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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?

How Do I Prepare for a Career in Toxicology?

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 bachelors 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% received Ph.D.s, 22% masters degrees, and 23% bachelors degrees. According to the "Job Market Survey," about half of employed toxicologists have a Ph.D. Post-doctoral experience was considered an "absolute" requirement by 29% of the employers who planned to hire toxicologists in the next few years; an additional 38% listed such experience as "desired." Post-doctoral training is a route to employment in toxicology for those with advanced degrees in other areas, such as the Ph.D. in other biomedical sciences, the M.D., or D.V.M.

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 workers who can demonstrate flexibility and adaptability.

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 pursue graduate study.

Preparation for Graduate Study
Careful planning and attention to your undergraduate courses will enhance your graduate education opportunities.

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.

Graduate Training in 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. The list of academic programs in toxicology contained in this Guide should help you find the right program for you.

Tips for success in graduate school can be found in Peterson's Graduate School Survival Guide

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 school of choice.

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 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 Ph.D. 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 from the SOT Web site.

Individual academic programs may receive graduate student training support from sponsoring industries or foundations.

Postdoctoral Training In Toxicology

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 post-doctoral fellow in a toxicology laboratory. Post-doctoral education of a toxicologist takes many forms depending on the goal of the scientist. Post-doctoral experience is necessary for most academic and research positions, but is not a requirement for many other positions in government or industry.

Post-doctoral 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 post-doctoral training. Although higher numbers of toxicologists are undertaking post-doctoral training in recent years, a smaller proportion of the total number of graduates are engaged in post-doctoral fellowships—30% in 19901995 1989.

The SOT Career Resource and Development Services maintains an active list of post-doctoral opportunities available in toxicology. You may obtain more information about the Career Resource and Development Services by visiting the SOT Web site, or by contacting the SOT.

Government-Sponsored Programs

Numerous government agencies provide post-doctoral training programs in toxicology at agency facilities such as the EPA (in its regional laboratories), the FDA at its Beltsville and National Center for Toxicology Research facilities, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Center for Disease Controls National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the many National Institutes of Health laboratories, especially NIEHS.

A time-honored post-doctoral training route has been through investigator-initiated research grants, which focus the post-doctoral fellow in the area of the mentor. Most researchers at academic institutions who receive federal research grants have funds to support post-doctoral fellows. One means of exploring post-doctoral 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 post-doctoral training. For example, the NIEHS provides post-doctoral fellowships to academic institutions for post-doctoral training in environmental toxicology and/or environmental pathology. Consult the "Employment and Training Opportunities" on the NIEHS Web site ( 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 post-doctoral training grants in toxicology.

Industry-Sponsored Programs

Many companies that employ toxicologists (such as pharmaceutical, chemical, food and automotive companies) provide post-doctoral training opportunities for individuals with doctoral degrees in toxicology or related disciplines.

Another often-overlooked source of post-doctoral 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 Post-Doctoral 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 SOT Web site.

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