A soil scientist gathers, interprets and evaluates information about the chemistry, biology and physics of soils to inform and influence issues as diverse as:
- agricultural production;
- climate change;
- environmental quality;
- human health;
- land remediation.
Soil, a natural and renewable resource, is vital to sustaining food production, supporting plant and animal life and providing a foundation for infrastructures across the world.
Soil science is an integrated science, covering several scientific disciplines. Therefore, soil scientists can operate in a range of professional areas including:
- research for public and private sector institutions;
- government policy;
- overseas development;
- assistance with onsite archaeological excavations and subsequent laboratory analysis;
- landscape design;
- site reclamation and remediation;
Tasks can vary depending on the sector but most soil scientists are involved in some of the following:
- applying 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;
- field work, including the collection of soil samples from a range of environments;
- producing maps of soil types and their distribution;
- monitoring or supervising laboratory research;
- conducting laboratory analysis of soil samples and research experiments;
- completing paperwork and cataloguing findings;
- writing research reports and making presentations on findings, including scientific research papers and non-scientific client reports;
- interpreting science to inform policy;
- integrating soil science knowledge into aspects of land management and ecosystems;
- keeping up to date with developments in soil science and related areas, as well as environmental issues and changes in legislation that may impact on your work;
- attending conferences to keep abreast of the latest developments and to network with people in the profession and in related industries;
- travelling to sites within and outside the UK;
- in education posts: writing proposals and making bids for new research projects and funding, making presentations, giving seminars, teaching and advising students;
- in consultancy roles: tendering for work, reporting to and advising clients, liaising with members of related professions, such as ecologists, environmental scientists, engineers, geologists and hydrologists.
- Starting salaries typically range from £16,000 to £22,000.
- Salaries for those with experience typically range between £24,000 and £52,000.
Salaries vary depending on the sector you work in, type of organisation, 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
- The work involves a combination of laboratory-based, office and outdoor activities.
- There are opportunities for self-employment, including independent consultancy work, for those with extensive experience and specialist expertise.
- The profession offers some long-term security of employment in certain established organisations, but many soil scientists work on short-term contracts at the beginning of their career.
- Jobs are available throughout the UK in universities and voluntary, public, governmental and private sector organisations.
- Dress code depends on what type of work you are doing, for example field work, laboratory activity or office-based work.
- Travel within the working day is often necessary. Research projects, conferences and training may require overnight absence from home or overseas travel.
A degree in a science or science-related discipline is needed 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 most commonly studied within a broader undergraduate degree programme. For a list of college and university courses offering soil science-related disciplines, see The British Society of Soil Science (BSSS).
Entry with an HND or equivalent practical experience is only possible at technician level, which will mostly involve carrying out routine work.
Although not essential, it may be useful 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.
Several UK universities offer postgraduate qualifications and research opportunities in soil science, including:
- Aberystwyth University;
- Cranfield University;
- Lancaster University;
- the University of Aberdeen;
- the University of Edinburgh;
- the University of Reading.
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.
Student membership of the BSSS and its professional body The Institute of Professional Soil Scientists (IPSS) is also useful for networking and keeping up to date with the latest developments.
You will 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.
Field workers are normally required to hold 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.
Soil scientists work in a variety of fields, such as:
- agriculture, horticulture and forestry;
- environmental protection and management;
- land use planning and site remediation;
- education and research;
- national and international policy formulation.
Many soil science opportunities are in specialist research centres, 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)
Soil scientists also carry out research and teach in higher education institutions, including universities that offer soil sciences postgraduate programmes, such as the National Soil Resources Institute (NSRI) and the University of Aberdeen, and more applied establishments, such as the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI).
- Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
- Environment Agency (EA)
- Natural England
- Scottish Natural Heritage
- Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)
- conservation organisations;
- environmental organisations;
- government research institutes;
- industrial companies;
- food producing companies;
Look for job vacancies at:
- The British Society of Soil Science (BSSS)
- Countryside Jobs Service (CJS)
- Earthworks Jobs
- ENDS jobsearch
- Environment Jobs
- Farmers Weekly
- Horticulture Week
- Jobs.ac.uk - academic-related and research jobs and studentships.
- Nature Jobs
- New Scientist Jobs
- Websites of the specialist research centres.
- National press.
Contact universities that run soil sciences postgraduate programmes, such as the National Soil Resources Institute (NSRI) and the University of Aberdeen, and more applied institutes, such as the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI), to identify where the majority of research is being undertaken in the UK and overseas and write speculatively to those that might have openings.
Training is generally on the job. Formal training tends to be project-specific or to meet the needs of the employing organisation, for example training on an in-house database system.
As with most professions, soil scientists are expected to take part in continuing professional development (CPD) to expand their 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.
There are several categories of membership available, depending on your qualifications and experience. Recent graduates in the early stages of their career will most likely enter at Associate Member level before progressing to Member and then Fellow.
Soil science covers a wide range of scientific disciplines and there are therefore a number of industry-recognised qualifications available in fields such as engineering, surveying, geology, chemistry and environmental science.
Opportunities for career development depend on the sector in which you work. Promotion in most areas is based largely on experience, scientific publication and performance.
Soil scientists are expected to have a working knowledge of most areas of soil sciences. However, most soil scientists go on to specialise in one or two areas during their career, for example:
- soil biology;
- soil chemistry;
- soil management;
- soil mineralogy;
- soil physics;
- soil survey and land evaluation.
Soil scientists working for non-academic research bodies, such as governmental organisations or private sector companies, can expect promotion in their 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.
Soil scientists based in private consultancies are often required to apply their expertise in a range of disciplines, as required by their clients.
Soil scientists in higher education institutions can expect structured career progression. After completing a PhD, progression is to a postdoctoral position or a junior lectureship. From here, promotion is to a senior lectureship or a readership, achievable within five to ten years, depending on your publication record and funding. Managerial responsibilities can be gained by applying for head of department or school/college positions. Research-based jobs are typically for fixed periods so progression is commonly dependent on moves to other projects or organisations.
Soil scientists who wish to become self-employed need extensive experience and a specialisation within soil science.
There are various industry-specific qualifications soil scientists can achieve during their career, depending on the sector in which they work. The Institute of Professional Soil Scientists (IPSS) is licensed by the Science Council to award the qualification Chartered Scientist (CSci) to soil scientists with the right combination of skills and experience.
As many soil scientists maintain an interest in several scientific disciplines, it is relatively easy to move into other career areas where their skills can be applied.