Education and Training: College
Salary: Median—$51,200 per year
Employment Outlook: Fair
Definition and Nature of the Work
Soil scientists gather information about and give advice on the management and conservation of soil. Many soil scientists work for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. These scientists are sometimes called soil conservationists. Some work for other federal, state, or local government agencies as cooperative extension service workers, researchers, or surveyors. Others hold teaching or research positions in colleges and universities. Soil scientists also work for fertilizer companies, private research laboratories, insurance companies, and land appraisal firms.
Some soil scientists specialize in categorizing soils. They determine which soils are best for growing crops and which are best for use as construction material. These soil scientists classify and grade soils according to their composition, level of nutrients, resistance to erosion, and capacity for holding water. They study soil samples, make maps, and survey the land to measure how flat, rocky, or moist the soil is. The maps are made from photographs taken from an airplane. These maps can tell soil scientists a great deal about how the soil will erode. They also help soil scientists determine the value of the land they are studying.
Scientists who specialize in soil fertility and management study ways to use the soil more economically and productively. They discuss with farmers ways of improving the quality of crops. They may recommend crop rotation or the addition of fertilizers to enrich soil that is depleted of nutrients. Soil management specialists may recommend to local, state, or federal government agencies ways to prevent serious soil erosion. They may also test samples of soil in laboratories for farmers and other landowners who want to know what nutrients are missing from their soil.
Education and Training Requirements
A bachelor's degree in soil science or some closely related field is necessary to become a soil scientist. To teach or hold a research position in a university, a master's or doctoral degree is needed. Graduate degrees in the field are becoming more important to employers hiring soil scientists.
Many colleges have work–study programs. These programs allow students to attend classes part time while working in a job related to soil science. These programs allow students to gain practical experience in the field.
Soil scientists may apply for certification by the American Society of Agronomy if they have a bachelor's degree and have taken certain required courses in the biological and physical sciences and English. This certification is not required but is an important credential for those who want to advance in this field.
Getting the Job
College placement offices may be able to help graduating students find a job as a soil scientist. Professors may also know of job openings. For a job with a government agency, apply to take the necessary civil service test. Candidates can also apply directly to companies and answer help wanted ads in professional journals and newspapers.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Soil scientists generally start as assistants to experienced soil scientists. Those who do outstanding work are generally promoted to positions of greater responsibility. Soil scientists who have experience can be project team leaders or supervisors. Management opportunities are best for those who have a graduate degree.
This field is relatively small. The need for soil scientists is expected to grow more slowly than average through the year 2012. However, soil scientists with advanced degrees will be needed to improve the quality of farm soil. They will also be in demand to apply their skills and training to assist urban and regional planning as well as environmental conservation programs. Opportunities for highly trained scientists will continue to be numerous.
Soil scientists do much of their work, such as soil mapping and surveying, outdoors. They may spend some time indoors doing research in the laboratory or writing reports.
Many soil scientists travel quite a bit, and they frequently work irregular hours. When they are on the road, consulting with farmers or doing surveys, they may need to work ten- or twelve-hour days. In their offices they usually work a standard eight-hour day.
Soil scientists generally derive a lot of satisfaction from their job. They get the chance to solve problems, meet many different people, and vary their work routine.
Where to Go for More Information
American Society of Agronomy
677 South Segoe Rd.
Madison, WI 53711
Soil and Water Conservation Society
945 SW Ankeny Rd.
Ankeny, IA 50021-9764
Earnings and Benefits
Earnings vary depending on education and experience. Soil scientists earn a median salary of $51,200 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Soil scientists generally receive benefits, such as paid sick leave and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans.