As a plant breeder/geneticist you will work on improving the quality and performance of existing agricultural and horticultural crops and create new varieties of plants

Plant breeders/geneticists aim to develop useful traits, such as disease resistance and drought tolerance; they also work to improve characteristics such as appearance. Their role is vital to the agricultural industry as there are constant challenges to meet market requirements and consumer demands, and to increase and maintain yields in important crops.

Plant geneticists have enhanced the traditional work of crossing existing plants and selecting new strains. Their expertise allows quicker, more accurate work by selecting the plants containing the genes of interest.

Responsibilities

As a plant breeder/geneticist, you'll need to:

  • produce research aims and objectives, and predict the cost of the work
  • research methods and techniques for improving plant breeding
  • identify and select plants exhibiting desirable traits, based on natural genetic variation
  • cross plants to produce new breeding material for field and glasshouse trials
  • analyse and scientifically assess plant breeding in laboratory and field trials and select the best varieties
  • conduct scientific projects, which may be laboratory based, especially in the winter months
  • multiply up and produce virus-free plants
  • maintain detailed records throughout the research and development cycle
  • manage, support and train technical and field staff
  • keep up to date in the fast-moving area of science and translate ideas from scientific literature into new approaches to breeding problems
  • monitor the activities of competitors (in commercial settings) and develop a product market profile
  • respond to enquiries from farmers, agronomists and other professionals
  • write and present work to other scientists and publish scientific findings
  • liaise with and visit other scientists, commercial breeders and funding bodies.

Salary

  • Starting salaries vary between £16,000 and £22,000.
  • With three to five years' experience salaries can reach £22,000 to £25,000.
  • Typical salaries at senior levels range between £27,000 and £40,000+.

Pay tends to be higher in the public sector. In the private sector, additional benefits might include a company car and medical insurance. Pay is often performance related.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

The working routine follows a seasonal pattern and shifts are usually quite long with the plants requiring care seven days a week, although some months are less busy than others. Extra hours may sometimes be required depending on the experiments that are being carried out.

What to expect

  • Trials are mostly conducted in the field, which may involve working in poor weather conditions. Some researchers, however, are purely laboratory-based. Assessment and data analysis take place in the office.
  • Self-employment is not likely. Specialist freelance writing or advisory work may be possible. There may be opportunities for career breaks.
  • This is a developing industry that changes quickly. Patience is required due to the time-consuming process but success is rewarding.
  • Travel within a working day and overnight absence from home may be occasionally required. This will usually be to meet with other breeders and farmers or to attend trade shows.
  • Opportunities to work abroad occasionally arise but these positions commonly require previous overseas experience. The vacancies are usually short term.

Qualifications

You will need a good honours degree for entry into this career. Relevant subjects include, life and medical sciences and agricultural and horticultural sciences. In particular, the following degree subjects are helpful:

  • agriculture
  • biology
  • biotechnology
  • botany and plant science
  • crop and plant science
  • genetics
  • horticulture
  • molecular biology.

A postgraduate qualification in a relevant topic can be advantageous.

Entry with an HND is only possible for technical support roles in breeding programmes. It may be possible to work your way up from here to the role of plant breeder/geneticist, if further qualifications are studied for.

Undertaking a relevant undergraduate or postgraduate project or choosing a PhD funded by industry will make you more competitive during the application process. It will also be a way to gain useful contacts that could lead to employment opportunities.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • enthusiasm, commitment and a strong interest in plants and plant science
  • good problem-solving skills
  • excellent oral and written communication skills
  • the ability to carry out work independently and with patience
  • a flexible approach
  • the ability and stamina to undertake research and long-term projects
  • the skills to manage a busy laboratory
  • strong team-working skills
  • an analytical and investigative mind
  • computer literacy and technical skills, as most laboratories are highly computerised.

Some posts may require a driving licence.

Work experience

You can increase your chances of finding a job by gaining some relevant pre-entry experience, such as vacation work or a sandwich placement in a plant breeding company/laboratory or agricultural setting. Most companies take students over the summer, especially during harvesting. Posts are usually advertised on individual company websites.

You should research the industry to determine which area you would like to work in. You will need to consider which areas are likely to be most commercially in-demand in the future.

Plant breeding is a specialised field, and because of this the number of vacancies is low, but so is the pool of applicants. This means that those with relevant experience (perhaps through a summer job or placement with a plant breeding company), and relevant subjects of study have a reasonable chance of securing a position.

Employers

Modern plant breeding is an increasingly sophisticated, high-investment business. The majority of commercial plant breeding takes place within the private sector. Plant breeding work is also carried out in a limited number of research institutes.

Plant breeders are employed in a range of areas including:

  • government research agencies
  • commercial plant breeding companies
  • genetic engineering firms
  • seed specialists.

The British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) has more than 50 member organisations made up of research institutes, companies that actively breed in the UK, and breeders' agents who represent varieties from continental breeders in the UK.

Government agricultural research agencies include a number of institutes funded or grant-aided by the:

The particular research institutes include:

Breeding work in these institutes is funded and undertaken by the commercial firms represented by the BSPB.

Employment opportunities are growing in the emerging field of plant synthetic biology, where the genetic code of plants is altered for specific purposes, e.g. to create synthetic sensors and metabolic pathways. This research and development in genetic engineering has, among other positive uses, radical implications for the treatment of disease.

Biotechnology companies are beginning to create biological factories in which custom proteins and materials are harvested to produce commercially valuable chemicals, vaccines, drugs, biodegradable plastics and biofuels. As a result, job opportunities are increasing; however these roles are likely to be slightly different from that of a plant breeder/geneticist.

Look for job vacancies at:

A list of members, which can be used as a source of contact details for enquiring about student placements or making speculative applications, is available via the BSPB. Most BSPB members advertise vacancies on their own company website.

Vacancies are sometimes handled by recruitment agencies such as MorePeople.

Professional development

You will be given necessary scientific training on the job and will be supported in your learning by your team and your manager. Attending conferences and seminars throughout your career will help you learn new skills and update existing ones and acquire techniques and knowledge.

A PhD is considered to be appropriate training for research scientists wanting to achieve more senior positions and you may be offered a secondment to attend university, or be able to work part time while you complete further study. In addition to academic institutions, specialist research institutes offer PhD studentships, such as the:

  • John Innes Centre
  • Rothamsted Research.

Some companies offer structured training programmes, which provide the opportunity to gain experience in different areas. More structured training is usually available for research scientists in commercial firms and government-funded research institutes. Some plant breeders may wish to enhance their training by overseas experience, which might take the form of a period of overseas study, a visit to an overseas breeding organisation, or presenting work at an international conference.

Useful organisations that can aid your continuing professional development (CPD) include:

Career prospects

Your promotion to senior research/breeding positions will be dependent on ability, performance and experience. Progression will involve increased responsibilities, including supervision, project management and senior management. In larger companies, an increase in seniority will involve a shift from direct laboratory and field work, to more strategic and budgetary responsibilities, as well as people management.

If you have worked in the public sector, you may want to make a shift to the private sector. Commercial opportunities exist in international companies, specialised seed firms and an increasing number of biotechnology and genetic engineering firms.

In research councils and institutes, career development means moving through bands from research scientist to senior research scientist. Because many of the plant breeding/development teams are small, there are limited vacancies, meaning that developing your career may not be a quick process and it can be challenging.

If you have studied for a PhD relating to plant breeding, you could go on to take up a post-doctoral position, possibly then moving to a senior research fellowship.