In this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!
In public health, toxicologists study the effects of drugs, poisons, environmental contaminants, and other potentially dangerous substances, and then they use that knowledge to help protect the public’s health and safety. Some specialize in certain substances or certain aspects of health, such as cancer risk or effects on the nervous system. Others focus on certain locations, such as factories where chemicals are produced or used. Often, it is not simply the presence of a substance that is important, but the amount, the way it is used, and potential interactions with other substances. In
addition to environmental health issues, there are toxicologists working in other areas of public health such as helping figure out if a medicine, a food preservative, or an ingredient in lipstick poses any risk. Toxicologists who focus on research might do laboratory work, or they might help figure
out if a chemical is causing an outbreak of illness. Toxicologists are also involved in creating and enforcing regulations to ensure that industries produce, use, and dispose of chemicals safely. They often must be able to explain the science behind their recommendations to nonexperts, such as
legislators, health department personnel, and company workers.
Education and Certification
About half of all toxicologists have PhDs. Bachelor’s and master’s degree training are also options, but people with doctoral degrees will likely have the best opportunities. Many toxicologists start with an undergraduate degree in a science such as chemistry or biology, then go on to more specialized graduate study. Physicians, veterinarians, and people with PhDs in other biomedical sciences can pursue postdoctoral training in toxicology. Several certifications are available. The American Board of Toxicology recognizes expertise in general toxicology, and the American Board of Applied Toxicology focuses specifically on the study of poisons as they affect humans and animals. Both organizations require a PhD or a combination of education and experience. The American Board of Emergency Medicine certifies physicians with a subspecialty in toxicology.
Core Competencies and Skills
■ Knack for biology, chemistry, math, and statistics
■ Ability to learn complex new information rapidly
■ Interest in scientifi c detective work
■ Good writing and speaking skills to communicate your findings or explain risks and regulations
■ Understanding of research design and implementation
■ At least basic knowledge of epidemiology and biostatistics
■ Knowledge of biochemistry, molecular biology, and physiology
■ Knowledge of known toxins and their effects on the body
■ For work in industry and government, especially, the skills to interact effectively with a team
Toxicologists can earn quite a good living, depending on level of education and type of employer. A new PhD graduate might earn between $35,000 and $60,000, with compensation rising to $70,000 to $100,000 with a decade of experience. Industry tends to offer higher salaries than academic institutions, and a PhD will generally earn more than someone with less education. Toxicologists who become corporate executives can earn quite a bit more.
About 15% of toxicologists work for city, state, and federal government institutions. About 20% are employed by universities, where their jobs can include both doing research and teaching students. About half work for private employers such as manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies. Toxicologists are also found at nonprofit organizations and consulting firms.
The job outlook for toxicologists is good. There is a strong need for the kind of work toxicologists do, and the specialized training helps reduce competition from other types of scientists.
For Further Information
■ Society of Toxicology (SOT)
■ American College of Toxicology (ACT)
■ American Academy of Clinical Toxicology (AACT)
■ American College of Medical Toxicology (ACMT)