Field trials officers gather, process and analyse information vital to the safe development of various products
As a field trials officer, you'll develop and manage research trials, monitoring the effects of experiments on plants or animals in the field or laboratory. You may be involved with the entire process, or just one particular stage of the research procedure.
You'll work closely with scientists to match their requirements with the trial site or laboratory and will play a key role in making large-scale scientific research happen.
The results of research trials are used to inform development decisions in agriculture, as well as to determine product safety and inform sales information. You may need to communicate your findings in a detailed report or presentation.
As a field trials officer, you'll need to:
- plan, prepare and organise trials, either on-site or in the laboratory
- write research proposals
- monitor field conditions in close detail
- apply chemicals to trials
- design and develop experiments
- undertake detailed statistical planning
- balance the demands of new experiment designs with site limitations
- gather and accurately record data
- record and process results, using specialist software such as Farmade and GenStat
- analyse, write and present reports
- liaise with technical development staff at all levels
- conduct discussions with research staff
- meet with clients and adapt their requirements to suit your work
- negotiate trials requirements with students in educational establishments
- help undertake demonstrations and presentations for commercial clients
- deal with a range of paperwork
- ensure that work adheres to government legislation
- work to a high level of confidentiality and protocol
- oversee the running of research sites, from effective budget management to maintaining site buildings and equipment
- employ and manage staff
- coordinate audit trails and accompany visiting auditors
- project-manage research
- give specialist advice and information to clients and colleagues.
- Salaries for field trials officers start in the region of £18,000 to £20,000, rising to around £30,000 with two or three years of experience.
- With further experience, and when working at a more senior level, you could be earning £40,000.
Salaries may include benefits such as a pension, private insurance, continuing professional development (CPD) registration and a car.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Larger organisations provide flexible working schemes, although you may be required to work some set hours at certain times of the year. Overtime will be necessary during sowing and harvesting periods.
What to expect
- The job involves mainly field work in summer and office or laboratory work in winter, although there may be a combination of both throughout the year in some posts.
- The job is based on enabling communication between the field and the scientist or customer, so meetings and consultations with a range of people regularly form part of the working cycle.
- European legislation means that paperwork and protocol checks are a feature of the role, particularly at higher levels. Company-level clients have their own protocols, which also have to be adhered to.
- The role is often physically demanding and may involve using farm machinery. Resilience, versatility and a hands-on approach are needed to cope with any setbacks, for example adverse weather conditions.
- Travel within the working day is frequently needed and overnight absence from home may sometimes be required, particularly in the summer time.
A degree is typically required for entry into the career of field trials officer. Relevant subjects which may be helpful include:
- biology or biological science
- botany and plant science
- crop science
- environmental sciences
You'll also be required to hold PA1 and PA2 qualifications, which evidence your competence in the safe use of pesticides.
A relevant combined degree with a sandwich year in industry or vocational element can be extremely helpful. If the subject of your degree thesis is relevant, it will strengthen your applications.
Entry is restricted with an HND/foundation degree only, as the scientific basis of an agriculture or plant science degree is required. HNDs and foundation degrees in agriculture may be considered for posts at technician level, if you want to build your industry experience.
It may be easier to work your way up from technician level or from a field trials assistant role to more senior levels than to enter directly at a field trials officer level. This is particularly true in large research institutions where staff turnover is low, although this route may take more time.
Although a pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not essential, a Masters degree in agriculture, crop protection or plant science can be helpful. In areas where competition is particularly strong, an MSc or PhD may be required for entry to more senior posts.
You'll need to show evidence of the following:
- a knowledge of the science-based agronomy of major UK crops
- generic business knowledge and principles
- strong written and communication skills
- a good level of IT literacy, because statistical information plays a key role in decision making
- physical and mental stamina
- good organisational skills
- time management skills
- enthusiasm for the work
- a driving licence - needed for most posts.
The majority of posts also require trials officers to have the BASIS Registration Limited certificate in crop protection. Employers may support new graduates in working towards this professional qualification. Membership of BASIS also provides professional recognition of your skills and interests.
Practical experience is essential if your degree isn't in an agricultural subject, but it's helpful for all applicants to have as it show commitment to and understanding of the sector. A farming or agricultural background or experience may give you the edge when making job applications.
Try to gain as much experience as you can by working on farms, using different types of machinery and dealing with a variety of crops. Holiday work that provides field trials experience, or undertaking a trials-orientated project, can also be useful. This experience can provide you with useful contacts within the agricultural industry.
This is a niche area of employment and although there is competition for vacancies, there are excellent opportunities for those with the right degree and experience.
Typical employers include public research institutes and their associated research centres, such as:
- Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
- Harper Adams University
- The James Hutton Institute
- National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB)
- Rothamsted Research
- Scotland's Rural College (SRUC)
In the private sector, opportunities exist with:
- environmental research consultancies
- companies that develop new crops
- specialist companies that provide trial development and analysis services for the farming sector
- producers of chemicals such as herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers
- pharmaceutical producers
- food production and processing companies.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Farmers Guardian
- Farmers Weekly
- Lantra: The Sector Skills Council for the Environmental and Land-based Sector
- Nature Careers
- NewScientist Jobs
You may find useful temporary openings for farm experience at Fruitful Jobs.
The following organisations and events provide useful careers and industry information:
Training is mainly gained on the job, often with the support of more experienced colleagues. Some employers provide in-house training in areas such as report writing and presentation and communication skills.
Training in the use of specialist statistics software is increasingly important, as field trials officers must provide evidence to justify research results to their clients.
You may also be trained in key practical skills, such as:
- handling machinery
- first aid
- health and safety procedures
- laboratory techniques.
Knowledge of safe working practices and the ability to prevent adverse effects on plants and wildlife in trial areas are essential. As each project varies, trials officers will be constantly learning new techniques.
It's vital that you continually update your knowledge and skills as part of your CPD. This is particularly important as your work is based in constantly evolving sectors, with ongoing development in research methods and legislation.
If you join the professional register with BASIS, you're required to carry out CPD activities to keep up to date with environmental and sustainable issues.
Completion of the Fertiliser Advisers Certification and Training Scheme (FACTS) is essential for working in the fertiliser industry and is also useful for general career development. More information is available from BASIS.
It's usual to progress from a field trials assistant, or assistant agronomist, to working as a field trials officer. From here, you can progress further into the role of head of field trials, field trials manager or agronomist.
After this, career development is usually internal, away from trials work and into an executive role.
In industry, with experience, it's possible to move into a position of greater responsibility within a trials company - possibly within management, or into sales or marketing in the UK or overseas.
The job is ideal for gaining experience in areas such as crop pesticides, which are a key aspect of modern agriculture. A field trials officer in crop production would develop skills in the identification of weeds, pests and diseases.