What is a Hydrology Degree?

Hydrology is about the active nature of water, the movement of precipitation.

Hydrologists study surface waters like rivers, lakes, and streams and examine how rainfall and snowfall cause erosion, generate caves, and permeate soil and rock to become groundwater or flow to oceans and seas.

They work with other scientists, engineers, and public regulators to forecast and manage floods or droughts, reduce waste water, promote sustainable usage of water, evaluate the feasibility of projects like irrigation systems and hydroelectric plants, and protect water resources.

Students of hydrology study these and other aspects of the field. They learn about water management methods, land use, environmental issues, and how to collect water data, interpret statistics, conduct computer modeling, and use geographic information systems (GIS) and the global positioning system (GPS).

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Hydrology – Four Year Duration
Graduates with a Bachelor’s Degree in Hydrology generally qualify for entry-level roles in the field. More senior positions require a master’s. It is also important to note that few universities offer an undergraduate degree in hydrology. Schools that do not have a specific hydrology curriculum offer hydrology as a concentration in their geosciences or earth science program.

Here are some examples of bachelor’s level courses taken by aspiring hydrologists:

• Calculus Functions
• General Chemistry
• Biology
• Physics
• Ecology
• Meteorology and Climate Change
• Physical Geology
• Soil Science
• Principles of Hydrology
• Fluid Mechanics
• Structural Geology – rock deformation
• Optics and Thermodynamics – relations between heat and other forms of energy
• Hydrogeology – how water gets into the ground, how it flows, and how it interacts with surrounding soil and rock
• Engineering Probability and Statistics
• Fundamentals of Atmospheric Sciences
• Environmental Systems Risk Assessment
• Water Quality Fundamentals
• Statistical Hydrology
• Groundwater Modeling

Master’s Degree in Hydrology – Two Year Duration
Most individuals working directly in the hydrology field hold a master’s degree. Hydrology master’s programs typically offer specializations, such as:

• Earth Surface Processes – the study of the movement of water and pollutants into the ocean
• Hydrobiology / Hydroecology – the study of the microbial, plant, and animal components of surface and subsurface waters
• Hydrochemistry – the study of the interactions between water and the geological, chemical, and biological environment
• Physical Hydrology – the study of ground and surface water kinetics and the transport of contaminants through these systems
• Water Policy and Management – the study of the management and allocation of water

Master’s students conduct significant original research in preparation of submitting and defending their thesis on a topic of their choice. In addition to this independent research component, students are required to complete some core graduate-level courses, such as the ones listed below:

• Agriculture and Water
• Contaminated Land and Groundwater
• Design Project in Hydrology
• Environmental Fluid Mechanics
• Environmental Management in Developing Countries
• Groundwater Flow and Quality Modeling
• Hydrogeology and Groundwater
• Hydroinformatics – the area of research that combines simulation models with technologies to manage water problems
• Hydrological Processes
• Hydrometry – the monitoring of rainfall, groundwater, water quality, and surface water flow
• Mathematical and Statistical Modelling in Hydrology
• Rainfall-Runoff Modeling and Flood Hydrology
• Urban Hydrology and Urban Drainage
• Water Quality Engineering and Ecohydrology (the study of how physical and biological processes interact with water cycles)
• Water Resources Management

Doctoral Degree in Hydrology – Three to Five Year Duration
To enter a hydrology doctoral program, students must have completed a master’s degree in hydrology or a related field. In many cases, doctoral candidates are not required to complete specified core courses.

Instead, their focus is on conducting water research that will be the basis of their doctoral dissertation. Holders of a Doctoral Degree in Hydrology commonly go on to careers as university professors and/or hydrology researchers.

Degrees Similar to Hydrology

Civil Engineering
This degree field is focused on the processes of design and planning of civil infrastructure like roads, tunnels, bridges, dams, railroads, and airports. In their work, civil engineers are concerned with such things as how much weight a structure can support and the environmental issues presented by construction. The emphasis of civil engineering degree programs is math, statistics, engineering systems and mechanics, building codes, and statistical analysis.

Environmental Engineering
This branch of engineering is concerned with finding solutions to environmental problems. Degree programs in the field prepare students to work as environmental engineers, who develop plans to prevent and control air and water pollution, improve recycling and waste disposal, and advance public health.

Students of geography study the earth’s surface; its climate, soil, and water; and the relationship between people and the land. Some typical courses in a geography program are cartography, climatology, geology, political geography, statistics, and spatial analysis.

Geology, also known as geoscience and Earth science, is the study of the Earth. Students of the discipline learn about the processes that act upon the Earth, such as floods, landslides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions; the materials of which the Earth is made, such as water, oil, metals, and rocks; and the history, evolution, and past climates of the Earth.

Landscape Architecture
Landscape architecture students learn how to apply both the creative and technical skills of architecture to plan outdoor spaces and landscapes, such as parks, gardens, playgrounds, residential areas, and college campuses. The curriculum includes computer-aided design (CAD) and courses specific to landscape architecture, such as horticulture, hydrology, geology, environmental design, and landscape design.

Meteorology degree programs teach students how to predict weather conditions. The typical curriculum examines atmospheric movement, climate trends, and ozone levels. With an understanding of these concepts, students learn about various meteorological phenomena. They learn how to use statistical analysis to forecast weather events from sun, clouds, and rain to heat waves, droughts, thunderstorms, tropical storms, tornados, and hurricanes.

Natural Resource Conservation
Degree programs in natural resource conservation teach students how to protect natural areas like forests, parks, and rangelands. Classes typically cover plant and animal identification and natural resource policy and administration.

Soil Science
Soil science degree programs are focused on the formation, ecology, and classification of soil. Students take courses in seed science, fertilizers, geology, weed science, and genetics.

Surveying Engineering
Students of surveying engineering learn how to use geometry, algebra, trigonometry, and various technologies to measure and map land surfaces and their features.

Urban Planning
Degree programs in urban planning teach the processes involved in designing communities, towns, and cities. Students learn how to make decisions about the need for and placement of infrastructure like roads, highways, tunnels, bridges, airports, railroads, dams, utilities, parks, and other urban projects. Coursework includes environmental planning, which considers environmental, social, political, and economic factors.

Skills You’ll Learn

The study of hydrology develops diverse skills and insights that can be applied in other fields as well:

• Ability to work both independently and as part of a team
• Advanced math and science skills
• Observation, critical thinking, and problem-solving
• Field skills / comfortable working outdoors
• GIS (geographic information systems) and GPS (global positioning system) software
• Global perspective
• IT skills / computer modeling
• Physical stamina
• Presenting information both orally and in written form
• Project Management
• Research, data collection, analysis, and record keeping
• Understanding of maps and graphs
• Using statistical applications

What Can You Do with a Hydrology Degree?

Here is a snapshot of the employment sectors that typically hire hydrologists:

• Federal Government – almost 30% of U.S. based hydrologists work for the Geological Survey and the Defense Department
• State government departments and conservation agencies
• Architectural firms
• Engineering consulting firms
• Environmental consulting firms
• Non-profits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
• Research institutes
• Scientific and technical consulting firms
• Universities
• Water and utility companies

The work of hydrologists in each of these sectors may include:

• Collecting and processing surface and ground water samples
• Recording and interpreting data
• Conducting research
• Writing reports
• Designing and conducting experiments
• Creating and using computer models
• Setting up meteorological hydrological monitoring equipment


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