Toxicologists study the safety and biological effects of drugs, chemicals, agents, and other substances on living organisms. They develop methods to determine harmful effects, the dosages that cause those effects, and safe exposure limits.
They may also investigate the relationship between dose and effect, which can be influenced by factors such as the dosing regimen (single large exposure vs. continuous smaller exposures), route of exposure (oral, dermal, nasal), age, gender, and environment. Toxicology brings together a wide variety of fields, including chemistry, biology, pharmacology, human and animal medicine, and environmental science, to help inform policies and regulations to protect both human health and the environment.
Toxicologists spend their time planning and conducting experiments, dosing animals, and collecting and analyzing data. Ph.D. level toxicologists interpret the results of studies, conduct risk assessments, and integrate data from many different studies. They then create reports and recommendations for organizations and regulatory agencies, putting the data into context and providing risk analyses to ensure the safety of the products and compounds for their intended use.
To work as a toxicologist, you will need to earn at least an undergraduate degree in toxicology or a related field (chemistry, biology, biochemistry). Laboratory experience is valuable, as well as courses in statistics and mathematics. A bachelor’s or master’s degree will enable you to work in the lab. A Ph.D. will enable you to direct and manage studies. For medical scientists overall, 20% have a master’s degree, 30% have a Ph.D., and 45% have postdoctoral training. Most students studying for a Ph.D. will receive a stipend during their training, which covers living expenses.
Entry-level toxicologists work in animal facilities and laboratories, and those with associate and bachelor’s degrees will usually remain there throughout their career. Ph.D. toxicologists spend most of their time in an office, planning and designing experiments, interpreting data collected by others, reviewing the literature, and writing reports and recommendations.
About half of all toxicologists work in industry: 30% for the federal government and about 20% in academia. Industries include pharmaceutical, agricultural, chemical, and consumer products companies, where extensive toxicology testing is required on all new products to ensure their safety. Toxicologists are responsible for the development, implementation, and interpretation of toxicological tests to meet regulatory requirements and data quality standards (e.g., GLPs). Toxicologists working for the federal government review data packages to support decisions related to product registration, conduct risk assessments that support regulations related to environmental exposures, and conduct research. Academic toxicologists conduct basic research to understand the mechanisms by which compounds exert their toxic effects.
Most toxicologists begin by working at the bench, conducting experiments on in vitro and animal models. Over time, as they gain experience, they may move up to supervise others. While a master’s degree is sufficient for applied research positions, a Ph.D. degree with postdoctoral experience is required for the highest levels. Over time, senior toxicologists in industry may advance to plan and manage large studies conducted outside the company, by contracting agencies. Toxicologists can move into related fields, such as regulatory affairs.
Employment of medical scientists in general is projected to grow about as fast as average over the next decade. This growth will be driven by an aging population, an increased understanding of biological processes, and an increasing dependence on pharmaceuticals. The federal government has been a major source of funding for medical research in the past, but this has slowed significantly in recent years. However, since toxicology testing remains a regulatory requirement for all new products, toxicologists will be needed for foreseeable future.
If you want a laboratory career where your work will have a direct impact on protecting human health, toxicology may be the career for you. It requires an investigative nature, analytical thinking skills, and the desire to conduct research and uncover new information using animal models. The ability to identify patterns in large datasets to communicate with fellow scientists is also required.
Toxicologists are a type of medical scientist, whose job growth is predicted to be about as fast as average for all occupations.
This growth will be driven by an aging population, an increased understanding of biological processes, and an increasing dependence on pharmaceuticals.