Careers in Hydrology

Geoscientists held about 33,600 jobs in 2008, while another 8,100 were employed as hydrologists. Among hydrologists, 26 percent were employed in architectural, engineering, and related services, and 19 percent worked for management, scientific, and technical consulting services. The Federal Government employed about 27 percent of hydrologists, mostly within the U.S. Department of the Interior for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and within the U.S. Department of Defense. Due to sovereignty issues, most tribes either have in place or are seeking trained professionals to monitor, manage, and protect their respective water resources. Employment of geoscientists and hydrologists is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations.

Demand for hydrologists should also be strong as the population increases and moves to more environmentally sensitive locations. As people increasingly migrate toward coastal regions, for example, hydrologists will be needed to assess building sites for potential geologic hazards and to mitigate the effects of natural hazards such as floods, landslides, and hurricanes. Hydrologists also will be needed to study hazardous-waste sites and determine the effect of pollutants on soil and groundwater so that engineers can design remediation systems.

Increased government regulations, such as those regarding the management of storm water, and issues related to water conservation, deteriorating coastal environments, and rising sea levels also will stimulate employment growth for these workers. In addition to demand resulting from job growth, replacing those who leave the occupation for retirement, managerial positions, or other careers will generate a number of jobs.

A significant number of geoscientists are approaching retirement age, and without increases in the number of students earning degrees in the geosciences, job openings will exceed the number of qualified jobseekers over the 2008-18 projection period. Job prospects for hydrologists should be favorable, particularly for those with field experience. Today there are approximately three positions for every hydrology applicant.

Some geoscientists and hydrologists spend the majority of their time in an office, but many others divide their time between fieldwork and office or laboratory work. Work at remote field sites is common. Some specialists often take field trips that involve significant physical activity and some risk. In the field they work in warm or cold climates and in all kinds of weather.

In their research, they may dig or chip with a hammer, scoop with a net, and carry equipment in a backpack. Oceanographers may spend considerable time at sea on academic research ships. Geologists frequently travel to remote field sites by helicopter or 4-wheel-drive vehicles and cover large areas on foot. Many exploration geologists and geophysicists work in foreign countries, sometimes in remote areas and under difficult conditions. Travel often is required to meet with prospective clients or investors. Fieldwork often requires working long and irregular hours.

Licensure and certification

A number of States require geoscientists and hydrologists who offer their services directly to the public to obtain a license from a State licensing board. Licensing requirements vary by State but typically include education and experience requirements and a passing score on an examination. In States that do not require a license, workers can obtain voluntary certifications. For example, the American Institute of Hydrology offers certification programs in professional hydrology that have similar requirements to State licensure programs.

Other qualifications

Computer skills are essential for prospective geoscientists and hydrologists; students who have experience with computer modeling, data analysis and integration, digital mapping, remote sensing, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) will be the most prepared entering the job market. Knowledge of the Global Positioning System (GPS)—a locator system that uses satellites—has also become essential. Some employers seek applicants with field experience, so a summer internship is often helpful.

Because geoscientists and hydrologists usually work as part of a team with other geoscientists and with environmental scientists, engineers, and technicians, they must have good interpersonal skills. Strong oral and written communication skills also are important because writing technical reports and research proposals and explaining research results in person are important aspects of the work.

Workers must be inquisitive, able to think logically, and capable of complex analytical thinking, including spatial visualization and the ability to infer conclusions from sparse data. Geoscientists and hydrologists involved in fieldwork must have physical stamina.


The petroleum, mineral, and mining industries offer higher salaries, but less job security, than other industries because economic downturns sometimes cause layoffs.Median annual wages for the industries employing the largest number of geoscientists in May 2008 were as follows:

Oil and gas extraction$127,560
Federal Executive Branch$90,220
Architectural, engineering, and related services$66,770
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services$62,070
State government$57,700

Median annual wages of hydrologists were $71,450 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $54,910 and $89,200; the lowest 10 percent earned less than $44,410, and the highest 10 percent more than $105,010. In March 2009, the Federal Government’s average salary was $94,085 for geologists, $108,118 for geophysicists, $89,404 for hydrologists, and $105,671 for oceanographers.