Careers and Jobs in Chemistry: Agricultural Scientists

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FAST FACTS

  • School Subjects: Biology, Chemistry
  • Personal Skills: Communication/ideas Technical/scientific
  • Work Environment: Indoors and outdoors Primarily multiple locations
  • Minimum Education Level: Bachelor’s degree
  • Salary Range: $33,650 to $56,080 to $93,460+
  • Certification or Licensing: Voluntary (certification) Required for certain positions (licensing)
  • Outlook: About as fast as the average
  • DOT 040
  • GOE: 02.03.01, 02.03.02, 02.07.01
  • NOC: 2121
  • O*NET-SOC: 19 1011 00, 19 1013 01

OVERVIEW

Agricultural scientists study all aspects of living organisms and the relationships of plants and animals to their environment. They conduct basic research in laboratories or in the field. They apply the results to such tasks as increasing crop yields and improving the environment. Some agricultural scientists plan and administer programs for testing foods, drugs, and other products. Others direct activities at public exhibits at such places as zoos and botanical gardens. Some agricultural scientists are professors at colleges and universities or work as consultants to business firms or the government. Others work in technical sales and service jobs for manufacturers of agricultural products. There are approximately 30,000 agricultural and food scientists in the United States; about 25 percent work for the federal, state, or local governments. Several thousand more are employed as university professors.

HISTORY

In 1840, Justius von Liebig of Germany published Organic Chemistry in Its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology and launched the systematic development of the agricultural sciences. A formal system of agricultural education soon followed in both Europe and the United States. Prior to the publication of this work, agricultural developments relied on the collective experience of farmers handed down over generations. Agricultural science has techniques in common with many other disciplines including biology, botany, genetics, nutrition, breeding, and engineering. Discoveries and improvements in these fields contributed to advances in agriculture. Some mile stones include the discovery of the practice of crop rotation and the application of manure as fertilizer, which greatly increased farm yields in the 1700s. Farm mechanization was greatly advanced by the invention of the mechanical reaper in 1831 and the gasoline tractor in 1892. Chemical fertilizers were first used in the 19th century; pesticides and herbicides soon followed. In 1900, the research of an Austrian monk, Gregor Johann Mendel, was rediscovered. His theories of plant characteristics, based on studies using generations of garden peas, formed the foundation for the science of genetics.

In the 20th century, scientists and engineers were at the forefront of farm, crop, and food processing improvements. Conservationist Gifford Pinchot developed some of the first methods to prevent soil erosion in 1910, and Clarence Birdseye perfected a method of freezing food in the 1920s. Birdseye’s discoveries allowed for new crops of produce previously too perishable for the marketplace. By the 1960s, better quality feed and pesticides were in common use. Today, advances in genetic engineering and biotechnology are leading to more efficient, economical methods of farming and new markets for crops.

In recent years, agricultural scientists have played an important role in the development of ethanol, a clean-burning fuel that is created from renewable resources such as corn. Some scientists are encouraging the use of ethanol as a means to reduce U.S. dependence on oil from foreign countries and create more environmentally friendly energy options.

THE JOB

The nature of the work of the agricultural scientist can be broken down into several areas of specialization. Within each specialization are various careers.

The following are careers that fall under the areas of plant and soil science.

Agronomists investigate large-scale food-crop problems, conduct experiments, and develop new methods of growing crops to ensure more efficient production, higher yields, and improved quality. They use genetic engineering to develop crops that are resistant to pests, drought, and plant diseases.

Agronomists also engage in soil science. They analyze soils to find ways to increase production and reduce soil erosion. They study the responses of various soil types to fertilizers, tillage practices, and crop rotation. Since soil science is related to environmental science, agronomists may also use their expertise to consult with farmers and agricultural companies on environmental quality and effective land use.

Botanists are concerned with plants and their environment, structure, heredity, and economic value in such fields as agronomy, horticulture, and medicine.

Horticulturists study fruit and nut orchards as well as garden plants such as vegetables and flowers. They conduct experiments to develop new and improved varieties and to increase crop quality and yields. They also work to improve plant culture methods for the landscaping and beautification of communities, parks, and homes.

Plant breeders apply genetics and biotechnology to improve plants’ yield, quality, and resistance to harsh weather, disease, and insects. They might work on developing strains of wild or cultivated plants that will have a larger yield and increase profits.

Plant pathologists research plant diseases and the decay of plant products to identify symptoms, determine causes, and develop control measures. They attempt to predict outbreaks by studying how different soils, climates, and geography affect the spread and intensity of plant disease.

Another area of specialization for agricultural scientists is animal science.

Animal scientists conduct research and develop improved methods for housing, breeding, feeding, and controlling diseases of domestic farm animals. They inspect and grade livestock food products, purchase livestock, or work in sales and marketing of livestock products. They often consult agricultural businesses on such areas as upgrading animal housing, lowering mortality rates, or increasing production of animal products such as milk and eggs.

Dairy scientists study the selection, breeding, feeding, and management of dairy cattle. For example, they research how various types of food and environmental conditions affect milk production and quality. They also develop new breeding programs to improve dairy herds.

Poultry scientists study the breeding, feeding, and management of poultry to improve the quantity and quality of eggs and other poultry products.

Animal breeders specialize in improving the quality of farm animals. They may work for a state agricultural department, agricultural extension station, or university. Some of their work is done in a laboratory, but much of it is done outdoors working directly on animals. Using their knowledge of genetics, animal breeders develop systems for animals to achieve desired characteristics such as strength, fast maturation, resistance to disease, and quality of meat.

Food science is a specialty closely related to animal science, but it focuses on meeting consumer demand for food products in ways that are healthy, safe, and convenient.

Food scientists use their backgrounds in chemistry, microbiology, and other sciences to develop new or better ways of preserving, packaging, processing, storing, and delivering foods. Food technologists work in product development to discover new food sources and analyze food content to determine levels of vitamins, fat, sugar, and protein. Food technologists also work to enforce government regulations, inspecting food processing areas and ensuring that sanitation, safety, quality, and waste management standards are met.

Much of the research conducted by agricultural scientists is done in laboratories and requires a familiarity with research techniques and the use of laboratory equipment and computers. Some research, however, is carried out wherever necessary. A botanist may have occasion to examine the plants that grow in the volcanic valleys of Alaska, or an animal breeder may study the behavior of animals on the plains of Africa.

REQUIREMENTS

High School

Follow your high school’s college preparatory program, which will include courses in English, foreign language, mathematics, and government. Also take biology, chemistry, physics, and any other science courses available. You must also become familiar with basic computer skills, including programming. It may be possible for you to perform laboratory assistant duties for your science teachers. Visiting research laboratories and attending lectures by agricultural scientists can also be helpful.

Postsecondary Training

Educational requirements for agricultural scientists are very high. A doctorate is usually mandatory for careers as college or university professors, independent researchers, or field managers. A bachelor’s degree may be acceptable for some entry-level jobs, such as testing or inspecting technicians, or as technical sales or service representatives. Promotions, however, are very limited for these employees unless they earn advanced degrees.

To become an agricultural scientist, you should pursue a degree related to agricultural and biological science. As an undergraduate, you should have a firm foundation in biology, with courses in chemistry, physics, mathematics, and English. Most colleges and universities have agricultural science curriculums, although liberal arts colleges may emphasize the biological sciences. State universities usually offer agricultural science programs, too.

While pursuing an advanced degree, you’ll participate in research projects and write a dissertation on your specialized area of study. You’ll also do fieldwork and laboratory research along with your classroom studies.

Certification or Licensing

The American Society of Agronomy offers several certifications, including the certified professional agronomist designation, to candidates based on their training and work. Contact the society for more information.

Other Requirements

As a researcher, you should be self-motivated enough to work effectively alone, yet be able to function cooperatively as part of a team. You should have an inexhaustible curiosity about the nature of living things and their environments. You must be systematic in your work habits and in your approach to investigation and experimentation and must have the persistence to continue or start over when experiments are not immediately successful.

Work performed by agricultural scientists in offices and laboratories requires intense powers of concentration and the ability to communicate one’s thoughts systematically. In addition to these skills, physical stamina is necessary for those scientists who do field research in remote areas of the world.

EXPLORING

If you live in an agricultural community, you may be able to find part-time or summer work on a farm or ranch. Joining a section of the National FFA Organization (formerly Future Farmers of America) or a 4-H program will introduce you to the concerns of farmers and researchers and may involve you directly in science projects. Contact your county’s extension office to learn about regional projects. You may also find part-time work in veterinarian’s offices, florist shops, landscape nurseries, orchards, farms, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, or museums. Volunteer work is often available in zoos and animal shelters.

EMPLOYERS

About 25 percent of all agricultural and food scientists work for federal, state, and local governments. They work within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency and for regional extension agencies and soil conservation departments. Scientists with doctorates may work on the faculty of colleges and universities. Researchers work for chemical and pharmaceutical companies, and with agribusiness and consulting firms. Agricultural scientists also work in the food processing industry.

STARTING OUT

Agricultural scientists often are recruited prior to graduation. College and university career services offices offer information about jobs, and students may arrange interviews with recruiters who visit the campus.

Direct application may be made to the personnel departments of colleges and universities, private industries, and nonprofit research foundations. People interested in positions with the federal government may contact the local offices of state employment services and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (http://www.usajobs.opm.gov), which are located in various large cities throughout the country. Private employment agencies are another method that might be considered. Large companies sometimes conduct job fairs in major cities and will advertise them in the business sections of the local newspapers.

ADVANCEMENT

Advancement in this field depends on education, experience, and job performance. Agricultural scientists with advanced degrees generally start in teaching or research and advance to administrative and management positions, such as supervisor of a research program. The number of such jobs is limited, however, and often the route to advancement is through specialization. The narrower specialties are often the most valuable.

People who enter this field with only a bachelor’s degree are much more restricted. After starting in testing and inspecting jobs or as technical sales and service representatives, they may progress to advanced technicians, particularly in medical research, or become high school biology teachers. In the latter case, they must have had courses in education and meet the state requirements for teaching credentials.

EARNINGS

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual salary of soil and plant scientists was approximately $56,080 in 2006. The lowest paid 10 percent (which generally included those just starting out in the field) earned less than $33,650, while the highest paid 10 percent made approximately $93,460 or more per year.

Unless hired for just a short-term project, agricultural scientists most likely receive health and retirement benefits in addition to their annual salary.

WORK ENVIRONMENT

Agricultural scientists work regular hours, although researchers often choose to work longer when their experiments have reached critical points. Competition in the research field may be stiff, causing a certain amount of stress.

Agricultural scientists generally work in offices, laboratories, or classrooms where the environment is clean, healthy, and safe. Some agricultural scientists, such as botanists, periodically take field trips where living conditions may be primitive and strenuous physical activity may be required.

OUTLOOK

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment for agricultural scientists is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014. The fields of biotechnology, genetics, and sustainable agriculture may hold the best opportunities for agricultural scientists. New developments, such as methods of processing corn for use in medicines and for fuel for motor vehicles, will alter the marketplace. Scientists will also be actively involved in improving both the environmental impact of farming and crop yields, as they focus on methods of decontaminating soil, protecting groundwater, crop rotation, and other efforts of conservation. Scientists will also have the challenge of promoting these new methods to farmers.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

To learn about opportunities for scientists in the dairy industry and for information on student divisions at the college level, contact:

American Dairy Science Association

1111 North Dunlap Avenue

Savoy, IL 61874-9604

Tel: 217-356-5146

Email: adsa@assochq.org

http://www.adsa.org

For information on careers and certification, contact:

American Society of Agronomy

677 South Segoe Road

Madison, WI 53711-1086

Tel: 608-273-8080

http://www.agronomy.org

For more information on agricultural careers and student programs, contact:

National FFA Organization

6060 FFA Drive

PO Box 68960

Indianapolis, IN 46268-0960

Tel: 317-802-6060

http://www.ffa.org

Visit the USDA Web site for more information on its agencies and programs as well as news releases.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

http://www.usda.gov

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