Two scientists collect soil samples

A soil scientist could...


Study the composition of soils on Mars to determine what elements they contain. A large field of dirt and rocks Chemically evaluate soil nutrient levels in a farming community to determine what crops would grow best there. A scientist using testing equipment that produces flames
Analyze soil from an archeological site to determine how the landscape previously looked. A scientist collects soil from a barren field Help determine the likelihood of future soil erosion in an area, given soil composition and placement. A steep bank of a river
Find out more...

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
Median Salary
Soil Scientist
  $62,300
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
  $49,630
Min Wage
  $15,080
$0
$10,000
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$30,000
$40,000
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Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) More Slowly than Average (3% to 6%)
Interview
  • Meet Fausto Pedrazzini, a soil scientist for NATO.
  • Read this interview with Elvia Niebla, a soil scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Related Occupations
Source: O*Net

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.

Other Qualifications

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

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.

Watch this video for an overview of a day in the life of a soil scientist.

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.

Work Environment

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.

Source: BLS

Companies That Hire Soil Scientists

Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...

Science Fair Project Idea
To be able to live on Mars, humans need breathable air, clean water, and nutritious food. Spacesuits can provide oxygen to breathe, ice on Mars can be a source of water, but how could we get nutritious food? Today's astronauts bring food with them. But a manned trip to Mars would require food that was either successfully grown in space or on Mars, as taking the extra weight of food for such a long time—it takes 6–9 months one way—is just too costly. In this project, you will… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Soil erosion can cost the world billions of dollars every year by washing pollutants into our streams and rivers and by causing the loss of farmland. What can you do about this problem? Help save the world (and some money!) with nothing more than a few plants! Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Plants need nitrogen to grow healthy stems and leaves. Although nitrogen is the most abundant element in the air we breathe, that form of nitrogen cannot be used by plants. Nitrogen contained in fertilizer, on the other hand, is readily taken up by plants. In this experiment, you will compare plants grown without nitrogen fertilizer to plants grown with nitrogen fertilizer. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Did you know that soils can be alkaline, neutral, or acidic? Most plants grow best in soil near neutral pH, but some plants prefer slightly acidic and others slightly alkaline soil. What is the pH of the soil in your garden? What happens to the pH of water that comes in contact with soil? In this science project you will get to find out. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
The conversion of forested to unforested areas has been occurring since humans began to impact and change their environments during the agricultural revolution. Recently deforestation has become a global problem, particularly for developing industrial countries and countries with very large populations. You can use satellite mapping resources to investigate the connection between urbanization, population growth and deforestation. You can also investigate the connection between deforestation… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Interested in helping the environment, and don't mind getting dirty? In this project you get to mix it up with earthworms, soil, and various types of organic kitchen scraps. The basic idea is to set up small earthworm colonies to compost different types of food waste. You test the soils in each type to see how diet affects both the earthworm population and the nutrients they put back into the soil. This project takes a little time, but it's worth it. You'll help the environment and learn… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
For many kids, a day at the beach would not be complete without building a sandcastle. Have you ever wondered how it is that you can pack sand into a mold for a sandcastle? Do some kinds of sand pack better than others? This project will show you how to measure the porosity of sand: how much air space there is in between the sand grains. Maybe you can use your knowledge from this project to help you make bigger and better projects with sand. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Landslides are powerful geological events that happen suddenly, causing fear in people who live in areas with unstable hills, slopes, and cliff sides. Landslides damage the surrounding habitat and can destroy homes in their path. But what causes landslides? Can slides happen on any slope, or do slopes have to have certain characteristics, such as a steep angle and a specific material mass? In this geology science project, you will learn about the different types of landslides and the… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Have you ever had fun playing with sand and water, observing how little rivers you create carve their way down to the lowest point of the sandbox, backyard or beach? Some meander, others braid, and some carve a path straight down. Hyrdologists (or scientists who study water) do very much the same thing! Only they set up the model in a particular way, so observing their mini-rivers helps them answer questions about how water flow affects the environment. In this geology science project, you… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
The element lead is a neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous to young children. Among other uses, lead compounds were common paint additives until being phased out for safer titanium-based additives beginning in the 1960's. Lead compounds were also added to gasoline to prevent engine knocking, until being phased out beginning in the 1970's. Although paint and gasoline sold today no longer contain lead, soil can have contamination from older sources of lead, such as paint from old… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Have you ever looked up at a skyscraper and thought "That is so cool!"? Building a skyscraper, or any structure, is more than just building the walls, windows, and floors. All structures require a foundation to keep them from falling down. This is especially important when a structure is built on a hill or on a slope. In this science project, you will build a tower of Lego® Duplos® on slopes with different angles. You will investigate how deep you have to dig the foundation for each… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Look out! When you walk on the grass, you are squishing millions of micro-invertebrates! Just kidding, these animals are too small to squish. Learn how to catch them by making a Berlese funnel in this fun project that will teach you about soil. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Every day farmers around the world apply commercial fertilizer to their fruits and vegetables to improve plant health and yield. But applying commercial fertilizer is expensive and not economically possible for some farmers in developing countries. What if they could find a way to fertilize plants cheaply? It turns out that human urine is rich in the nutrients that plants need to grow. Could urine serve as a fertilizer substitute? Find out for yourself in this plant growth science project. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Everything on our planet is connected together, linked by a giant recycling system called the biogeochemical cycle. It is an amazing process. You can actually investigate how our planet recycles and reuses everything needed to support life by making a small model of the biosphere. What will be important to include in your miniature system so that it can support different types of life? Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Have you ever been in an earthquake? What did it feel like? Did you jiggle back and forth? Up and down? Was there a jolt? Or a rolling motion? Come build a house Hansel and Gretel would love to eat, a special table to shake it on, and see how different soil types can amplify shaking. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Do you have any great-grandparents who lived through the Great Depression in the United States during the 1930's? If so, they might have stories to tell about terrible dust storms that blackened the skies, from the Midwest to the east coast. Severe drought was a factor in causing this "Dust Bowl" era, but decades of poor farming practices contributed to it, too. In this environmental science fair project, you'll learn about farming methods that help keep dirt from drying up into dust, and help… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Did you know that waves travel through the Earth's crust all the time? One major source of these waves is earthquakes, although ground motion can also be caused by something man-made, such as a mine blast or nuclear explosion, or other natural events, such as landslides or volcanic activity. How does an earthquake cause these waves? The entire outer shell of the Earth, known as the lithosphere, is made up of tectonic plates that are constantly moving. There are seven or eight large… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Do you know what plants need to grow? Sure, they need soil, water, and sunshine. Everyone knows that. But here's a secret: they also need nitrogen. Plants use nitrogen to make DNA in their cells and the proteins that lead to healthy stems and leaves. The problem is, although the Earth's atmosphere is made up of 78% nitrogen, the form of nitrogen found in the atmosphere cannot be used by plants. So how do plants get their nitrogen? Either through nitrogen deposits in the soil, or through… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Did you ever notice the cool patterns around your footprints when you take a walk in the wet sand at the beach? The pressure of your feet has effects far outside your footprints. Here's a project that uses a simple experimental apparatus to investigate how the volume of wet sand changes under pressure. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
When you think of environmental challenges facing the world, the first things that come to mind might be global warming, or loss of biodiversity, since these are often in the newspapers. A serious problem that you may not have heard about is soil erosion. Why is soil so important? What is the danger of erosion? How can we measure soil erosion? What can be done to prevent it? Check out this project and you can start finding answers. Read more

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Additional Information

Sources

Free science fair projects.