Is becoming an ecotoxicologist right for me?

The first step to choosing a career is to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursuing the career. You don’t want to waste your time doing something you don’t want to do. If you’re new here, you should read about:

What do ecotoxicologists do?

Still unsure if becoming an ecotoxicologist is the right career path? to find out if this career is right for you. Perhaps you are well-suited to become an ecotoxicologist or another similar career!

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How to become an Ecotoxicologist

Becoming an ecotoxicologist involves a combination of education, research experience, and often specialization in an ecotoxicology subfield. Here is an overview of the pathway to the career:

High School Diploma or Equivalent
Earn a high school diploma or equivalent. High school education provides a foundation in basic communication and math and organizational skills, and it lays the groundwork for further learning.

Bachelor's Degree
Obtain a relevant bachelor's degree from an accredited institution. As few schools offer a distinct undergraduate degree in ecotoxicology, most aspiring ecotoxicologists opt for a related degree such as biology, chemistry, toxicology, environmental science, or ecology. Coursework during the undergraduate years should cover foundational topics in the natural sciences.

Master’s Degree
The vast majority of ecotoxicologists hold advanced degrees. Some schools may have graduate programs in ecotoxicology or offer concentrations in environmental toxicology. Graduate programs build on foundational undergraduate work. They may include more in-depth courses on chemical fate and transport (how the nature of contaminants might change – chemically, physically, or biologically – and where they go as they move through the environment), risk assessment, toxics in food and water, and policy. They generally involve a significant amount of laboratory work. Depending on the program, they may also include courses at the interface of toxicology, other life sciences, and the physical sciences, such as soil science, hydrology, and botany.

Doctoral Degree
Many environmental toxicologists have a doctoral degree. Doctoral programs in ecotoxicology / environmental toxicology focus on independent research. It's important to find an advisor who shares your research interests, or at least is familiar with them. Your advisor will help you shape your plan of study, and will also provide direction for your research. Individuals who aspire to teach at the university level or contribute to policy development typically hold a doctorate.

Research / Teaching Experience
Seek opportunities for undergraduate and graduate ecotoxicological fieldwork, laboratory research projects, or internships that specialize in the study of contaminants and their impact on ecosystems. This hands-on experience is crucial for developing observation and sample collection skills as well as data analysis and experimental design capabilities.

As a graduate student, seek research funding through grants and fellowships to support your projects and contribute to the field.

If you are interested in academic positions, gain teaching experience during your graduate studies. This can be achieved through teaching assistantships and guest lecturer opportunities.

Specialization / Research Focus
Choose a research focus within ecotoxicology based on your interests and career goals. Options include marine ecotoxicology, terrestrial ecotoxicology, plant ecotoxicology, and microbial ecotoxicology. For a complete list of specializations in the field, please refer to the What does an Ecotoxicologist do? section in the career overview.

Continuing Education and Research Publication
Stay informed about emerging technologies and research methodologies in the ecotoxicology field. Attend workshops, conferences, and seminars to present your work, and participate in professional development and networking activities to keep your knowledge current.

As you progress in your academic journey, aim to publish your research findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals. This enhances your visibility in the field and establishes your expertise.

Certification and Professional Organizations
There isn't a certification that is universally recognized as a standard credential for ecotoxicologists. Instead, the qualifications and credentials of ecotoxicologists are primarily based on their educational background, research experience, and contributions to the field. However, ecotoxicologists may obtain certifications in related fields, such as environmental science or toxicology, or in specific areas of ecotoxicology. Here’s a sampling:

  • Certified Environmental Professional (CEP) – Offered by the Academy of Board Certified Environmental Professionals (ABCEP), the CEP certification is designed for professionals with significant experience in environmental management, including those involved in ecotoxicology.
  • Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM) – This certification, awarded by the Institute of Hazardous Materials Management (IHMM), is for professionals managing hazardous materials and may be relevant for ecotoxicologists working in industries where hazardous substances are a concern.
  • Certified Senior Ecologist (CSE) – The Ecological Society of America (ESA) offers the CSE designation, which may be relevant for ecologists, including those specializing in the ecological impacts of contaminants.
  • Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) – Offered by the Board for Global EHS (Environmental Health & Safety) Credentialing (BGC), the CIH certification is for professionals involved in industrial hygiene and may be applicable for ecotoxicologists working in occupational health and safety.
  • Certified Professional Soil Scientist (CPSS) – The Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) offers the CPSS designation, which may be relevant for ecotoxicologists studying the impact of contaminants on soils.
  • Certified Fisheries Professional (CFP) – The American Fisheries Society (AFS) provides the CFP certification for fisheries professionals, including those involved in studying the effects of contaminants on aquatic ecosystems.
  • Research Methodology and Statistics – Proficiency in statistical analysis software is crucial for analyzing ecotoxicological data. Certifications for software like R or SAS can demonstrate a strong foundation in statistical methods.

In addition to these certifying bodies, the following organizations also support the ecotoxicology community, providing advocacy, access to resources, and platforms for networking, information exchange and collaboration, and continuing education and professional development:

  • Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC)
  • International Society of Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety (SECOTOX)
  • Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine (SEBM)