratories and engage in science and leadership activities.
After the completion of a Bachelor’s Degree program, learners can enroll in a Master’s or Doctoral Degree in toxicology. Ultimately, the more schooling a toxicologist has the greater their competitive advantage tends to become.
“Having an advanced degree is not uncommon amongst Toxicologists,” Botch-Jones said. “I personally have three graduate degrees, one in forensic toxicology, one in drug chemistry, and one in criminal justice management and administration.”
Botch-Jones added that she feels very fortunate to have been able to work in the field of Toxicology while also completing her graduate education. She admitted that working full-time and going to school full-time was challenging,. however, she has been able to apply the knowledge she learned during her graduate education and this has enhanced her work experience significantly.
To advance in a career as a Toxicologist, professionals could seek out internal or external opportunities yielding more managerial or executive roles. Specialty opportunities, such as specializing in the treatment effects of a particular chemical substance, can lead to these opportunities. Obtaining a Doctoral Degree can also help pave the way to advancement opportunities as a Toxicologist.
“If an individual wanted to advance their career and held a Bachelor’s Degree, I would highly suggest that they seek a graduate degree,” Botch-Jones said. “Some higher level positions in Toxicology require either a Master’s Degree or a PhD.”
Experience & Skills
“The most important skill to have in this career is having a good understanding of both analytical chemistry as well as pharmacology,” Botch-Jones explained. “As Toxicologists, we are not only tasked with determining what is in a biological sample taken from an individual, but also in interpreting the results to explain the findings to a physician, jury and / or judge. The ability to understand and communicate complex information is essential.”
Also to succeed in a role as a Toxicologist, these professionals should have excellent problem-solving and logical reasoning skills. They should also abide by an organized and methodological work strategy, especially when collecting large amounts of experimental data.
Toxicologists must have meticulous attention to detail, and be able to follow instructions to prevent any errors or potentially dangerous exposures to chemicals. These professionals should also be genuinely passionate about both science and healthcare. As this career may not always come with strict oversight, Toxicologists should be self-motivated and be able to communicate questions and concerns when necessary. They should also feel comfortable working in teams and be able to present data and results to non-toxicologists.
“I believe Toxicologists should have a desire to keep learning while remaining balanced and positive. After years of looking at types of cases and the effect they have on people, I learned remaining positive is important,” Botch-Jones stressed. “Further, having a personality that is always curious helps, especially when you are faced with a new drugs and are trying to determine what it is and what the effects are.”
Typically, Toxicologists work “standard” 9 am to 5 pm hours, but may be required to work evenings, nights or weekends if employed by a hospital or other all-hours facility. Occasionally research may also impact hours.
“Now as an academic, my day is probably unlike many of those working in a laboratory full time,” Botch-Jones said. “I split my time between teaching the next generation of Toxicologists while performing research and advising my research students.”
Today is a great time to consider starting a career in healthcare as a Toxicologist! Ultimately, demand in this career continues to grow as the need for well-trained toxicologists further increases as health consciousness expands.
Currently, about 21 percent of Toxicologists are employed in academic settings, while 17 percent work in pharmaceuticals, 14 percent for the government, 7 percent in chemical, 4 percent in research foundations and 3 percent in consumer products. Alternatively, some Toxicologists are employed by consulting groups, in industrial settings or in other sectors. Also of note, the Northeast United States employed the greatest number of Toxicologists, followed by the North Center and then Mid-Atlantic.
“The career outlook is usually always strong for those who want to work in the field of toxicology. Most often, when an individual has some flexibility of where they are willing to live, and if they have the required skills, they can often find a position,” Botch-Jones said.
The salaries available for Toxicologists can be highly competitive, but they usually range from $35,000 to $60,000 annually. Typically, Toxicologists who have obtained a Doctoral Degree and have over 10 years experience make the most within this occupation.
“Earning potential as a Toxicologist is dependent on where an individual lives and the type of environment they would like to work in,” Botch-Jones explained. “Some choose to work for pharmaceutical companies,laboratories or in industry settings where the earning potentials may be even greater.”
A recent survey by the Society of Toxicology revealed that salaries vary by degree. With a bachelor’s degree, toxicologists earned a average starting salary of under $50,000 a year in 2008. Those with master’s degrees averaged just over $50,000, while those with doctorates earned closer to $100,000 a year.
Unions, Groups and Associations
The Society of Toxicology (SOT) is an organization which seeks to recruit diverse and talented scientists to the field of toxicology. The mission of the SOT is to create a safer and healthier world by advancing the science and increasing the impact of toxicology.
The American Academy of Clinical Toxicology (AACT) is an organization with the specific goal of advancing the diagnosis and treatment of poisonings. The AACT remains devoted to the advancement of research, education, prevention and treatment of diseases caused by chemicals, drugs and toxins.
The American Chemical Society (ACS) is an organization dedicated to advancing the broader chemistry enterprise for the benefit of all people. In achieving this, the organization homes to improve people’s lives and transform the power of chemistry.
The Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA) organization is designed to protect human health by conducting scientific research and development on risk issues. This is all done in a transparent and collaborative fashion and with communicating the results widely.
- Shadow a Toxicologist or seek out volunteer opportunities in a laboratory setting
- Find a mentor
- Research postsecondary education settings with toxicology programs
- Enroll in and complete a program
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Sabra Botch-Jones, M.S., M.A., D-ABFT-FT
Practice: Boston University School of Medicine
Location: Boston, MA
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“My biggest suggestion would be to research this career and see what degree or skills are needed to get into the field.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The number one mistake is not knowing what the minimum requirements are for an entry-level toxicology position, or a professional not fully understanding what the career entails.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“They should ask ‘What does this career actually involve doing?’ Some Toxicologist work in medical examiner’s offices and this can be challenging if a learner has not previously dealt with death or grieving.”
Why did you choose to become a Toxicologist?
“I found enjoyment in the fact that each day in this career is constantly changing.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
*Credentialing organization: American Board of Toxicology