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Resource Guide to Careers in Toxicology

What is Toxicology?
Why Consider a Career in Toxicology?
What Do Toxicologists Do?
Where Do Toxicologists Work?
Regional Distribution of Toxicology Jobs
How Much Do Toxicologists Earn?
How Do I Prepare for a Career in Toxicology?

What Do Toxicologists Do?

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 opportunities.

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 the rate of cell division.

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. Development 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 effects are commonly conducted by the manufacturer.

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 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or by international organizations to ensure that the products will not present an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment.

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.

Where Do Toxicologists Work?

The "Job Market Survey" estimates that 9,000 toxicologists are employed in North America. Of recent Ph.D.s, 53% entered industry, 34% found positions in academia and 12% in government. These numbers are similar to overall employment statistics in the discipline as projected in the "Job Market Survey."

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Chemical, Consumer Products, Pharmaceutical and Other Industries
Industries are the number one employer of toxicologists (47%). Product development, product safety evaluation, and regulatory compliance generate a large job market for toxicologists. Pharmaceutical industries employ 17% of toxicologists, and chemical industries employ 7%. These industries often employ toxicologists trained at all levels of education. The "Toxicologist Supply and Expertise Survey" found that, of recent graduates, 53% of those with Ph.D.s, 73% of those with masters degrees and 58% of those with bachelors 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%). 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%). Although most government jobs are with federal regulatory agencies, many states are now beginning to employ toxicologists with masters or doctoral degrees.

An increasing number of toxicologists are employed in the professional services industry (12%). 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 masters 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 field.

Research Foundations
A small proportion of toxicologists pursue research within nonprofit organizations (4%). 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 may work for these research foundations.

Regional Distribution of Toxicology Jobs

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.

How Much Do Toxicologists Earn?

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 Ph.D. 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 masters and/or bachelors 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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