A hydrologist studies the physical properties of the earth's water systems by performing extensive field and laboratory research. He or she may study the role of water in an ecosystem, measure the amount of rainfall in a certain area, or test water samples to determine the presence of pollutants. Most hydrologists work for universities, private research institutions, government agencies, environmental protection organizations, and engineering consultation firms.
Research hydrologists frequently dedicate months or even years to specific projects which require tracking changes in water systems over time. A scientist might determine the amount of ground or surface water in a given area, the rate of precipitation, and the ways in which water is used by people, plants, and animals. He or she might also gather data about the negative or positive effects of human activity on a marine ecosystem.
A hydrologist might take samples directly from lakes, streams, or other water sources to analyze water content and check for pollutants. He or she might also retrieve nearby soil and plant samples to determine the effects of water pollution on living organisms. Hydrologists often conduct several laboratory trials to verify their results and write detailed scientific papers based on their findings.
Outside of research institutions, scientists may work for engineering firms, federal and state governments, and nonprofit environmental groups. Those who are employed by engineering and consulting firms ensure that buildings and industries do as little harm as possible to nearby water sources. They may be responsible for designing efficient, clean water systems for use within a company, or devising waste management programs that do not have negative impacts on the environment. Government and nonprofit hydrologists are often involved in conservation and awareness efforts, teaching people about the dangers of polluting water systems and wasting valuable water resources.
To become a hydrologist, a person must typically have at least a master's degree in hydrology, environmental science, or a related scientific discipline. Many government employees, university professors, and individuals who conduct independent research hold doctoral degrees. Additional licensing or certification is not typically required, though a hydrologist may choose to take a certifying exam administered by a nationally recognized organization, such as the American Institute of Hydrology in the United States.
Most new scientists begin their careers as field and laboratory assistants, learning about practical research techniques firsthand from experienced hydrologists. Assistants may be responsible for setting up experiments, entering data, and interpreting results. After a certain period of time working as an assistant, a hydrologist who proves his or her competency can begin designing new projects and conducting independent research.