Becoming a Toxicologist

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.

Published by:

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:

  1. develop new and better ways to determine the potential harmful effects of chemical and physical agents and the amount (dosage) that will cause these effects. An essential part of this is to learn more about the basic molecular, biochemical and cellular processes responsible for diseases caused by exposure to chemical or physical substances;
  2. design and carry out carefully controlled studies of specific chemicals of social and economic importance to determine the conditions under which they can be used safely (that is, conditions that have little or no negative impact on human health, other organisms, or the environment);
  3. assess the probability, or likelihood, that particular chemicals, processes or situations present a significant risk to human health and/or the environment, and assist in the establishment of rules and regulations aimed at protecting and preserving human health and the environment.


Wise use of chemicals is an essential component of the high standard of living we enjoy. The challenge to toxicologists is to ensure that we are not endangering our health or the environment with the products and by-products of modern and comfortable living. As a career, toxicology provides the excitement of science and research while also contributing to the well-being of current and future generations. Few other careers offer such exciting and socially important challenges as protecting public health and the environment.


With the increase in our health consciousness, as well as concern for our environment, a wide and growing variety of career opportunities exist in toxicology.


  • participate in basic research using the most advanced techniques in molecular biology, analytical chemistry, and biomedical sciences;
  • work with chemical, pharmaceutical, and many other industries to test and ensure that their products and workplaces are safe, and to evaluate the implications of new research data;
  • work for local and federal governments to develop and enforce laws to ensure that chemicals are produced, used and disposed of safely; work in academic institutions to teach others about the safe use of chemicals and to train future toxicologists.

Attractive Salaries and Professional Advancement

The demand for well-trained toxicologists continues to increase. Highly competitive salaries are available in a variety of employment sectors. Increasing specialization in the science of toxicology now provides the toxicologist with a competitive advantage over chemists, engineers, biologists or other scientists without specialized training in toxicology. Opportunities are available for career advancement to executive levels for those with organizational and administrative


Many toxicologists, especially in academic and nonprofit institutions, are principally involved in the discovery of new knowledge concerning how toxic substances produce their effects. There are many subspecialty areas in toxicology research: chemical carcinogenesis, reproductive and developmental toxicology, neurotoxicology, immunotoxicology, inhalation toxicology, risk assessment, and many others. Researchers use laboratory animals, human and animal cells in culture, and other test systems to examine the cellular, biochemical and molecular processes underlying toxic responses. Research opportunities are available for individuals employed in industry, academia and government. There are many commercial and nonprofit laboratories that also provide interesting and challenging

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.

Product Safety Evaluation

Many industries employ toxicologists to assist in the evaluation of the safety of their products. For therapeutic drugs, food additives, cosmetics, agricultural chemicals and other classes of chemicals, federal laws often require that the manufacturer provide adequate testing of the product before it is released into commerce. Tests to determine if a chemical has the potential to cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive effects, neurological toxicity or other adverse

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.


Toxicologists employed in colleges and universities are involved in teaching toxicology to students and others. Because of increasing interest in the impacts of chemicals on our society, many colleges and universities offer toxicology courses at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Academic institutions that do not have graduate programs in toxicology employ toxicologists to participate in curriculum development and teach basic programs such as chemistry and biology. Thus, opportunities exist to teach toxicology in small colleges as well as major universities. One of the most important efforts of toxicologists in academic institutions is the training of future generations of toxicologists in basic and applied research, data interpretation and evaluation, and risk assessment and regulatory affairs.

Public Service, Regulatory Affairs, and Consulting

An important part of any science is communicating results and discussing implications. The tremendous growth in public awareness of chemical hazards over the last two decades has resulted in the passage of many laws governing the production, use and disposal of chemicals. Many local, state and federal regulatory agencies employ toxicologists to assist in the development and enforcement of these laws. An increasingly important area of toxicology is in public communication of chemical risks. Toxicologists employed by regulatory agencies may often be called upon to explain the scientific basis for regulatory actions, or to assist in communicating to the public why regulatory actions are or are not taken in particular situations. There are many private consulting firms with expertise in toxicology that can now provide such services to local and state health departments, public utilities, private industries, etc. Thus, many employment opportunities in the private sector are available to the toxicologist interested in assisting public agencies and private industries in resolving many important public health and environmental problems. Some scientists like this aspect so much that they pursue consulting full-time.

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.”

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Comparison with other careers is possible by investigating the Occupational Outlook Handbook produced by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Chemical, Consumer Products, Pharmaceutical and Other Industries

Industries are the number one employer of toxicologists (47 percent). Product development, product safety evaluation, and regulatory compliance generate a large job market for toxicologists. Pharmaceutical industries employ 17 percent of toxicologists, and chemical industries employ 7 percent. These industries often employ toxicologists trained at all levels of education. The “Toxicologist Supply and Expertise Survey” found that, of recent graduates, 53 percent of those with PhD’s, 73 percent of those with master’s degrees and 58 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees entered industry. Many industries have their own research and product safety evaluation programs, while others may contract their work to specific research organizations that are managed independently from the industry.

Academic Institutions

Academic institutions are the number two employer of toxicologists (21 percent). The rapid growth in toxicology programs has generated a large and growing market for toxicologists with doctoral level training. Although most of these opportunities are in schools of medicine and/or public health in major universities, smaller colleges are beginning to employ toxicologists to teach toxicology in basic biology, chemistry and engineering programs.


Government is the third largest employer of toxicologists (14 percent). Although most government jobs are with federal regulatory agencies, many states are now beginning to employ toxicologists with master’s degrees.


An increasing number of toxicologists are employed in the professional services industry (12 percent). Providing professional guidance and advice to local public agencies, industries and attorneys involved in problems with toxic chemicals is a rapidly growing activity for the experienced toxicologist. Many graduates of baccalaureate and master’s programs in toxicology are finding employment with consulting firms. Individuals with doctoral training and several years of experience in applied toxicology may also find opportunities directing projects and serving as team leaders or administrators in the consulting

Research Foundations

A small proportion of toxicologists pursue research within nonprofit organizations (4 percent). Numerous public and private research foundations employ toxicologists to conduct research on specific problems of industrial or public concern. Toxicologists at all levels of education

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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.

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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.

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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

High School

A strong foundation for any future scientist is based on skills in reading, writing, mathematics, computer science and communication, along with courses in biology, chemistry, and physics. Knowledge of a foreign language is important for exchanging information in our global society. Extra-curricular activities such as science fairs and clubs build leadership experience. Part-time or summer work in a research laboratory is also valuable.

Undergraduate Education

If your institution does not have a baccalaureate program in toxicology, a major in biology or chemistry provides a basis for a career in this discipline. Take as many biology and chemistry courses as you can, as well as physics, computer science, statistics and mathematics (including calculus). Improve your writing and speaking skills, and develop a multidisciplinary foundation to increase your options and qualifications. While breadth in your undergraduate training is important, depth and experience provided by working in a laboratory or completing a student research project can be very important in increasing your skills and helping you determine the kind of science career that suits your interest and skills. Engage in activities that improve team-building aptitude, as well as those that improve hand-eye coordination. Join local and national scientific professional societies and participate in student-oriented events, regional and national meetings. All of these efforts will be repaid whether you enter the job market immediately after receiving your degree or

Financial Support

Information about financial aid is available on the internet at sites such as Financial Aid and FastWeb. Of special interest to members of groups under-represented in the sciences is the Minority Online Information Service (MOLIS). MOLIS is a database including information on faculty and programs at about 300 minority institutions, as well as hyperlinks to other information that is of benefit to the minority education and research communities.

Preparation for Graduate Study

Careful planning and attention to your undergraduate courses will

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.

Select a Program That’s Right for You

Identifying a graduate training program that is best for you requires some advanced planning. First, you should establish a potential career plan. Consider the various subspecialties in toxicology, such as neurotoxicology, chemical carcinogenesis, teratology, etc., to determine if there is a specific field of research that is of particular interest to you. Attending regional and national scientific meetings will help you explore areas of interest. Although choosing a specialty early in your graduate education certainly does not commit you to this direction, it will help you in deciding which programs are most likely to meet your needs. It is also useful to talk with toxicologists in local universities, industries and governmental agencies to help you in your selection of a training program and future career direction. Make sure that you are able to satisfy all of the admission requirements prior to the time you intend to begin the program, as these requirements may vary between programs and from the general requirements described above. Geographical considerations are also important to some individuals. Some students balance employment and graduate study.

Toxicology Graduate Programs

Tips for success in graduate Peterson’s website.

Financial Support

Most students in toxicology graduate programs have financial support, which can come from a variety of sources.

Academic Institutions

Many universities have funds to support graduate students during their training. These awards are generally offered as either Teaching Assistantships (TAs) or as Research Assistantships (RAs). As TAs, students generally assist in the preparation and teaching of undergraduate or graduate courses, and obtain valuable experience in teaching that will help them in their future careers as toxicologists. RAs generally assist faculty in research on specific topics or provide general assistance to multiple faculty in the program. Check with the specific academic program directors for more information on the availability of student support for graduate training at your

The Government

  1. Research Manpower Development Programs

    The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) supports research training in four areas related to toxicology: a) environmental toxicology, emphasizing training in the principles that determine the effects of exposure to environmental agents; b) environmental pathology, emphasizing training in chemical (as opposed to infectious disease) pathology; c) environmental mutagenesis, emphasizing training in the application of the principles of genetics and biochemistry to assess the potential genetic hazards to man from environmental chemicals; and d) environmental epidemiology and biostatistics, emphasizing training in the use of statistical and mathematical tools to assist in the identification of environmental diseases in human populations and in experimental design and interpretation of data.

  2. NIH Individual Investigator Research Awards

    Many toxicologists in academic institutions who receive grant support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have RAs. These RA positions are often used to support graduate students in their final years of dissertation research. The level of support for a RA may vary from institution to institution, but are generally similar or slightly higher than training grant stipends.

  3. Other Federal Programs

    In addition to the specific programs noted above, federal support for graduate training may be available through other training programs or research grants and contracts available from other federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the Armed Forces, the US EPA, the Department of Defense or the Department of Energy.

The Private Sector

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.

Government-Sponsored Programs

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, PO Box 12233, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709) to obtain a list of academic programs that receive NIEHS-sponsored postdoctoral training grants in toxicology.

Industry-Sponsored Programs

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.