What is a Plant and Soil Scientist?

One may wonder why, of all the available options, a scientist would choose a career focusing on soil. But soil isn't just dirt - it's a vital resource that sustains the miracle of life on our planet. And with global population swelling, soil scientists have the very important job of increasing crop productivity while conserving soils and preventing erosion and pollution. Soil scientists made the agricultural “green revolution” of the 1960s possible, and are still at the center of solving important modern-day challenges. Many soil scientists now work on feeding the world's people in agriculturally, environmentally, and economically sustainable ways.

A soil scientist studies the physical and chemical properties of soil. He or she also studies the distribution, origin, and history of soils, as well as the species that partly comprise them. These professionals identify, interpret, map, and manage soils. Their expertise is commonly applied to agricultural issues. They also work on environmental conservation and restoration, and help mining operations apply environmentally responsible practices. Since soils are affected by other systems, soil scientists also study land and water resources. For example, they may also help protect water resources by preventing surface water and groundwater pollution.

Many soil scientists work closely with farmers, advising them on crop and soil related problems, helping them develop nutrient management and soil conservation plans, and design chemically-reduced or chemical-free integrated pest management strategies.

What Do Soil Scientists Do?

Soil scientists are typically involved in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting soil data; inspecting sites; and planning management and conservation measures. They use air and satellite images in their research. They also use geographic information systems (GIS) to analyze the geomorphology, topography, vegetation, and climate of a site, and to create soil maps.

Soil scientists may manage soils for crop production, including forest and biofuel products. To do this, they conduct soil surveys, measure the characteristics of the soil, and assess available nutrient and water levels. They also monitor the effects of local activities on soil productivity, such as farm, grazing, and forestry operations. Soil scientists may provide technical advice regarding the capabilities and limitations of soils for various applications, including watershed rehabilitation projects, transportation planning, and recreation development. They also predict the effects of land management options.

Soil scientists may also specialize in environmental assessment and reclamation. For example, they may be involved in creating environmental impacts statements, erosion control, mine reclamation, and industrial site restoration. Soil scientists contribute to these projects by advising on the distribution and fate of toxins in the soil and water, as well as remediation alternatives. They may also be asked to assess wetlands or archaeological sites.

Where does a Soil Scientist work?

Most soil scientists work for federal and state governments. Some work for private companies as consultants or lab technicians. These professionals split their time between the office and the field. They may need to walk over rough and uneven land to examine the soil, and use shovels to gather samples.

Most soil scientists work full time and keep standard workweeks. Some jobs may involve periodic travel. Soil scientists may also teach at colleges and universities, or work at research institutions.

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What Is a Typical Soil Scientist's Salary?

The average salary for soil and plant scientists was $68,830 as of May 2020. Those working in R&D earned the highest median salary, at $83,780, followed by those in food manufacturing, at $73,760.* Those working as merchant wholesalers earned $63,280. Soil scientists working in research and development were paid $59,980, while those employed in management, scientific, and technical consulting services made $56,550. Professionals employed by colleges, universities, and professional schools earned $46,710.

StateTotal EmploymentBottom 25%Median SalaryTop 75%
District of Columbia60$68,020$83,910$100,570
New Jersey60$65,750$74,470$86,850
New Mexico90$46,460$65,530$77,990
New York160$53,490$62,340$90,140
North Carolina710$43,120$54,200$73,100
North Dakota370$55,040$72,380$101,800
Puerto Rico190$29,590$34,860$39,390
South Dakota580$47,130$58,700$72,500
West Virginia40$36,670$45,670$63,920

Table data taken from BLS (http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes191013.htm)

Soil and Plant Scientist Jobs

Soil and plant scientist careers focus on the usage, development, classification and monitoring of the Earth's plant life. Some soil and plant scientists focus on teaching or fieldwork, while others enter either theoretical or - most commonly - applied research as there is still much that scientists do not know about the earth's biomass and its application on human life and health. This means that duties vary significantly from job to job, but the list below includes job duties found within a typical scientist's scope of work.

  • Review literature, research, and fieldwork samples to stay current in the field
  • Record biomass supply and usage and other metrics
  • Develop plant resources
  • Forecast and monitor plant and green mass increase/reduction over many years
  • Use predictive computer modeling to aid in forecasts for the future
  • Use predictive computer models to analyze the most efficient ways to manage available biomass in a given region
  • Evaluate the effect of environmental and land-use on plant and soil mass
  • Respond to ecological catastrophes like floods, droughts, fires, and super storms
  • Evaluate different methods for plant and soil remediation
  • Ensure soil, air, and water quality are monitored within the research region and concerns are being met
  • Conduct or contribute to climate impact studies from a plant and soil science perspective

Plant and soil scientists with professional experience are often given a leadership role in the workgroup. Many times, this results in additional tasks like:

  • Planning and coordinating inquiries regarding the analysis and evaluation of biomass and its uses and impacts on local and global populations
  • Evaluating and reporting on the impact of pollutants and human advancement on soil and plant mass
  • Using predictive technology to test different ecological models in order to generate hypotheses
  • Oversee recordkeeping and data collection methods. Ensure accuracy for field and lab work
  • Negotiate access to federally owned forest and green resources
  • Support team members' research endeavors
  • Establish effective team systems for communication and budgeting and milestones
  • Create funding and grant applications
  • Advise policy administrators and other stakeholders regarding soil and plant data
  • Consult and advice external stakeholders, professionals, or researchers
  • Plan outreach and advocacy programs
  • Design and oversee team budgets, milestones, and benchmarks
  • Mentor team members and colleagues

What Is the Job Demand for Soil Scientist?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job demand for soil and plant scientists is expected to rise 9% between 2020 and 2030.* Greater focus on agricultural sustainability will likely drive part of this increase. However, this is a somewhat slower rate than that of agricultural and food scientists overall, and slower than the average for all occupations.

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Getting a Soil Scientist Degree

Most positions require a minimum of a bachelor's degree from an agricultural university, many of which offer two concentrations in soils. An Environmental Soil Science option prepares students for environmental careers specializing in water quality, remediation of contaminated sites, or evaluating soils for proposed facilities and recreational sites. A Soil Science option primarily focuses on preparing students for agricultural positions.

Degrees Related to Soil Science

What Kind of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Soil Scientists Have?

The Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) (https://www.soils.org/) is an international professional organization for sharing knowledge and ideas to sustain healthy soils. It offers professional development and networking opportunities.

The U.S. Consortium of Soil Science Associations (http://soilsassociation.org/) is a federation of related member societies. It coordinates communication between the societies to further common goals. It also offers training, operates a speakers bureau, and maintains a list of soil science contractors.

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*2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for agricultural and food scientists reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed September 2021.