What Does a Hydrologist Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, and More

Image by Evan Polenghi © The Balance 2019 

A hydrologist is a scientist who researches the distribution, circulation, and physical properties of the earth's underground and surface waters. They help environmental and other scientists preserve and clean up the environment, as well as search for groundwater. This is one of many green jobs, as well as a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) career.

Hydrologist Duties and Responsibilities

The job duties of a hydrologist may include:

  • Plan and collect surface water or groundwater and monitor data to support projects and programs
  • Work with local, state, and federal agencies on water resource issues
  • Conduct watershed and storm water 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

Hydrologist Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017, hydrologists earned the following salary:

  • Median annual salary: $79,990 ($38.46/hour)
  • Top 10% annual salary: $122,870 ($59/07/hour)
  • Bottom 10% annual salary: $50.900 ($24.47/hour)

Education Requirements and Qualifications

To become a hydrologist, you will need to have certain degrees, licenses, and experience:

  • College degrees: To become a hydrologist, you will need a bachelor's degree. To advance to a higher position will require a master's degree. Your degree must be in hydrology; or geoscience, environmental science, or engineering with a concentration in hydrology or water science. A doctoral degree is necessary if you aspire to do advanced research or get a highly coveted position on the faculty of a university.
  • Licenses: 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 requirements and pass an examination. You can check the licensing requirements of the state in which you plan to work by going to the state website or using the licensed occupations tool on CareerOneStop.
  • Certifications: You can also apply for voluntary certification from the American Institute of Hydrology (AIH). 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.
  • Experience: 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 can become a project leader, program manager, or you may be promoted to a senior research position. Internships are a great way to gain experience. The American Water Resources Association (AWRA) posts internships, as well as job opportunities for aspiring hydrologists.

    Hydrologist Skills and Competencies

    In addition to the technical skills you will acquire through your education, you will need to have other important skills:

    • Critical thinking: Critical thinking is necessary when developing plans that respond to threats to the water supply.
    • Verbal and communication: Speaking well allows 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: Writing well allows you to clearly present your findings to your professional peers, as well as to government officials and the public.
    • Analytical skills: Properly analyzing collected field data can help you to assess water quality and solve problems.
    • Interpersonal skills: You work in close collaboration with other scientists and public officials.
    • Time management and organizational skills: You must be able to achieve goals, work independently and meet deadlines, while handling multiple tasks.
    • Computer skills: You must know Microsoft Excel or other spreadsheet software for data extraction and reporting.
    • Physical stamina: Field work may involve hiking to remote locations while carrying testing and sampling equipment.

    Job Outlook

    The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment in this occupation will grow 10 percent from 2016 to 2026. Demand for hydrologists will stem from increases in human activities such as mining, construction, and hydraulic fracturing. Environmental concerns, especially global climate change and the potential rise in sea-level, are also likely to increase demand.

    Work Environment

    Hydrologists work in offices, classrooms, laboratories, and in the field. The federal government and state governments, and consulting and engineering firms employ the majority of hydrologists.

    Hydrologists out in the field may need to wade into lakes and rivers to collect samples and inspect equipment. Their work may be affected by strong water currents and bad weather. In addition, many jobs require significant travel; and jobs in the private sector may involve international travel.

    Work Schedule

    Most hydrologists work full time. However, hours may vary for those who work in the field.

    Apply

    The following websites offer career and networking opportunities specifically in the field of hydrology:

    Popular job boards, such as Indeed, Glassdoor and Monster, also advertise hydrologist positions.

    Comparing Similar Jobs

    Those interested in a career as a hydrologist, may also want to consider these similar jobs:

    Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017

    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