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Groundwater in Further Education

Who employs groundwater specialists, what does the job entail and what is the demand? These questions are addressed in this section, and in addition, advice is given on the routes that can be taken through further education to become a groundwater specialist.

Employers, nature of the work and the demand

Groundwater specialists (hydrogeologists) are employed by a wide range of organisations, including:

Environment Regulators – the government organisations (Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, local government, central government) who advise on, plan and police water legislation;

Water supply companies – in some areas of the UK, groundwater provides a major component of the water supplied. Many water supply companies employ groundwater specialists, enabling them to identify and address groundwater-related issues internally, gathering data, assessing options and implementing solutions;

Consultants – from companies employing a few people, to departments of international companies with hundreds of employees, consultancies work for private and governmental clients in the UK and overseas; work may require a specialism in certain fields (e.g. landfill, dewatering) or the capability of dealing with many types of project;

Government research institutes – organisations, e.g. the British Geological Survey and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, who undertake fundamental research as well as providing information and expertise to regulators and private clients in the UK and overseas;

Universities – several universities undertake specialist teaching and research in groundwater, employing lecturers and researchers;

Other companies – groundwater is central to a number of companies (e.g. bottled water companies, waste disposal companies, radioactive waste disposal concerns, civil and geotechnical engineering consultancies), and as such they employ groundwater specialists. Large industries, e.g. steel, chemical and pharmaceutical, with significant contaminated land issues may also employ their own groundwater related staff.

Many UK hydrogeologists work overseas, either for UK/International companies including aid organisations or for overseas companies and governments.

The type of work undertaken by hydrogeologists is wide-ranging, including:

  • water quality (groundwater protection, contaminated land, clean-up)
  • water resources (regional water supply, irrigation)
  • waste disposal (landfills, radioactive waste disposal) and
  • engineering (dewatering, consolidation, reservoirs, barrages).

The work often involves a mixture of field and computer-based tasks, but can also include laboratory work. Some hydrogeologists get involved with all aspects of the subject, but others concentrate on a specific aspect, for example modelling, chemistry, drilling or environmental impact assessment.

Whatever the employer, the job of a hydrogeologist requires an advanced level of understanding across several fields – geology, hydraulics, environmental chemistry, technology, and computer modelling. Hence it is usual for hydrogeologists to have some sort of specialist graduate training, and often, but not always, this involves completing an MSc course.

At present, there is a shortage of hydrogeologists in the UK, as has been made very clear by evidence presented by various bodies to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology in 2003. For many years, all those graduating from MSc Hydrogeology courses who wanted jobs in the industry (almost all graduates!), obtained jobs. Current job vacancies can be found at

Becoming a Hydrogeologist

The usual route to employment in hydrogeology is to obtain an MSc or PhD qualification, but other routes are possible as indicated below. Most students undertaking MSc courses have geology or environmental science first degrees, but a significant minority have engineering, geophysics, mathematics, physics, or chemistry degrees (and there is a major role for specialists from other disciplines in groundwater work). Entry to PhD programmes requires at least an upper second class degree or equivalent.

The non-MSc Route

Currently, there are no hydrogeology BSc degree courses offered within the UK. Some geology, environmental science, and engineering degrees do contain some training in groundwater, but many have very little.

In recent years, four-year undergraduate geology degrees have been offered by some English universities (most Scottish BSc courses have always been four years long). These are called by various names, but two of the more popular are MSci and MGeol; though called masters, they are classed as “undergraduate” degrees. Some allow a significant amount of specialisation, and it is possible at some universities to take a series of modules in the fourth year which will all be relevant to groundwater studies: however, these degrees are not at the level of MSc courses, and do not offer the very focussed training of MSc courses.

Because of the difficulty of filling posts with MSc-qualified personnel in recent years, some employers have taken on staff without postgraduate training. The work undertaken tends to be at a fairly junior/technician level (e.g. drilling supervision, basic pumping licence processing). Sometimes such employment leads on to sponsorship to undertake an MSc course full- or part-time. Sometimes a company will not be able to sponsor an employee, but will be willing to guarantee employment on completion of the MSc. On return, the newly-qualified employee can expect to be given more responsibilities and further promotion opportunities usually become available.

A new diploma course in Hydrogeology and Groundwater Resources started in September 2004 at University College, London (UCL). This is for postgraduate students with a first degree in Earth Sciences, Natural Sciences, Environmental Sciences, Engineering or Geography, and comprises three taught modules (Physical Hydrogeology, Chemical Hydrogeology, and Applied Hydrogeology) and an 8 week project. It can be undertaken full time over 9 months, or by day or block release over 2 to 5 years.

Other diploma courses are available attached to MSc courses, including at Queen’s University Belfast, Sheffield University and Birmingham University.

The University of Newcastle upon Tyne offers a flexible learning option for a diploma in Applied Hydrogeology.

The MSc Route


There are two MSc routes available – via mainstream dedicated hydrogeology MSc courses and via MSc courses which have significant groundwater training but which also cover a significant amount of other material. The former route is the most common.

Mainstream Hydrogeology MSc Courses

The following are full-time MSc courses currently available in the UK:

Since 2005, the University of Sheffield has offered an MSc in Contaminant Hydrogeology. This course offers both full-time and part-time study and is aligned with the other mainstream UK hydrogeology courses in providing integrated training in contaminated hydrogeology.

The University of Newcastle upon Tyne offers a flexible learning option for a MSc in Applied Hydrogeology.

Other MSc Courses

There are many other MSc courses which include some groundwater training – too many to list here (MSc courses with NERC studentships,, Most are environmental science courses with only a module or two covering groundwater. However, there are a few courses which allow significantly more groundwater modules to be taken. Examples of such courses are given below. The list is by no means comprehensive, and we would welcome feedback and suggestions for additional courses to include.

As is the case for the mainstream MSc courses, applicants will need a first or second class degree in a relevant subject area, sometimes with evidence of mathematics training usually to A level or equivalent, and usually with evidence of an adequate standard of English for those not from the UK.

University of Sheffield: Environmental Management of Urban Land and Water
University of East Anglia: Environmental Sciences
Queens University, Belfast: Environmental Engineering
Imperial College, London: Hydrology for Environmental Management

The PhD Route

PhD research can be very exciting and fulfilling, and can help with career progression in the long run. However, it does take longer to become qualified, and, unless you have a strong interest in research for its own sake, the other routes are probably better. PhD research requires a considerable amount of self-motivation. Some universities offer a new sort of PhD – ‘PhD with integrated studies’ – which includes a taught component as well as a research component.

A number of universities undertake research in hydrogeology, though PhD funding may not be available in every year at all universities. Funding is often from the Natural Environment Research Council or the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, but industrially-funded and university-funded studentships are also often available.

Most advertisements appear in the autumn for studentships available from the autumn of the following year. However, it is not unusual for studentships to become available at other times of year. Advertisement locations include the websites of the universities concerned and In addition, a very important window for advertisement is the Geological Society careers fair, held in November each year.

Funding by the UK Research Councils usually covers the fees and a contribution towards maintenance. University and industrial scholarships provide varying amounts of support. Sometimes it is possible to obtain a research post which allows a part-time registration for a research degree: thus payment is higher, but the time available to undertake the research used in the MSc/MPhil/PhD may be less.

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