There are a number of degree and education paths that can lead an individual to a career in toxicology. This page is designed to provide those considering a career in toxicology with information on the profession, schooling needed, and more. The content of this page was originally developed as a printed publication called Resource Guide to Careers in Toxicology.
The Society of Toxicology (SOT) seeks to recruit diverse and talented scientists to the field of toxicology. The first edition of the Resource Guide to Careers in Toxicology was conceived and prepared by members of the Educational Issues Task Force of the Tox 90’s Commission, including Jay Gandolfi, PhD (Committee Chairman), University of Arizona; David L. Eaton, PhD (Project Coordinator), University of Washington; Robert E. Dudley, PhD, Gynex, Inc.; Michele Medinsky, PhD, CIIT; Harihara Mehendale, PhD, University of Mississippi; and Curtis D. Klaassen, PhD (Council Liaison), University of Kansas Medical Center, with additional guidance from 1990 SOT President Roger O. McClellan.
The format for the fourth edition has been substantially revised. Since the Internet has become a primary source of information, this edition directs students and advisors to detailed information that the academic programs maintain
This revision was completed under the direction of the SOT Education Committee (Claude McGowan, PhD, 1998–1999 Chair, Janssen at Washington Crossing; and Rick G. Schnellmann, PhD, 1999–2000 Chair, University of Arkansas Medical Sciences); and a Task Force consisting of James E. Klaunig, PhD (Project Coordinator), Indiana University School of Medicine; David L. Eaton, PhD, University of Washington; A. Jay Gandolfi, PhD, University of Arizona; Claude McGowan, PhD, Janssen at Washington Crossing; Mary Davis, PhD, West Virginia University Medical Center; Jacqueline H. Smith, PhD, Exxon Biomedical Sciences, Inc.; and Betty
We acknowledge Alice “the dose makes the poison.”
All academic programs that submitted materials and contributed to defray production and distribution costs were included in the Guide. Inclusion does not constitute endorsement by the SOT, nor does the absence of any program infer lack of endorsement.
Society of Toxicology
11190 Sunrise Valley Dr, Suite 300 | Reston, Virginia 20191-5332
Tel: 703.438.3115 | Fax: 703.438.3113
Hardly a week goes by without hearing that a chemical may potentially threaten our health—pesticides in the food we eat, pollutants in the air we breathe, chemicals in the water we drink, toxic dump sites near our homes. Chemicals make up everything around us. Which chemicals are really dangerous? How much does it take to cause harm? What are the effects of a particular chemical? Cancer? Nervous system damage? Birth defects?
Finding scientifically sound answers to these very important questions is what toxicologists do, using the most modern molecular, genetic, and analytical techniques available. Toxicology combines the elements of many scientific disciplines to help us understand the harmful effects of chemicals on living organisms.
An additional, important aspect of toxicology is determining the likelihood that harmful effects will occur under certain exposure circumstances, sometimes called “risk assessment.” If the risks are real, then we must be able to deal with them effectively. If the risks are trivial, then we must ensure that valuable public resources are not spent ineffectively. Such important decisions must be made with
The responsibility of the toxicologist is to:
Research is considered to be “basic” where no immediate commercial or public health application is expected, but the knowledge will add to our understanding of basic life processes. Such research is of great value in solving important and long-term problems. Examples of this would be studies of how a particular enzyme involved in the detoxification of a chemical is regulated at the gene level or how a chemical affects
Other research is considered “applied” when the results are expected to yield direct social or commercial benefit. Examples would be studies to identify new chemicals that selectively kill certain pests or studies to determine if a particular industrial process is responsible for a specific disease identified in a population of workers. Developments of antidotes for radiation injury or chemical poisoning are examples of applied research of public health importance.
Toxicologists involved in product safety evaluation have the responsibility to ensure that such tests are designed, conducted and interpreted in a scientifically sound manner. Information from such studies is, in turn, reviewed by toxicologists in various regulatory agencies, such as the US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), or by international organizations to ensure that the products
When the information is available, toxicologists also utilize studies of human populations (the science of epidemiology) to assist in the evaluation of the safety and potential risks of the chemical products and by-products of modern society.
The “Job Market Survey” estimates that 9,000 toxicologists are employed in North America. Of recent PhD’s, 53 percent entered industry, 34 percent found positions in academia and 12 percent in government. These numbers are similar to overall employment statistics in the discipline as projected in the “Job Market Survey.”
Comparison with other careers is possible by investigating the Occupational Outlook Handbook produced by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Although the majority of government and industry jobs are located in the eastern portion of the United States, employment opportunities at all levels are available throughout the country. The geographic distribution of SOT members in the continental United States reflects job distribution.
As with any profession, the level of education and length of experience are key determinants of salary. Entry level positions for those with doctoral degrees are often in the range of $35,000 to $60,000, with rapid advancement possible. In general, positions in industry pay slightly better than government or academia. Mid-range professionals with a PhD degree and 10 years of experience can expect to earn $70,000 to $100,000 annually. Most executive positions in toxicology exceed $100,000 per year, and some corporate executive toxicologists earn $200,000 or more. Of course, salaries for those with master’s and/or bachelor’s degrees in toxicology will generally be less than those for individuals with doctoral degrees, but are still highly competitive with other science-based professions.
Jobs are available for recipients of associate through doctoral degrees. Candidates with two- or four-year degrees can work in toxicology as laboratory assistants, research technicians or animal care specialists.
Depending upon your career aspirations, a bachelor’s degree may not be enough for you to achieve your goals. The higher the degree, the more likely your position will provide more opportunities, more responsibility and higher salaries. Of recent graduates from toxicology programs, 55 percent received PhD’s, 22 percent master’s degrees, and 23 percent bachelor’s degrees. According to the “Job Market Survey,” about half of employed toxicologists have a PhD Postdoctoral experience was considered an “absolute” requirement by 29 percent of the employers who planned to hire toxicologists in the next few years; an additional 38 percent listed such experience as “desired.” Postdoctoral training is a route to employment in toxicology for those with advanced degrees in other areas, such as the PhD in other biomedical sciences, the MD, or DVM.
In the “Job Market Survey,” employers requested strong written and oral communication skills and knowledge of computers. Good laboratory practice, project management skills and statistics experience were also viewed as important. The fast pace of change and future job market will favor
Most graduate toxicology programs have specific prerequisites for admission. In addition to a baccalaureate degree in a relevant field of study such as biology or chemistry, these requirements often include advanced coursework in chemistry, especially organic chemistry, at least one year of general biology, a year of college math including calculus, and general physics. Additional upper division courses in biochemistry, molecular biology and physiology will often increase your competitive advantage for admission. Effective communication is an important skill for toxicologists; therefore, coursework in scientific writing and public speaking is also useful. Involvement in extracurricular activities is a valuable way to develop and demonstrate your leadership and communication skills.
Consult the programs that are of interest to you to determine their specific admission requirements. In addition to a strong academic record, demonstration of basic laboratory and research skills and leadership abilities will increase your chances of admission to the more competitive programs. Undergraduate research experience or working during the summer in a research laboratory is a plus. From January to April each year, the SOT provides a listing of summer internships available in academic, industrial and government research laboratories across the country. Contact the SOT Headquarters office for more information about the Summer Internship Program.
Performance on the Graduate Record Examination is also important. You should take the exam at least nine months prior to the time you plan to begin your graduate study and you should prepare in advance for the exam.
If possible, plan to visit the programs you wish to consider in advance of your application process. Notify the director of the program of your interests and arrange to speak with the director and other faculty in the program.
An excellent source of information is Careers in Science and Engineering: A Student Planning Guide to Graduate School and Beyond (National Academy Press, 1996). One example in this book traces the career path of a physicist into toxicology.
Tips for success in graduate Peterson’s website.
The SOT selects several pre-doctoral students each year for Graduate Fellowship awards. These awards are currently sponsored by the Covance Company, Novartis, and The Procter & Gamble Company. Any student member of the SOT who has (at time of award) completed one year, but not more than three years, of graduate study towards the PhD degree in an area of toxicology, and whose major professor is a member of the SOT is eligible. The Education Committee evaluates candidates on scholastic achievement, letters of recommendation and the dissertation research. Applications and further information are available on the Awards page.
Individual academic programs may receive graduate student training support from sponsoring industries or foundations.
If you’ve already completed a doctoral degree in a biomedical science, you can enter the field of toxicology by spending two to three years as a postdoctoral fellow in a toxicology laboratory. Postdoctoral education of a toxicologist takes many forms depending on the goal of the scientist. Postdoctoral experience is necessary for most academic and research positions, but is not a requirement for many.
Postdoctoral experience can further enhance the marketability of a toxicologist. Recent toxicology graduates may lack experience in project management, people management and grant-writing, and experience in these areas can be gained during postdoctoral training. Although higher numbers of toxicologists are undertaking postdoctoral training in recent years, a smaller proportion of the total number of graduates are —30% in 1990–1995–1989.
The SOT Career Resource and Development Services maintains an active list of postdoctoral opportunities available in toxicology.
Numerous government agencies provide postdoctoral training programs in toxicology at agency facilities such as the US EPA (in its regional laboratories), the US FDA at its Beltsville and National Center for Toxicology Research facilities, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Center for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the many National Institutes of Health laboratories, especially NIEHS.
A time-honored postdoctoral training route has been through investigator-initiated research grants, which focus the postdoctoral fellow in the area of the mentor. Most researchers at academic institutions who receive federal research grants have funds to support postdoctoral fellows. One means of exploring postdoctoral opportunities is to directly contact individual faculty from graduate programs in toxicology.
In addition to individual research grants, many academic programs receive federal training grants with funds specifically dedicated to postdoctoral training. For example, the NIEHS provides postdoctoral fellowships to academic institutions for postdoctoral training in environmental toxicology and/or environmental pathology. Consult the “Employment and Training Opportunities” on the NIEHS website. You can also write to the Program Administrator (Scientific Programs Branch, MD 3/03, NIEHS, Division of Extramural Research and Training, P.O. Box 12233, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709) to obtain a list of academic programs that receive NIEHS-sponsored postdoctoral training grants in toxicology.
Many companies that employ toxicologists (such as pharmaceutical, chemical, food and automotive companies) provide postdoctoral training opportunities for individuals with doctoral degrees in toxicology or related disciplines.
Another often-overlooked source of postdoctoral training is the contract laboratory. The contract laboratory exposes the early career scientist to the broadest issues in general toxicology, especially testing and preparing documents for submission to regulatory agencies. In many respects, this type of experience represents the practice or art of toxicology, while the university experience represents the science of toxicology.
The Colgate-Palmolive Company offers the Colgate-Palmolive Postdoctoral Fellowship, which is directed specifically toward innovations in toxicology methodology involving alternatives to whole animal use in testing. This award is administered through the SOT, and further information can be found on the Awards page.
Information on career outlook and salary is based on the following five reports available on the Career Surveys page.
Gad, Shayne C. “Sixth Triennial Toxicology Salary Survey.” International Journal of Toxicology, (in press, 2005).
Gad, Shayne C. “Fifth Triennial Toxicology Salary Survey.” International Journal of Toxicology, vol. 21. 2002.
Gad, Shayne C. “Fourth Triennial Toxicology Salary Survey and Trends in the Toxicology Job Market.” International Journal of Toxicology, vol. 18, pp. 219–225. 1999.