A soil scientist could...
|Study the composition of soils on Mars to determine what elements they contain.||Chemically evaluate soil nutrient levels in a farming community to determine what crops would grow best there.|
|Analyze soil from an archeological site to determine how the landscape previously looked.||Help determine the likelihood of future soil erosion in an area, given soil composition and placement.|
Key Facts & Information
|Overview||Not all dirt is created equal. In fact, different types of soil can make a big difference in some very important areas of our society. A building constructed on sandy soil might collapse during an earthquake, and crops planted in soil that doesn't drain properly might become waterlogged and rot after a rainstorm. It is the job of a soil scientist to evaluate soil conditions and help farmers, builders, and environmentalists decide how best to take advantage of local soils.|
|Key Requirements||Good critical thinking skills, willingness to get dirty, and the ability to communicate clearly|
|Minimum Degree||Bachelor's degree|
|Subjects to Study in High School||Biology, chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, calculus, English; if available, Earth science and environmental science|
|Projected Job Growth (2010-2020)||Average (7% to 13%)|
Training, Other Qualifications
A bachelor's degree in soil science or a related environmental field is necessary. Some employers prefer a master's degree or doctorate, too. Those who'd like to work as a professor will need to obtain a doctorate degree.
In addition to formal education, on-the-job training through internships can be very valuable for securing good employment. Soil scientists who have completed their bachelor's degrees may apply for certification through the American Society of Agronomy and Soil Science Society of America. This certification is not mandatory, but candidates who are certified may be preferred by some employers.
Education and Training
Students interested in pursuing a career as a soil scientist should take as many math and science courses as possible in high school. For college, they should attend a four-year agricultural college, or other university that offers a bachelor's degree in soil science or in environmental science, with a sub-specialty in soil.
Some employers prefer candidates with additional education. Both master's and doctoral degrees are available in soil sciences from agricultural colleges. A PhD is necessary for soil scientists who would like to teach and do research as university professors.
Soil scientists are often brought in as consultants for farmers, other environmentalists, or construction projects. For this reason it is critical that they have excellent communication skills, both written and verbal.
Nature of the Work
Watch this video for an overview of a day in the life of a soil scientist.
Soil scientists study the chemical, physical, biological, and mineralogical composition of soils as they relate to plant growth. They also study the responses of various soil types to fertilizers, tillage practices, and crop rotation. Many soil scientists who work for the federal government conduct soil surveys, classifying and mapping soils. They provide information and recommendations to farmers and other landowners regarding the best use of land, and plants to avoid or to correct problems, such as erosion. They may also consult with engineers and other technical personnel working on construction projects about the effects of, and solutions to, soil problems. Because soil science is closely related to environmental science, persons trained in soil science also work to ensure environmental quality and effective land use.
Employment for soil scientists usually falls into one of two sub fields:
- Agricultural Soil Scientist: These soil scientists focus on the food and farming aspects of soil. They often serve as farm advisors, crop consultants, or representatives of agricultural companies.
- Environmental Soil Scientist: These soil scientists focus on the soil's role in a healthy ecosystem. They often work in environmental positions dealing with water quality concerns, remediation of contaminants, or for on-site evaluation of soil properties in construction, waste disposal, or recreational facilities.
Soil scientists work both indoors, in laboratories and offices, and outdoors. The work may require walking over rough terrain and doing physical labor, such as digging, to gather samples. Soil scientists tend to work regular hours.
On the Job
- Communicate research and project results to other professionals and the public or teach related courses, seminars, or workshops.
- Provide information and recommendations to farmers and other landowners regarding ways in which they can best use land, promote plant growth, and avoid or correct problems such as erosion.
- Investigate responses of soils to specific management practices to determine the use capabilities of soils and the effects of alternative practices on soil productivity.
- Develop methods of conserving and managing soil that can be applied by farmers and forestry companies.
- Conduct experiments to develop new or improved varieties of field crops, focusing on characteristics such as yield, quality, disease resistance, nutritional value, or adaptation to specific soils or climates.
- Investigate soil problems and poor water quality to determine sources and effects.
- Study soil characteristics to classify soils on the basis of factors such as geographic location, landscape position, and soil properties.
- Develop improved measurement techniques, soil conservation methods, soil sampling devices, and related technology.
- Conduct experiments investigating how soil forms, changes, and interacts with land-based ecosystems and living organisms.
- Identify degraded or contaminated soils and develop plans to improve their chemical, biological, and physical characteristics.
Companies That Hire Soil Scientists
Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...
- A Ground-Breaking Revelation: Testing Longitudinal Waves in Different Soil Types
- Are There Bugs Under Your Feet?
- Are There Dangerous Levels of Lead in Local Soil?
- Bacteria Can Fix It! A Comparison of Nitrogen-Fixing Bacteria and Nitrogen Fertilizers
- Beach Bum Science: Compression of Wet Sand
- Building Structures: It's a Slippery Slope
- Can Mulch Reduce Garden Water Requirements?
- Composting and Vermiculture
- Dust Busters: How No-Plow Farmers Try to Save Our Soil
- Earth Surface Dynamics
- Earthworm Castings -- The Ideal Proportion in Soil for Young Garden Plants
- Factors that Affect the Transfer of Force through Saturated Soil
- Feeding Earthworms: Do Different Diets Affect Them and the Soil They Enrich?
- Get Down and Dirty: How Does Soil Change with Depth?
- Getting Carried Away: Measuring Soil Erosion
- Go with the Flow: Model Rivers with Cornmeal, Sand, & Water
- Growing a Soil Menagerie
- Growing Great Gardens: Using Human Urine as a Fertilizer
- Growing, Growing, Gone! An Experiment on Nitrogen Fertilizers
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- Soil Science Society of America: www.soils.org
- United States Consortium of Soil Science Associations: soilassociation.org
- BLS. (2009). Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), 2008-09 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved May 1, 2009, from http://www.bls.gov/oco/
- O*Net Online. (2009). National Center for O*Net Development. Retrieved May 1, 2009, from http://online.onetcenter.org/
- SACNAS. (2002). Dr. Elvia Niebla - Soil Scientist. Retrieved December 21, 2009, from http://www.sacnas.org/beta/pdf/niebla_elvia_M.pdf
- Pedrazzini, Fausto. (2004, June 18). What is a Soil Scientist Doing in NATO? Science Magazine. Retrieved December 21, 2009, from http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2004_06_18/noDOI.14989399652229114186
- USDA. (n.d.). Careers in Soil Science. Retrieved December 30, 2009, from http://soils.usda.gov/education/facts/careers.html