Hydrology is the study of the composition, structure and other physical aspects of the earth's underground, surface and atmospheric water reserves. While a bachelor's degree in hydrology may be sufficient for some entry-level environmental science positions, a master's degree is typically required for most research and hydrologist positions. Online courses and programs are also available.
Ph.D. degree programs can lead to high-level research or academic careers. Fieldwork is a large component of these programs, and students may be required to complete a culminating project like a thesis or dissertation. Additionally, voluntary certification is available for hydrologists and licensure is required in some states.
Bachelor's Degree in Hydrology
Bachelor's degree programs in hydrology, sometimes called hydrologic science or water resource science, provide students with an understanding of regional and global water problems, along with water circulation and distribution. Undergraduate hydrology degree programs also cover water's impact on climate change, hazardous material spread and water systems maintenance for human consumption, industry and agriculture.
While not necessarily required, previous coursework in calculus, economics, biology, chemistry and physics is recommended for admission to a hydrology bachelor's degree program. A high school diploma or equivalent is required.
In addition to classroom study, fieldwork is often an important component of a hydrology program curriculum. Courses include:
- Ocean geography
- Environmental studies
- Research methods
- Water policy
Master's Degree in Hydrology
Master's degree programs in hydrology train students for careers as hydrologists with the private sector, government or academic institutions. Many programs offer sub-specializations in areas such as surface water hydrology, vadose zone hydrology, watershed hydrology and water resource evaluation.
A bachelor's degree is required for admission to graduate programs in hydrology, with degrees in fields like geology, hydrology, biology and physics providing particularly solid undergraduate foundations. Programs may accept students from a broad range of academic backgrounds. Some graduate hydrology programs have specific prerequisites, such as chemistry, physics, calculus and statistics.
Students participate in fieldwork as part of their studies. Most programs require completion of a research or thesis project. Graduate-level coursework might include:
- Vadose zone hydrology
- Contaminant transport
- Aqueous geochemistry
- Water resources engineering
Ph.D. in Hydrology
Ph.D. programs in hydrology are designed for those who wish to pursue academic careers or in-depth study in a sub-specialty area. Students in Ph.D. programs participate in water research activities and usually complete and defend a dissertation presenting original research findings. Some programs require student to complete a minor in an area outside of hydrology, such as geosciences or engineering.
Students are required to hold a bachelor's degree. Programs may require a specific amount of prior coursework in geology, chemistry, physics, calculus, fluid mechanics and statistics.
Doctoral programs in hydrology tend to be flexible, allowing students to tailor the curriculum toward their own individual interests. Topics of in-depth study may include:
- Water resource management in developing regions
- Groundwater resource evaluation
- Contaminant transport
- Water resources engineering
Employment Outlook and Salary Information
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov) reports an expected employment growth of 7% for hydrologists during the 2014-2024 time period. As the population grows and encroaches on environmentally sensitive regions, more hydrologists are needed to address concerns such as geologic hazards in coastal areas and the effects of hurricanes or other natural hazards. Hydrologists are employed by architectural and engineering services, scientific consulting services and the federal government. The median annual salary for hydrologists in 2015 was $79,550, according to the BLS.
In addition to careers as hydrologists, graduates of Ph.D. programs are prepared for academic careers teaching hydrology or environmental studies at the post-secondary level. The BLS predicts 13% job growth between 2014 and 2024 for post-secondary teachers, although there could be competition for tenure-track positions. Post-secondary teachers in areas related to environmental studies, including hydrology, had a median annual salary of $78,770 in 2015, according to the BLS.
Licensing, Certification and Continuing Education
A few states require hydrologists to become licensed in accordance with state licensing board requirements before offering their services to the public. The American Institute of Hydrology (AIH) offers a voluntary certification for hydrologists in surface water, groundwater and water quality hydrology. Applicants must meet the AIH requirements and pass an exam to obtain certification. The AIH also offers conferences and other opportunities for continuing education.
Aspiring hydrologists can find bachelor's, master's, and doctoral-level degree programs that break down various facets of water conservation and maintenance while allowing students to gain experience with fieldwork. Graduates can seek careers in hydrology, as well as academic teaching positions in the case of those who hold a Ph.D.