Plant breeders/geneticists work to improve the quality and performance of existing agricultural and horticultural crops as well as create new varieties.
They aim to develop useful traits, such as disease resistance or drought tolerance, or to improve characteristics such as appearance.
Their role is vital to the agricultural industry as there are constant challenges to meet market requirements, consumer demands and 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.
Work may be carried out in academic, research and commercial settings, and due to this, individual tasks may vary according to the specialist area and level.
However, in general, tasks can include:
- producing research aims and objectives, and predicting the costing of the work;
- researching methods and techniques for improving plant breeding;
- identifying and selecting plants exhibiting desirable traits, based on natural genetic variation;
- crossing plants to produce new breeding material for field and glasshouse trials;
- analysing and scientifically assessing plant breeding in laboratory and field trials and selecting the best varieties;
- conducting scientific projects, which may be laboratory based, especially in the winter months;
- multiplying up and producing virus-free plants;
- maintaining detailed records throughout the research and development cycle;
- managing, supporting and training technical and field staff;
- keeping up to date in the fast-moving area of science and translating ideas from scientific literature into new approaches to breeding problems;
- monitoring the activities of competitors (in commercial settings) and developing a product market profile;
- responding to enquiries from farmers, agronomists and other professionals;
- writing and presenting work to other scientists and publishing scientific findings;
- liaising with and visiting other scientists, commercial breeders and funding bodies.
Developing a new strain to create a new variety can be time consuming and may take several years. Time is spent selecting plants with the desired attributes and assessing them for yield, disease resistance and end-user quality. The most promising samples then need to be purified and multiplied for entry to official trials.
Genetic engineering can produce significant changes in crop characteristics and value in a single generation and has the potential to make the breeding process quicker and more efficient.
The on-going debate about genetically modified food and crops is likely to have a significant effect on the future of plant breeding in the UK.
- The range of typical starting salaries varies 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.
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.
A good honours degree is required and relevant subjects include life and medical sciences and agricultural and horticultural sciences. In particular, the following degree subjects are helpful:
- botany and plant science;
- crop and plant science;
- molecular biology.
A postgraduate qualification in a relevant topic can be advantageous.
Entry with a 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.
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.
Relevant pre-entry experience will increase your chances, e.g. 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.
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:
- Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
- Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
- Scottish Government Rural and Environment Research and Analysis Directorate (RERAD)
The particular research institutes include:
Breeding work in these institutes is funded and undertaken by the commercial firms represented by the BSPB.
In the future, plants could be developed into 'biological factories' to harvest custom proteins and materials such as commercially valuable chemicals, vaccines, drugs, biodegradable plastics and biofuels. This is likely to lead to increased opportunities for employment within a range of biotechnology companies. However, these roles are likely to be slightly different from the role 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 British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB). Most BSPB members advertise vacancies on their own company website.
Vacancies are sometimes handled by recruitment agencies such as MorePeople.
The necessary scientific training is usually given on the job. Because of the nature of the role, learning the required skills while you work is an essential part of the job, and you will do this with the support of your team and manager.
It is possible to be seconded to a university to study for a further degree, or to carry this out on a part-time basis.
A PhD is considered to be appropriate training for research scientists wanting to achieve more senior positions. 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.
This training will include learning and updating skills, techniques and knowledge, often by attending seminars and conferences.
Training increasingly includes short courses that focus on specific 'soft' skills, such as public speaking and time management. In smaller companies, for those with broader-based roles, training may cover practical skills such as tractor or forklift driving.
Management training is often available for managing research teams or for non-science management posts.
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.
Continuing professional development (CPD) is important for plant breeders/geneticists. Attending events and conferences can help, as well as reading industry press and keeping up to date with relevant news. Useful organisations that can aid CPD are:
- Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
- British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB)
- Chartered Institute of Horticulture
- The James Hutton Institute
Promotion to senior research/breeding positions is 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.
Opportunities are also available overseas.
In research councils and institutes, career development means moving through bands from research scientist to senior research scientist.
If you have studied for a PhD relating to plant breeding, it will be possible to go on to take up a post-doctoral position, possibly then moving to a senior research fellowship.
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.