By carrying out research and using their findings to solve problems, soil scientists help to sustain biological infrastructures across the world
As a soil scientist you'll gather, interpret and evaluate information about the chemistry, biology and physics of soil. Using the information obtained from this analysis, you'll inform and influence on diverse issues such as:
- agricultural production
- climate change
- environmental quality
- human health
- land remediation.
Being a natural and renewable resource, soil is vital to sustaining food production, supporting plant and animal life and having a positive impact on environments globally. Working in soil science enables you to be part of this important area of research and development.
Types of soil scientist
You'll usually specialise in a particular category of soil science, generally divided into these areas:
- pedology (the development, distribution, properties, processes and classification of soil)
- soil physics
- soil chemistry
- soil biology
- soil mineralogy
- soil management
- soil survey and land management.
As a soil scientist, you'll need to:
- apply knowledge of soil science, including the fundamentals of the subject, such as the biological, chemical and physical properties of soils, and their spatial and temporal variability across the landscape
- carry out field work, including the collection of soil samples from a range of environments
- produce maps of soil types and their distribution
- monitor or supervise laboratory research
- conduct laboratory analysis of soil samples and research experiments
- complete paperwork and catalogue findings
- write research reports and make presentations on findings, including scientific research papers and non-scientific client reports
- interpret science to inform policy
- integrate soil science knowledge into aspects of land management and ecosystems
- keep up to date with developments in soil science and related areas, as well as environmental issues and legislation changes that may affect your work
- attend conferences to keep abreast of the latest developments and to network with people in the profession and in related industries
- travel to sites within and outside the UK
- in education posts you'll need to write proposals and make bids for new research projects and funding, make presentations, give seminars, teach and advise students
- in consultancy roles you'll tender for work, report to and advise clients, and liaise with members of related professions, such as ecologists, environmental scientists, engineers, geologists and hydrologists.
- Starting salaries range from £16,000 to £25,000.
- Salaries for those with experience are in the region of £25,000 to £35,000.
- There is potential to earn up to £55,000 in very senior positions.
Salaries vary depending on the sector you work in, the type of organisation you work for and your qualifications and experience. Soil scientists operating in the private sector and working for commercial environmental consultancies typically earn more than their counterparts employed by public sector bodies or voluntary organisations.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours may be long and laboratory work and field work may involve some weekend working.
What to expect
- Your work will involve a combination of laboratory-based, office and outdoor activities.
- The profession offers long-term security of employment in certain established organisations, but you may have to work on short-term contracts at the beginning of your career.
- Jobs are available throughout the UK in universities and voluntary, public, governmental and private sector organisations.
- You'll often need to travel within the working day. Overnight and overseas travel may be required when carrying out research projects and attending conferences and training.
- With extensive experience and specialist expertise, you'll have opportunities for self-employment, including independent consultancy work.
You'll need a degree in a science or science-related discipline for entry into the profession. In particular, the following subjects may increase your chances:
- environmental science
- physical geography
In the UK, the University of Aberdeen is currently the only institution offering an undergraduate degree programme in plant and soil science. Soil science is more commonly studied within a broader undergraduate degree programme.
Entry with a HND or equivalent practical experience is only possible at technician level, which will mostly involve carrying out routine work.
Although not essential, you could choose to study for a Masters or PhD in a soil or environment-related subject, particularly if your degree did not cover this in much detail. There are also opportunities to do a PhD overseas as this area of science moves increasingly up the political agenda. A PhD is necessary if you wish to become a specialist researcher or lecturer.
Several UK universities offer postgraduate qualifications and research opportunities in soil science, including:
- Aberystwyth University
- Cranfield University
- Lancaster University
- The University of Edinburgh
- University of Aberdeen
- University of Reading.
For further information about soil science and the role of a soil scientist, see the British Society of Soil Science (BSSS) - the leading society for soil scientists and professionals in the UK. The society also offers useful networking opportunities and being a member will help you keep up to date with the latest developments.
You'll need to show evidence of the following:
- the ability to plan and conduct research and carry out experimental practical work
- logical thinking
- competence in data collection and analysis
- communication skills, oral and written
- the ability to identify and solve problems
- presentation and report-writing skills
- time management skills
- the ability to work independently as well as in a team
- IT skills
- an understanding of health and safety in the workplace
- a full, clean driving licence.
Try to gain as much related experience as possible through coursework and vacation or voluntary work, particularly in practical, soil-related field work, such as sampling and surveying, or laboratory work.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
As a soil scientist, your employer could be a:
- commercial or industrial organisation
- public or private sector institution
- conservation charity or organisation
- environmental charity or organisation
- environmental consultancy
- food production company
- forensic laboratory
- government body - such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Environment Agency (EA), Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)
- overseas organisation or charity
- public education centre
- university or further education college.
Many soil science opportunities are in specialist research centres and academic institutions, such as:
- Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS)
- The James Hutton Institute
- Rothamsted Research
- others funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), both of which are councils of the umbrella organisation UKRI (UK Research and Innovation)
- National Soil Resources Institute (NSRI)
- University of Aberdeen
- Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI)
Look for job vacancies at:
- The British Society of Soil Science (BSSS)
- Countryside Jobs Service (CJS)
- ENDS jobsearch
- Environment Jobs
- Farmers Weekly
- Horticulture Week
Contact universities that run soil science postgraduate programmes, such as the NSRI and the University of Aberdeen, and more applied institutes, such as the STRI, to identify where research is being undertaken in the UK and overseas and write speculatively to those that might have openings.
You'll be given training on the job. More formal training will generally be project-specific or designed to meet the needs of your employer, such as training on an in-house database system.
You'll need to take part in continuing professional development (CPD) to expand your skills and knowledge. This can be done through in-house staff development courses, postgraduate study and attending conferences, external courses and workshops.
Membership of BSSS and its professional body The Institute of Professional Soil Scientists (IPSS) provides the opportunity to attend regional meetings and participate in special interest groups.
Soil science covers a range of scientific disciplines and there are a number of industry-recognised qualifications available in fields such as engineering, surveying, geology, chemistry and environmental science.
How your career develops partly depends on the sector you work in. Promotion in most areas is based largely on experience, scientific publication and performance. You'll be expected to have a working knowledge of most areas of soil sciences, especially if you work for a private consultancy. However, you'll probably go on to specialise in one or two areas during your career.
If you work for a non-academic research body, such as a government organisation or private sector company, you can expect promotion in your first five to ten years in post. There are opportunities to advance within a technical role, with promotion to senior levels, or by moving into managerial roles.
There's structured career progression in higher education, and after completing a PhD you can secure a postdoctoral position or a junior lectureship - moving on to a senior lectureship or a readership within five to ten years. Research-based jobs are typically for fixed periods, so progression is commonly dependent on moves to other projects or organisations. Self-employment is an option with extensive experience and a specialisation.
There are various industry-specific qualifications you can achieve during your career, including the qualification Chartered Scientist (CSci), awarded by the IPSS.