The Job and What's Involved

Hydrology is concerned with the study of the earth's hydrological cycle and the behaviour of its freshwater bodies. Hydrologists are principally involved in monitoring, managing and conserving the earth's freshwater resources. They study the quantity, trends and implications of freshwater variables in rivers, lakes, reservoirs, aquifers (underground layers of water-bearing porous stone, earth or gravel) and glaciers. They also monitor and analyse rainfall and the transportation of water through the atmosphere.

Job descriptions vary from employer to employer, but could include:

  • Working alongside biologists and ecologists to monitor environmental conditions in rivers and lakes.
  • Monitoring and recording river flows, water levels in rivers, lakes and groundwater, rainfall, and other climate variables.
  • Taking water samples and conducting laboratory analysis to establish the chemical properties of various sources.
  • Statistical and mathematical modelling of river flows and groundwater behaviour.
  • Assessing environmental risks associated with rivers, such as floods or droughts.
  • Balancing the needs of the water environment with those of humans.
  • Tracing the risk of pollution.

Hydrologists' research has many different applications, including:

  • Estimating the risks associated with flood or drought in a particular area and developing strategies to manage those risks.
  • Managing flood and drought emergencies.
  • Designing water supply systems and surface water drainage systems.
  • Developing water resources, such as reservoirs.
  • Determining the effects of a land use change on freshwater sources.
  • The sustainable management of freshwater resources for human consumption, both now and for future planning.
  • Determining the impacts of climate change on the hydrological cycle.

Hydrologists use a variety of tools to carry out their work. In fieldwork, they may use equipment for measuring and surveying, such as flow meters and global positioning systems (GPS). Computers and specialist software are important for tasks, such as recording rainfall data and predicting the likelihood of a flood, or developing mathematical models to simulate the flow of water in and out of a river channel.

Hydrologists generally work closely with numerous other professionals, such as civil engineers, water engineers, water resource planners, policy makers, biologists, ecologists and chemists.

Hydrologists usually work conventional office hours, from Monday to Friday. Additional hours in the evenings or at weekends may be needed to meet deadlines or deal with emergency situations.

Many hydrologists are office-based. Time spent working in the field varies from job to job. Fieldwork involves working outdoors in all weather conditions and may involve physical work, such as handling equipment and carrying out maintenance to monitoring instruments.

Some jobs involve travel, within the UK and overseas, and periods away from home. A driving licence is generally considered essential.

Starting salaries for hydrologists may be between £15,000 and £20,000 a year. This may rise to between £21,000 and £30,000 for those with experience.

Hydrologists at the highest levels can earn in excess of £45,000.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Hydrology is growing in importance, as climate change and environmental issues continue to affect the planet. There are about 2,000 hydrologists in the UK, and demand is increasing.

Hydrologists are employed by:

Government Agencies - to develop policies and manage the environment.

International Organisations - to advise on and implement solutions to ecological problems, and play a part in emergency relief.

Firms of Consultants - to advise organisations concerned with civil engineering, and environmental management and assessment.

Universities and Research Institutes - to educate students and carry out investigative research into new analytical techniques.

Utility Companies and Public Authorities - to provide water supply and sewerage services.

There are opportunities throughout the UK. Overseas work may also be available. There may be strong competition for entry-level posts, but there is a shortage of skilled, experienced applicants for vacancies at senior level.

Vacancies are normally advertised in professional magazines, on the websites of employers, recruitment agencies and professional bodies, such as the British Hydrological Society and The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM). Job opportunities are also listed in publications, such as Environment Post, Nature and New Scientist.

Education and Training

Most hydrologists hold a degree in a relevant subject, such as geography, environmental science, civil engineering or mathematics.

The minimum entry requirements for a degree course are normally two A levels and five GCSE's (A*- C). Depending on the degree subject chosen, A levels in maths, science or geography may be preferred. Equivalent qualifications may be accepted, and candidates are advised to check with individual institutions for exact entry requirements. The Diploma in environmental and land-based studies may be relevant for this career.

Most hydrologists also have a postgraduate qualification in a subject such as water resources or engineering hydrology. Entry to a postgraduate course normally requires a good first degree in a relevant subject.

The CIWEM accredits a number of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, and details of relevant universities are on its website.

As there is keen competition for entry-level posts, candidates with relevant work experience (possibly gained during holidays, on a work placement or as part of a sandwich degree) are likely to have an advantage.

Those without the necessary entry requirements may be able take an Access course to prepare them for degree-level study.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Hydrologists are usually trained on-the-job under the guidance of more experienced colleagues.

It is important for hydrologists to keep up to date with new ideas and techniques in their field through continuing professional development (CPD). CIWEM offers a CPD scheme. The British Hydrological Society offers a programme of meetings and events, also accredited for CPD.

Membership of a relevant professional body is not essential, but it may improve job prospects or enable access to CPD and other development opportunities.

There is no single specific route for hydrologists to achieve professional or chartered status, so it is important for each individual to choose the most appropriate qualification and route. This may be based on academic background, work experience and current role, career ambition, and what individuals want from chartered status.

Possible chartered qualifications include:

ICE - Institution of Civil Engineers

CIWEM - Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management

IES - Institution of Environmental Sciences

IWO - Institution of Water Officers

RMetS - Royal Meteorological Society

RGS - Royal Geographical Society.

Further information regarding professional qualifications is available on website www.hydrology.org.uk

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A hydrologist should:

  • Have mathematical, geographical, scientific and technical skills.
  • Have good IT skills.
  • Be practical and logical.
  • Have good problem-solving skills.
  • Be able to understand maps and other visual methods of describing and recording landscape characteristics.
  • Have good communication skills.
  • Be able to work both as a member of a team and independently.
  • Have good organisational and time-management skills.

Your Long Term Prospects

Opportunities for promotion to senior positions are likely to depend on the size and type organisation, as well as the practitioner's skills and experience.

Hydrologists may broaden their skills and experience by moving to another team or department in an organisation, or moving to another geographical location.

There are opportunities to work with international organisations in locations all over the world.

Some hydrologists become self-employed and move into consultancy work.

Get Further Information

British Hydrological Society,
Institution of Civil Engineers/Thomas Telford Ltd,
Great George Street, London SW1P 3AA
Tel: 020 7222 7722
Website: www.hydrology.org.uk

The Chartered Institution of
Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM),
15 John Street, London WC1N 2EB
Tel: 020 7831 3110
Website: www.ciwem.org.uk

Centre for Ecology and Hydrology,
Maclean Building, Benson Lane, Crowmarsh Gifford,
Wallingford, Oxfordshire OX10 8BB
Tel: 01491 838800
Website: www.ceh.ac.uk

Energy & Utility Skills, Friars Gate,
1011 Stratford Road, Shirley, Solihull B90 4BN
Tel: 0845 077 9922
Website: www.euskills.co.uk

Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE),
One Great George Street,
Westminster, London SW1P 3AA
Tel: 020 7222 7722
Website: www.ice.org.uk

Institution of Water Officers (IWO),
4 Carlton Court, Team Valley,
Gateshead NE11 OAZ
Tel: 0191 422 0088
Website: www.iwo.org.uk

Royal Meteorological Society,
104 Oxford Road, Reading RG1 7LL
Tel: 0118 956 8500
Website: www.rmets.org

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