What Does a Hydrologist Do?

Hydrologist takes a water sample
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A hydrologist is a scientist who researches the distribution, circulation and physical properties of underground and surface waters. He or she may help environmental scientists and other scientists preserve and clean up the environment or may search for groundwater. This is one of many green jobs, as well as a STEM career.

Quick Facts

  • Hydrologists earn a median annual salary of $79,990 (2017).
  • Nearly 7000 people work in this occupation (2016).
  • The federal government and state governments, and consulting and engineering firms employ the majority of hydrologists.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies it as a "bright outlook occupation" due to its superior job outlook. The agency predicts employment in this occupation will grow much faster than the average for all occupations from 2016 to 2026.

A Day in a Hydrologist's Life

These are some typical job duties taken from online ads for hydrologist positions found on Indeed.com:

  • "Plan and collect surface or groundwater water and monitor data to support projects and programs"
  • "Work with local, state, federal agencies on water resource issues"
  • "Conduct watershed and stormwater studies"
  • "Process meteorological, snow, and hydrologic data"
  • "Prepare various maps and figures including: contour maps of groundwater elevations, geologic structure, cross-sections, isopach, water quality, and other hydrogeologic data"
  • "Install and maintain water property and water quality instrumentation"
  • "Determine the nature and extent of contamination in groundwater"
  • "Prepare written reports and make oral presentations"

How to Become a Hydrologist

You can become a hydrologist with just a bachelor's degree, but if you want to advance beyond an entry-level position, you will have to earn at least a master's degree. Your degree must be in hydrology, or in geoscience, environmental science or engineering with a concentration in hydrology or water sciences. You will need to earn a Ph.D. if you aspire to do advanced research or get a highly coveted position on the faculty of a university.

Some states require hydrologists to have licenses that are issued by state licensing boards. To get one, you will have to meet certain educational and experience stipulations and pass an exam. Check the licensing requirements of the state in which you plan to work by using the Licensed Occupations Tool on CareerOneStop.

You can apply for voluntary certification from the American Institute of Hydrology. To become certified, you will need a bachelor's degree and five years of work experience, a master's degree and four years of experience, or a doctorate degree and three years of experience. You will also have to pass a two-part written exam.

How Can You Advance in Your Career?

As an entry-level hydrologist, you will likely begin your career working as a research assistant or technician in a laboratory or office. Alternatively, you may work in field exploration. With experience, you may become a project leader, program manager, or you may be promoted to a senior research position.

What Soft Skills Do You Need?

In addition to the technical skills you will acquire through your education, you will also need certain personal qualities, called soft skills. They are:

  • Critical Thinking: You will use critical thinking skills when developing plans that respond to threats to the water supply.
  • Verbal Communication: Your ability to speak well will allow you to present and clearly explain your findings to others, including those who do not have a scientific background, for example, government officials.
  • Writing Skills: You will have to present your findings to your professional peers, as well as government officials and the public.
  • Analytical Skills: You will have to analyze the data that is collected out in the field and use that information to assess water quality and solve problems.
  • Interpersonal Skills: Hydrologists work in close collaboration with other scientists and public officials.

What Will Employers Expect From You?

To find out what qualifications employers are seeking, we again turned to Indeed.com to examine job announcements for hydrologists:

  • "Ability to maintain working relationships with superiors, subordinates, and peers"
  • "Must be able to work independently and meet deadlines"
  • "Ability to achieve goals and meet deadlines while working on multiple tasks"
  • "Knowledge of Excel or other spreadsheet software; data extraction and reporting"
  • "Careful attention to detail, accuracy, and consistency"

Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

Do your interests, personality type, and work-related values make you a good fit for this career? A self assessment can help you see if it does. Find out if you have the following traits:

Occupations With Related Activities and Tasks

Description Annual Salary (2017) Educational Requirements
Atmospheric Scientist Studies how the weather and climate affect the earth and its inhabitants $92,070 Bachelor's degree in atmospheric science or a related science field
Environmental Technician Performs laboratory and field tests in order to monitor the environment and determine sources of pollution $45,490 Associate degree or certificate in applied science or science-related technology
Conservationist Finds ways to utilize land without harming natural resources $61,480 Bachelor's degree in forestry, agronomy, agricultural science, biology or environmental science
Environmental Scientist Conducts research on pollution and other environmental contaminants $69,400 Bachelor's degree in environmental science or a related field

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook; Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online (visited May 11, 2018).