Soil and Plant Scientists Overview

A bachelors degree in agricultural science is sufficient for the majority of jobs in product development, while a masters or Ph.D. degree is usually required for research positions. Agricultural scientists should expect a faster than average job growth as they work to limit the negative environmental impact of agriculture and develop new products utilizing biotechnology. Good opportunities are expected for soil and plant scientists.

Nature of the Work for Soil and Plant Scientists

Soil and Plant Scientists

Soil and plant scientists maintain the safety of the Nation’s food supply by ensuring agricultural productivity. They research animals and farm crops in order to develop ways of increasing their quality and quantity. They are mainly concerned with controlling pests and weeds more effectively and safely, conserving water and soil and improving crop yield. They look for ways to turn raw agricultural commodities into healthy and appealing food products for consumers. Some plant scientists research the use of products for fuels.

The advances in the study of genetics have spurred a growth of biotechnology. In the soil and plant science industry, biotechnology is used to manipulate the genetic material of crops and plants, trying to make them either more resilient to disease or more productive. Such advances have lead to research opportunities in environmental remediation, commercial applications in agriculture and the food industry. Interest has also peaked regarding the production of biofuels or fuels manufactured from agricultural derivatives. Some soil and plant scientists work with chemists and biologists to develop a more productive way of turning crops into energy sources.

In addition to biotechnology, nanotechnology is also emerging in the field of soil and plant science. Nanotechnology is a molecular manufacturing technology that is expected to revolutionize the methods of testing food and agricultural products for spoilage or contamination.

It is common for soil and plant scientists to work in basic or applied development and research. Basic research involves understanding the chemical and biological processes by which livestock and crops grow. Applied research utilizes this knowledge to devise ways to increase the quantity, quality and safety of agricultural products. Some management positions are also available in research, development, marketing or production operations for companies that develop agricultural supplies, chemicals and machinery. Others are consultants to business firms, government or private clients.

The goal of the plant scientist is to help producers of feed, food and fiber crops to conserve natural resources and feed a growing population. Using biotechnology to research ways to improve the quality of the seed and the nutritional value of the crops, agronomists and crop scientists help to increase productivity. A main interest of crop scientists is the study of physiology, breeding and management of crops. Other plant scientists work to develop new technologies to manage pests and prevent their spread in environmentally appropriate ways. They are also responsibly for supervising activities to eliminate the spread of insect-borne disease. Soil scientists study the physical, biological, mineralogical and chemical composition of soils in relation to plant growth. They analyze how soil responds to various types of tillage practices, crop rotation and fertilizers. When employed by the Federal Government, soil scientists conduct soil surveys, mapping and classifying soils. They will provide recommendations to landowners and farmers to avoid and correct problems with the soil. Soil scientists also work to ensure environmental quality and effective land use, as this job is closely linked with environmental science.

A regular 40-hour week spent in offices and laboratories is expected for most soil and plant scientists, though they may also spend time outdoors and at farms and agricultural research stations conducting research.

Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Soil and Plant Scientists

The degree requirements for soil and plant scientists varies depending on the type of work they perform. A bachelors degree is required for the food processing or farming industries, however a masters or doctoral degree is generally required for university or research positions. A degree in plant science, soil science, biology, chemistry, physics or a related engineering specialty may also qualify someone for a soil and plant scientist job.

Agricultural science degrees are offered in every State through a land-grant college and many other colleges and universities. With this in mind, not all school offer all specialties. Common courses for a soil and plant scientist are mathematics, economics, business, communications, and physical and life science. Soil and plant scientists in graduate school usually focus in one sub-field such as horticulture science or crop science. Undergraduates are encouraged to take a broad course load, as they will have greater opportunities.

A soil scientists is required to have a license in order to practice in some states. Generally, applicants are required to hold a bachelors degree with a certain amount of soil science credit hours, pass an examination and work a certain number of years under a licensed soil scientists.

Soil and plant scientists often work independently and as a part of the team, and are required to have excellent written and oral expression. A solid understanding of basic business principles coupled with the abilities to apply statistical techniques and use computers to control biological and chemical processing and analyze data is also necessary to land a job in this career.

Soil and plant scientists with advanced degrees typically being research or teaching. They may also advance to supervisor or management positions. Attaining certification from the American Society of Agronomy for agronomists and crop advisors or from the Soil Science Society of America that certifies soil classifiers and soil scientists is encouraged for advancement in these fields. A bachelors degree in agronomy plus five years of experience, a masters degree in agronomy and three years of experience or a doctoral degree is required to receive certification in agronomy. A bachelors degree in agriculture combined with two years of experience, or four years of experience in the field is sufficient for a crop advising certification. Candidates must have five years of experience and a bachelors degree in soil science or a graduate degree and three years of experience in order to attain their soil science certification. All of these designations require the successful completion of examinations and agreeing to a code of ethics. Continuing education is required to maintain certification.

Top 10 Most Popular Agriculture and Natural Resources Schools

1. Texas A & M University (College Station, Texas)
2. Hocking College (Nelsonville, Ohio)
3. University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida)
4. University of California, Davis (Davis, California)
5. Michigan State University (East Lansing, Michigan)
6. Cornell University (Ithaca, New York)
7. Purdue University, Main Campus (West Lafayette, Indiana)
8. North Carolina State University at Raleigh (Raleigh, North Carolina)
9. California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (San Luis Obispo, California)
10. Oregon State University, Corvallis (Corvallis, Oregon)

See All Agriculture and Natural Resources Schools

Employment and Job Outlook for Soil and Plant Scientists

Number of People in Profession


Changing Employment (2008-2018)

Employment is projected to grow faster than average (increase 14 - 19%).

Soil and plant scientists hold 13,900 jobs. About 15 percent work as faculty in colleges and universities, while 20 percent work for manufacturing companies. The Federal Government, especially the US department of Agriculture employs about 7 percent of soil and plant scientists. Another 12 percent are self-employed, mainly as consultants.

A faster than average job growth, 16 percent, is expected for soil and plant scientists primarily because of the growing efforts to increase the quality and quantity of food. Concerns over the health effects of certain foods have lead to research in the best methods of food production.

Agricultural research continues to be reliant on emerging biotechnologies, and applying these advances will create many opportunities for soil and plant scientists. Finding a balance between protecting and preserving water, soil and the ecosystems and increased agricultural output is an important goal for soil and plant scientists. They will create sustainable agricultural practices by researching ways to minimize damage to the natural environment, reducing the use of harmful chemicals, preventing soil erosion and managing and eliminating pests. Soil and plant scientists are also needed to find new ways to change organic material into usable energy, such as turning corn into ethanol.

Those with a bachelors degree in agronomy should expect very good opportunities, while those with a graduate degree in soil and plant sciences will experience good opportunities.

Managerial jobs in farm-related or ranch-related businesses usually require only a bachelors degree for employment. Sometimes, those with a bachelors degree will work in sales and marketing or provide consulting services. Other times, students with a bachelors degree in agriculture may go on to become a farmer, agricultural manager, rancher or purchasing agent for farm supply companies.

During times of an economic recession, employment of soil and plant scientists is relatively stable. They are less likely to see layoffs than some other occupations, because food is a staple item.

Earnings and Salary for Soil and Plant Scientists

The median annual wage of soil and plant scientists is $59,180. The highest 10 percent earns more than $107,670, while the lowest 10 percent earns less than $34,930. The middle 50 percent earns between $45,070 and $78,590. The average Federal salary for soil scientists is $79,158.

The beginning salary for graduates with a bachelors degree in plant sciences is $33,456, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Annual Salary for Soil and Plant Scientists

On average, Soil and Plant Scientists earn $59,180 per year.

10% 25% 75% 90% $34,930/yr $45,070/yr $78,590/yr $107,670/yr

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook