Toxicology: Academic Requirements, Professional Outlook


Toxicology is the scientific study of the effects of toxicants (poisons) on living organisms. Toxicologists study the causes, circumstances, effects, and limits of safety from the exposure to poisons. Toxicants can be found everywhere; the food we eat, the water we drink, the soil we walk on, the products we use to clean our homes, and many other areas of our lives can expose us to unintentional harm. Toxicologists study how we are exposed to toxicants, how much it takes to harm us, and how the effects can be reduced or eliminated.

The important science of Toxicology has direct relevance to human health, the environment and major sectors of the economy. The scientific community, governments, industry and the public all require information on the effects of potentially hazardous substances to balance the benefits which society receives against the hazards they may incur from their misuse.

The Academic Requirements

Students can expect coursework in chemistry, microbiology, immunobiology, ecological modeling and transport, and medicine. According to Clemson University's program, research "examines the mechanisms of how chemicals exert their toxicity and how variability in individual organisms can lead to sensitivity or resistance in a wide array of species." Students learn methods to assess exposure and impact of toxins in the field. "Field studies, used to document the status of potentially affected species, typically incorporate small mammal and avian habitat assessment, water and vegetation sampling and collection of invertebrates and aquatic organisms and estuarine-marine habitat assessment." Students learn about various modeling systems and how computer simulations aid in experiments and data analysis. Students also learn how to prepare reports and disseminate information to other scientists and to the general public in useful ways.

Most programs in Toxicology are at the graduate or doctorate/MD level. Students entering these programs should possess a strong background in the sciences, specifically biology and chemistry. Extensive lab work is required, as well as computer work, so students should be prepared to study many hours outside of the classroom. Doctorate students can run independent research in the field; those with a medical license have even more research opportunities and chances to apply treatment methods to the general human population.

Here are some courses that we've seen:

  • Methods in Toxicology
  • Applied Toxicology
  • Pharmacology and Toxicology
  • Chemical Source & Fate in Environment
  • Design and Analysis of Experiments or Sampling
  • Environment and Animal Toxicology
  • Biomarkers in Toxicology
  • Aquatic Toxicology
  • Cancer Biology
  • Current Approaches in Experimental Therapeutics
  • Biochemical Pharmacology
  • Neurotoxicology

Professional Outlook

The Society of Toxicology website says, "As a career, toxicology provides the excitement of science and research while also contributing to the well-being of current and future generations. Few other careers offer such exciting and socially important challenges as protecting public health and the environment." Toxicologists can carry out research, using field tests and experiments, to help advance our knowledge of potentially or known harmful chemicals. They can also work with private industry, the government and regulators, the public, and public interest groups to help ensure that health standards are met in our workplaces and our communities. Some toxicologists work in education institutions, training future graduates in the field. The demand for those with advanced degrees in toxicology is high, and opportunities for advancement exist for those with excellent experience in the field.

Many toxicologists work in the broad field of research. These researchers work within a subspecialty, for example, cancer research, reproductive and developmental toxicology, or risk assessment. Researchers use laboratory animals, human and animal cells in culture, and computer prediction models to test systems and examine their reactions to toxic exposure. Research opportunities are available in the private sector (such as chemical producing companies), academia, and government. Some research is "basic;" it deals with advancing our knowledge of toxicology. "Applied" research has results that are expected to yield direct social or commercial information. An example of this would be to study the chemicals used at a plant to determine if a higher rate of lung cancer among workers at the plant is a result of exposure to these chemicals. This information is then applied to help the workers.

Other areas of toxicology employment include product safety evaluation (such as when drug companies test new products to determine if they are safe for long-term use), teaching in colleges and universities, and public service, regulatory affairs and consulting. This last field is concerned with communicating research results and coming up with solutions. Government regulatory agencies employ toxicologists to explain how chemicals work, what technology needs to be developed to reduce or eliminate the risk of exposure, how this exposure affects the exposed audience, and how to enforce the laws created to protect this audience.

Here are some job titles that we've seen, including some of the organizations that offer them, all of which included a requirement for experience in Toxicology:


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