How To Become A Toxicologist

Kate Onissiphorou

by Kate Onissiphorou

2nd February 2022

Toxicology is a branch of science that overlaps with other fields, including pharmacology, biochemistry, and medicine. One of its main aims is to identify toxins that are harmful to humans and creatures. A toxicologist may therefore study harmful organic and inorganic chemicals, such as hazardous household chemicals and animal venom.

A toxicologist also has an important role in medical diagnosis and forensics. It is part of forensic science that leads to solving crimes by identifying possible foul play.

What do Toxicologists do?

Analyse medical and forensic samples

A toxicologist studies the various factors that determine the harmful effects of chemicals. These include the dosage, route of exposure (e.g. oral or nasal), and length of exposure.

A person’s physical or physiological characteristics also determine the extent to which the toxic or venomous chemical adversely affects their body. An older and heavier person, for instance, may not be as easily affected by toxic substances when compared to a small child.

Toxicologists’ findings can be used as a medical diagnostic basis or as evidence in a forensic investigation. Hence, toxicologists must excel in chemical analysis.

Conduct environmental impact assessment

Aside from medicine and forensic science, a toxicologist also plays an important role in environmental science. For example, they might perform laboratory analysis to determine the levels of toxic substances in the environment and their possible impact on the ecological balance.

A toxicologist analysing samples on a beach

Quality control and safety maintenance

Toxicologists are hired by both governments and private organisations to be part of their operations. In the corporate world, particularly in the chemical manufacturing and pharmaceutical industries, a toxicologist may have the role of an environmental officer, a safety officer or a quality assurance specialist.

A toxicologist working for a manufacturing company may examine the risks of toxic substances on the manufacturing floor and in the products themselves. More importantly, they are responsible for determining the toxicity of industrial waste products.

Teaching and research

Some toxicologists, especially those with more advanced degrees, may choose to pursue an academic career. Some teach in universities while others only do scientific research.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Toxicologist?

Becoming a fully-fledged registered toxicologist in the UK is relatively difficult as there are various qualification requirements to fulfil. So, what qualifications do you need to become a toxicologist?

Firstly, you must have an honours degree in a relevant science course, which may take three to six years to complete, depending on whether you’re a full-time or part-time student.

In addition to a university degree, you’ll need to have at least five years of toxicology-related work experience. You must also be currently working in a toxicology-related job and will need to show proof of at least 12 months’ worth of relevant CPD training.

If you’re wondering how long it would take to become a toxicologist, the answer depends on exactly what you mean by a toxicologist.

For instance, are you talking about an entry-level toxicologist or a registered toxicologist? If you’re referring to the former, it would take a minimum of three years’ study (assuming that you’re hired immediately after graduation). If you mean the latter, it would take a minimum of nine years from your first year in university until you become qualified as a registered toxicologist.

How Much Does a Toxicologist Make?

Just like in other careers, the average salary of a toxicologist varies and depends on several factors, such as educational background, years of experience, and professional certifications. It will also depend on the industry and your specific employer.

In the UK, a toxicologist with one year’s experience on the job (or less) may only receive a salary of around £23,000 per year for an entry-level position. Meanwhile, a senior toxicologist with at least 20 years’ experience can earn as much as £62,000 per year.

The average base pay for a toxicologist is around £33,989 per year. Other compensations, such as bonuses and non-monetary perks, are often included on top of the base pay.

Different Careers in Toxicology

If you decide to pursue a career in toxicology, there are various opportunities you might want to consider. The path you take will largely depend on your specialisation and field of interest. Here are some examples of career paths that you can choose if you’re a toxicologist:

  • Academic lecturer and researcher you can become a university lecturer or even a professor if you have the right academic credentials. You will need at least a master’s degree in toxicology or a related field, such as chemistry, to become a qualified university lecturer. You can also choose to do pure research work in academia.
  • Forensic scientist if you specialise in forensic toxicology, you can be employed by law enforcement agencies and help solve crimes. This may mean that you’re called upon to testify as an expert witness in court.

A forensic scientist analysing material for evidence

  • Environmental scientist as an environmental scientist/toxicologist, you may do a lot of fieldwork to collect data and specimens. You may also need to travel a lot to investigate environmental disasters, such as oil or chemical spills.
  • Healthcare support you can work in a hospital, a clinic or a remote healthcare facility. You will mainly be tasked with analysing medical samples like blood or urine.
  • Industrial R&D you might choose to work in a biotech or pharmaceutical company and help to develop antidotes and antivenoms. You may test drugs for toxicity and also assist in clinical trials.

How to Become a Medical Toxicologist

To become a medical toxicologist, you’ll need similar academic credentials and experience to that of a registered toxicologist.

The difference is that your work will focus on healthcare concerns, such as laboratory diagnostics. Therefore a good background in biology, pharmacology, and biochemistry is a must.

How to Become a Clinical Toxicologist

Clinical toxicologists in the UK are focused on non-pharmaceutical interventions. They work primarily in four poisons centres located in Birmingham, Newcastle, Cardiff, and Edinburgh. 

There are also additional poison centres in London and York. As a clinical toxicologist, you’ll need relevant formal academic training and experience, plus residency. You may also work alongside psychiatrists in self-harm or attempted suicide cases.


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