Sometimes when you’re seeking a higher calling in life, it pays to look down—at the ground. Environmental activist and National Humanities Medal–winner Wendell Berry wrote that the soil is “the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all.”
As one of Earth’s most important natural resources, soils support life and the environment. And the study of plant and soil science is more than just digging in the dirt—though digging is sometimes involved.
A soil scientist identifies, interprets, and manages soils for a wide range of applications, including crops, forestry, rangeland, ecosystems, urban uses and environmentally responsible mining and reclamation.
If you’re already a member of 4-H or Future Farmers of America (FFA)—or just someone who’s interested in a career in conservation or improving the environment, you’re ready to dig in and learn more about majoring in plant and soil science. Here’s the quick and dirty.
Do you dig the natural sciences?
Plant and soil science degree programs attract students with an aptitude for science, so coursework will begin with a core science curriculum that includes areas you’re already familiar with, such as biology, physics and chemistry. Then you’ll move on to more plant- and soil-specific classes covering topics such as plant diseases and nutrition, or soil chemistry and fertility.
You might also study statistics, mathematics and even economics in relation to agriculture and the environment. Some programs allow you to focus on a specific discipline such as horticultural sciences, agriculture, or landscape architecture.
Out in the field—literally.
Some degree programs are affiliated with gardens, parks, nurseries, landscape design firms and landscape management companies that offer internships for students willing to get their hands dirty while earning experience and credits. Clubs of like-minded students and research opportunities also are available.
In addition, there are scholarships and fellowships offered by organizations including the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA).
You won’t be dirt-poor.
Most soil and plant scientists work in federal and state government, and some work for private companies as consultants or lab technicians. The median salary of a soil and plant scientist is $62,300 as of 2016, but a degree in plant and soil science can lead to a career in a wide range of fields related to, well, plants and soil. An environmental scientist or specialist, for example, earns a median of $68,910 as of May 2016 and can expect job growth of 11 percent from 2016 to 2026—faster than the average for all occupations—spurred by increased public awareness of environmental hazards and rising demands placed on the environment by population growth.
If you’re looking for more of a private sector career, you can use a plant and soil sciences degree to jump-start a career in diverse set of jobs including pest control, landscape design or even the management of a greenhouse, golf course or vineyard. There are also opportunities to supplement your income by teaching at colleges and universities.
So if you’re seeking a career that benefits not just your bank account, but the environment and ecosystem, a degree in plant and soil sciences could be the place to start. And next time you pass a child digging a hole in the playground, be sure to tell the child’s parents, “Did you know your kid can get paid to do that?”