What Is a Hydrologist and How Can I Become One?

hydrologist collecting water to check environmental health

Earth is unquestionably a blue planet. In addition to the water found in oceans, rivers and lakes, our planet’s water resources are comprised of water vapor, glaciers, soil moisture, underground water reserves and living creatures. Clearly, water is significant both for the planet and for all life that exists on it.

Hydrology is the study of water and its properties, distribution and movement, as well as the relationship of water resources with the rest of the environment. So, what is a hydrologist? Hydrologists research these water-related issues and manage societies’ water resources.

If you have a passion for environmental science and the process of conducting research, you might consider becoming a hydrologist. Start by taking a deep dive into the hydrology job description that follows, and then explore environmental science degree options.

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What Is a Hydrologist?

A hydrologist is a scientist who studies water and its movement around the planet. Hydrologists also study how water affects its surrounding environment and how environmental factors affect the quantity and quality of available water. One crucial concept in hydrology is the hydrologic cycle.

The hydrologic cycle, also known as the water cycle, occurs continuously all over the planet. It starts when water evaporates and moves as water vapor into the atmosphere. Then, the water falls back to the planet’s surface to the oceans and land masses.

Once back on Earth, the water may be frozen into icebergs or captured by oceans and rivers. It may soak into the soil, where it can make its way to groundwater reserves or be sucked up by the roots of plants. Human activities—ranging from the operation of a manufacturing plant to the irrigation of a home garden—affect the hydrologic cycle, as well as the availability and quality of water resources.

For example, consider a manufacturing plant that uses water to cool its machinery and prevent overheating. Once the water is used, it may be discharged to a nearby river or lake. The quality of the discharged water will be affected, even if it’s treated first.

It’s the job of a hydrologist to determine how to best manage water resources and examine how human activities impact them. Hydrologists are primarily problem solvers. They may work on a wide range of issues, such as the following:

  • The identification of water resources for cities or individual facilities
  • The control of floodwaters from a river
  • The cleanup of pollution in a coastal wetlands region
  • The identification of ideal sites for hazardous waste disposal where the waste will not affect water supplies
  • Monitoring groundwater aquifers

Water is among the most important resources on our planet. Without it, life would not exist. Hydrologists are stewards of this crucial natural resource.

Typical Hydrology Job Description

Within the hydrology field, there are options for specializing. Hydrologists tend to specialize in a component of the hydrologic cycle or in a particular water source. For instance, some hydrologists specialize in the evaporation of water and its journey to the atmosphere.

The most common hydrology specializations are as follows:

  • Surface water hydrologists: These professionals study bodies of water above ground, including lakes, rivers and snowpacks. They might focus on work such as flood forecasts and flood management programs, or they might predict future water levels.
  • Groundwater hydrologists: These hydrologists specialize in the water found below the Earth’s surface. They might focus on the cleanup of contaminated groundwater reserves, identification of ideal locations for wells, identification of locations for hazardous waste disposal, or prediction of the future water supply.

The typical daily job description for a hydrologist will vary depending on their specialization, employer and current projects. In general, however, a hydrologist may do any of the following tasks:

  • Go out into the field to collect water and soil samples for analysis, and to use monitoring equipment to measure the properties of water bodies, such as the volume of a river
  • Analyze collected samples for problems, such as contaminants
  • Evaluate data on the effects of pollution, drought, erosion and similar issues
  • Use computer models to predict events, such as droughts, floods, water supply availability and pollution migration
  • Assess the environmental impacts of various projects, ranging from hydroelectric power plants to wastewater treatment facilities
  • Prepare charts, graphs and written reports of their findings, and present their findings to clients or other stakeholders

The job of a hydrologist requires both independent and collaborative work. Hydrologists frequently coordinate their work with environmental science technicians, biologists, engineers, other scientists and public officials. For instance, a hydrologist might connect with an elected official to discuss water management plans for a city, or the hydrologist might work with a biologist to assess the effects of water pollution on local wildlife.

Where Does a Hydrologist Work?

Hydrologists split their time between the office and the field. While in the field collecting samples and working with monitoring equipment, hydrologists may need to access hard-to-reach areas and rugged terrain. In the office, hydrologists spend a great deal of time analyzing the data they have collected.

The largest employer of hydrologists is the federal government. Other hydrologists work for state or local governments. Still others work for engineering firms and similar organizations, and there are some opportunities for hydrology professionals in institutes of higher education, where they may teach and conduct research.

Lastly, qualified scientists do have opportunities to give back to communities. They may do this by working for nonprofit organizations focused on environmental justice issues or by volunteering for these organizations.

For example, consider the story of Wendy Robertson, a hydrogeologist and professor at Central Michigan University. After teaching two semesters during the school year, Robertson travels each summer to Sub-Saharan Africa to build sustainable water projects for villagers who would otherwise not have easy access to clean water.1 This is just one way in which scientists who specialize in hydrology can help make the world a better place.

Essential Skills and Characteristics for Hydrology Professionals

Your formal education and on-the-job training will equip you to carry out the duties of a professional hydrologist. Along the way, you can actively work on cultivating the following skills and characteristics:

  • Verbal and written communication skills
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Analytical reasoning
  • Interpersonal skills

Physical stamina is also important for hydrologists, as some of them might need to hike to remote areas over difficult terrain in order to set up monitoring equipment and collect samples.

How To Become a Hydrologist

Now that you know the answer to the question, “What is a hydrologist?” you might consider entering this field. The planet’s water is essential for all life; if you’ve decided that you would like to dedicate your career to protecting this valuable resource, you can get started right now. If you’re still in high school, it’s time to visit your guidance counselor to discuss your course load.

Sign up for as many earth science, chemistry, biology and physics classes as possible. Computer science and communications classes are also important for aspiring hydrologists. In addition, look for relevant extracurricular activities, such as a science or public speaking club.

If you have the opportunity to participate in a science fair, consider conducting a water-related project. Students who live near universities or colleges can look for school-affiliated summer field experiences or camps.

Internship experiences in any science field will also be helpful for aspiring scientists. You can look for nearby internships on the job board of the American Water Resources Association website.

When it’s time to apply to colleges, look for a rigorous environmental science program. A bachelor’s degree will be sufficient to get your foot in the door in this field. However, you should plan on earning a master’s degree as well, and you may later complete a doctoral degree to further enhance your career opportunities.

Earning an Environmental Science Degree

Undergraduate degree programs in hydrology are few and far between. Instead, aspiring hydrologists can earn an environmental science degree. This degree program focuses on environmental health issues and their remediation.

The curriculum will vary from one school to the next. In general, however, environmental science students typically study the following topics:

  • The principles and applications of microbiology
  • The study of plants and animals, and how they interact within their environments
  • Environmental protection laws on issues such as water and air quality, hazardous substances and coastal management
  • Environmental geology, including catastrophic geologic processes, pollution and planetary resources
  • The remediation of contaminated environments
  • Environmental management and sustainability practices

Students may have the opportunity to complete a capstone project during their senior year. This is a culmination of their environmental science knowledge. Aspiring hydrologists should select a topic pertaining to water resources.

During the course of their studies, undergraduate students typically have opportunities to take elective classes. Students should consider taking courses in computer literacy, environmental law/governmental policy, life sciences, mathematics or earth sciences to bolster their core curriculum. A communications class would also be a good idea, as hydrology scientists must be able to communicate their findings accurately, and they may occasionally be called upon to give presentations.

Exploring Graduate Degree Options

There are entry-level positions in this field available to graduates who possess an undergraduate environmental science degree. However, many hydrologists earn a master’s degree before beginning work in the field.

It’s ideal to choose a master’s degree program that is specific to hydrology. Alternatively, students might look for a program in geosciences or environmental science with a concentration in hydrology.

With a master’s degree, graduates are well-qualified to pursue positions as hydrology scientists. After gaining at least a few years of relevant work experience, professionals may decide to go back to school to earn their doctoral degree. This terminal degree is typically a requirement for individuals who intend on making the transition to a faculty or advanced research position at a university.

Earning Licensure and/or Certification

Depending on the requirements of the state in which you plan to work, you may need to earn a license. You’ll have to check with your state’s licensing board to determine the eligibility requirements. Typically, hydrologists who need to obtain a license must demonstrate specific academic credentials and work experience, and they usually must pass a licensing exam.

It is not mandatory for hydrologists to be certified, although some employers may prefer it. Earning a voluntary certification can open the doors to higher level opportunities for hydrologists.

The American Institute of Hydrology (AIH) is the certifying body in the U.S. To obtain a certification as a hydrologist, you will need to pass a two-part exam. You must also meet one of the following eligibility criteria:

  • Possess a bachelor’s degree and five years of relevant work experience
  • Hold a master’s degree and four years of relevant work experience
  • Have a doctoral degree and three years of relevant work experience

Is There a Demand for Hydrologists?

Yes, the demand is primarily due to the environmental changes caused by global climate change, which is threatening water resources and increasing the risk of both droughts and floods. Hydrologists are needed to develop evidence-based water management programs in an effort to alleviate the effects of climate change.

Another factor fueling the demand for hydrologists is population growth. As the population climbs, so too does human activity. This contributes to a greater need for resources gleaned through hydraulic fracturing, construction and mining. In turn, all of these activities negatively affect the natural water cycle and clean water availability.

Additionally, population growth contributes to human expansion to locations previously uninhabited by humans. This can create water scarcity and increase the risk of damaging floods. All of these factors combined are contributing to the rising demand for skilled hydrologists and smart water management programs.

You can pursue a rewarding career as a hydrologist when you earn an environmental science degree at Grand Canyon University. Offered by the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, the Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science degree program instills fundamental knowledge in environmental management, sustainability, human health risk assessment, chemical investigations and many other key areas. You can click on Request Info at the top of your screen to begin envisioning your future at GCU—a Christian learning community.

Retrieved from:

Idealist, Career Advice, Like Science? STEM Jobs at Nonprofits are More Common Than You May Think, Part 1 in June 2021.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.