If you have dreamed of working in a real science lab, doing meaningful experiments with all the scientific equipment available, then a toxicology degree might be the perfect specialization for you. Even though it may seem like a job plucked right out of your favorite crime drama, there are many jobs out there for a toxicologist, spanning many fields.
In this article we take a comprehensive look at getting a toxicology degree. If you are considering this path, read on to find out your next steps. Toxicology degrees open up doors into many fields of research with jobs in the private sector, government, and education. If you love science, and in particular biology, then this might be a career choice for you.
What Is a Toxicology Degree?
The study of toxicology is a branch of biology and chemistry that focuses on the adverse affects of chemicals on living organisms. While many toxicologists study the effects of chemicals on the human body, there are many opportunities to concentrate on chemicals that affect plant life, the environment, and even animals. A toxicology degree is a specific discipline of study for a toxicologist, and includes predominantly chemistry, biology, and pharmacology courses.
While you can find entry-level jobs with an undergraduate degree in toxicology, we highly recommend that you pursue a graduate or doctorates degree in the specialized area of toxicology where you want to work. With an undergraduate degree you can become a research technician or a laboratory assistant, but other positions are limited. Jobs that only require a bachelorette degree in this field pay much less.
What Does It Take to Be a Toxicologist?
In a nutshell, the job of a toxicologist includes identifying toxic chemicals, conducting various lab and field experiments, analyzing data, determining how toxic a chemical is, creating safety profiles for various chemicals and drugs, writing papers and presenting their findings, and giving advice to the public. Typically being a toxicologist means you work on a team, so it's important that you can work well with others.
Toxicology is a field highly concentrated on biology and chemistry. It's important that if you choose this field, that you have the skill and willingness to do well in both. There is typically a lot of math involved in the research and lab portions of the job. In most all sections of this job you will work with potentially harmful chemicals to determine their effect on humans, so if this is a fearful thought for you then this might not be the best career path. In addition, since the job requires testing the same chemicals many times, there will be instances when it may seem repetitive.
Getting Your Toxicology Degree
To have options to advance in your career as a toxicologist, or to one day lead your own research study, you must at least have a master's degree in the field. For your bachelor studies, include classes in biology, toxicology, pharmacology, immunology, chemistry, biochemistry, anatomy, and math. It is important to know the specific master's program you will enroll in so you take the correct courses during your undergraduate work.
There are many concentrations in toxicology, and your particular field will determine the masters and PHD programs you choose. If you are specializing in pharmacology for instance, many of these professionals gain both a PHD and an MD to perform laboratory and clinical experiments (with actual patients).
Regardless of your field of study, all toxicologists must pass a three part board exam created by the American Board of Toxicology. Besides passing the exam, students must also have three years experience in the field before being certified.
Categories of Study for Toxicology
You can concentrate in nine different areas of toxicology throughout your college career. While your undergraduate degree will be full of prerequisite courses, once you decide which of the nine areas to focus on, you can decide your graduate career path.
The first of these is analytical toxicologists. These toxicologists identify natural and man-made poisons in our environment. Their main responsibility is to work in a lab to detect, identify, and measure harmful chemicals in specimens of body fluids.
Similar to an analytical toxicologist is a forensic toxicologist. This is the exciting branch of toxicology that helps solve crimes. Anytime there is a suspected poisoning, or the use of harmful chemicals in a crime, these scientists are called to duty. They help determine what and how much of a poison or harmful chemical was used in a crime.
Clinical and Industrial
Clinical and Industrial toxicologist usually work in the private sector, and they test both medications and chemicals that humans will be in contact with. It isn't just their job to discover if a chemical is harmful in general: they will also study how much of the chemical is safe and at what point the drug or chemical becomes harmful.
A regulatory toxicologist works for the government to test and approve new drugs and chemicals for the Environmental Protection Agency and The Food and Drug Administration.
If you love animals but prefer working in a lab rather than in a veterinary hospital, you can be an advocate for pets everywhere by becoming a veterinary toxicologist. These scientists test food and drugs for our four-legged friends to make sure everything used is safe.
The last area of expertise is the risk assessment toxicologists. This specialty concentrates on determining the long-term effects of the drugs and chemicals we use daily on our bodies and health.
Is There a Need for Toxicologists?
The jobs of toxicologists are many and scattered throughout various industries. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics predict an increase in demand for a toxicologist to be 13% from now through 2022, which would amount to 13,700 new jobs in the field. When you think about it, we use chemicals in our everyday life, and any chemical we use must be tested by a toxicologist. This means that companies manufacturing pesticides, food, pet products, makeup, all medications, and even water must employ competent toxicologists.
According to the Society of Toxicologists, the largest areas of employment are in academics with 21%, the government with 14%, pharmaceuticals with 17%, and consulting with 12%. Salaries in toxicology range anywhere from $55,000 per year to $111,000 per year, with an average salary of $75,000. For people who do not pursue a graduate degree, this range drops to $35,000 to $60,000 per year. If you become an executive, the salary potential increase to between $100,000 to $200,000 per year.
What Can I Do With a Toxicology Degree?
The four overall areas toxicologist fall under is research, product safety, education, and public service.
If you are mainly performing research, you will more than likely work in an academic setting or for a not-for-profit. These labs typically test the harmful effects of various chemicals and use lab animals, humans, and animal culture cells to determine if the chemicals they are testing are harmful. There are two types of research: basic, which has no immediate commercial uses, and applied, in which the results will directly affect a product being taken to market.
Another area of toxicology jobs are in product safety. Typically these positions are in the public sector working for the US Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency. They test and approve all chemicals and drugs that go on the market for human use or products that will be in contact with humans.
Education jobs include working as professors at colleges and universities who teach students toxicology classes, whether it be at the undergraduate, masters, or doctorate level. When you work as a professor at a university, the position typically requires you to publish your own research findings. In most universities allow you to conduct that research at the university, and you can hire students to help run the lab and tests. This is a great position, especially if you want to run a research lab.
One up-and-coming area for toxicology professionals is that of public service and consulting. We live in an age where news travels at lightning speed, and happenings that were not accessible to the public can now be posted to the internet by anyone with a phone. The effects of chemicals and drugs, including vaccines, has flooded our new streams lately. These professionals help educate the public on the real dangers any chemical or drug might have to the human body. They can also work to consult companies that sell various chemicals on how to handle any press release.
If you love science, especially biology and chemistry, but you do not think working with patients would be your strong suit, then maybe you should consider a career in toxicology. The field of toxicology is essential for our way of life, as their research affects everything we do. It's the job of a toxicologist to not only perform experiments, but make the lives of those around them better and safer each day. This is a rewarding career with lasting ramifications.
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