As a child you may have enjoyed playing in the dirt and mud. Well, now you can make it your vocation! It’s referred to as soil science. This is the science of dealing with soils as a natural resource on the surface of the Earth including soil formation, classification, and mapping; physical, chemical, biological, and fertility properties of soils; and these properties in relation to the use and management of the soils.
That playground or backyard dirt you played in has multiple roles in the quality of life throughout the world. This ‘dirt’ has the scientific name of soil which is a vital resource for food production, water and nutrients storage, and support for structures. Soils support more life beneath their surface than exists above it. They facilitate the life cycle of growth, sustenance and decay of many organisms.
The function of the soil scientist is to study the upper few meters of the Earth’s crust in terms of its physical and chemical properties. They study the distribution, genesis, biological components, and morphology of soils as all of these impact our health, food supply, environment, culture and technology.
A bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite to entering this field. At this level the student learns about soil porosity, agricultural practices, soil nutrients, soil contamination and the effects of pesticide applications. Before applying to a college or university offering soil science, it’s recommended that the high school student has a strong background in mathematics and the sciences of geology, biology and chemistry.
Different colleges and universities have varying terminology for their bachelor’s program. For example, Oregon State University has a three degree program: Bachelor of Science in Crop and Soil Science with an Agronomy Option, Soil Science Option and Plant Breeding and Genetics Option.
CalPoly offers a Bachelor of Science in both Environmental Earth Sciences and Environmental Soil Sciences.
Regardless of the particular degree verbiage, typical courses involve:
- Soil physics
- Plant nutrition
- Soil microbiology
- Land use and climate change
- Soil restoration and conservation
- Plant biotechnology
There are master’s programs available in this scientific field. Some institutions have thesis and non-thesis graduate programs. The graduate programs delve into most of the topics covered at the bachelor’s level, however there’s a greater emphasis on research. This involves more field study. There are universities, such as the University of Wyoming, that have their own on-campus research laboratories, soil testing laboratory and four experimental stations.
Beyond the master’s degree, there are many Ph.D. programs offered at those schools with a curriculum in soil science and its related fields. At this degree level, the student has reached an area of specialization, such as:
- Soil chemistry
- Soil biogeochemistry
- Soil microbiology
- Soil physics
This is a partial list of specialty topics within this diverse science.
According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), there were 13,190 soil and plant scientists employed as of May 2013. The median annual salary was $62,830 and the projected job growth rate is 16%. About 15% are employed as faculty in colleges and universities, while 20% work for manufacturing companies. The states with the greatest number employed in this occupation are: Iowa, California, Oregon, Illinois, and Texas. The highest concentration of soil and plant scientists are in: Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Oregon. On neither of these two lists is New Hampshire which has the highest median annual wage of $90,490 as of May 2013.
For those, as children, who loved the feel of dirt under their fingernails, this may be an occupation worth pursuing. In this career, you can still dig around in the dirt-all in the name of soil science.