Agricultural Scientists Career Information
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Significant Points· A large proportion, about 25%, of salaried agricultural and food scientists works for Federal, State, and local governments.
· A bachelor’s degree in agricultural science is sufficient for some jobs in applied research; a master’s or doctoral degree is required for basic research.
Nature of the WorkThe work of agricultural and food scientists
plays an important part in maintaining the Nation’s food supply by ensuring
agricultural productivity and the safety of the food supply. Agricultural scientists
study farm crops and animals, and develop ways of improving their quantity and
quality. They look for ways to improve crop yield with less labor, control pests
and weeds more safely and effectively, and conserve soil and water. They research
methods of converting raw agricultural commodities into attractive and healthy
food products for consumers.
Agricultural science is closely related to biological science, and agricultural scientists use the principles of biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and other sciences to solve problems in agriculture. They often work with biological scientists on basic biological research and on applying to agriculture the advances in knowledge brought about by biotechnology.
Many agricultural scientists work in basic or applied research and development. Others manage or administer research and development programs, or manage marketing or production operations in companies that produce food products or agricultural chemicals, supplies, and machinery. Some agricultural scientists are consultants to business firms, private clients, or government.
Depending on the agricultural or food scientist’s area of specialization, the nature of the work performed varies.
Food science. Food scientists and technologists usually work in the food processing industry, universities, or the Federal Government, and help meet consumer demand for food products that are healthful, safe, palatable, and convenient. To do this, they use their knowledge of chemistry, microbiology, and other sciences to develop new or better ways of preserving, processing, packaging, storing, and delivering foods. Some food scientists engage in basic research, discovering new food sources; analyzing food content to determine levels of vitamins, fat, sugar, or protein; or searching for substitutes for harmful or undesirable additives, such as nitrites. They also develop ways to process, preserve, package, or store food according to industry and government regulations. Others enforce government regulations, inspecting food processing areas and ensuring that sanitation, safety, quality, and waste management standards are met. Food technologists generally work in product development, applying the findings from food science research to the selection, preservation, processing, packaging, distribution, and use of safe, nutritious, and wholesome food.
Plant science. Agronomy, crop science, entomology, and plant breeding are included in plant science. Scientists in these disciplines study plants and their growth in soils, helping producers of food, feed, and fiber crops to continue to feed a growing population while conserving natural resources and maintaining the environment. Agronomists and crop scientists not only help increase productivity, but also study ways to improve the nutritional value of crops and the quality of seed. Some crop scientists study the breeding, physiology, and management of crops and use genetic engineering to develop crops resistant to pests and drought. Entomologists conduct research to develop new technologies to control or eliminate pests in infested areas and to prevent the spread of harmful pests to new areas, as well as technologies that are compatible with the environment. They also conduct research or engage in oversight activities aimed at halting the spread of insect-borne disease.
Soil science. Soil scientists study the chemical, physical, biological, and mineralogical composition of soils as they relate to plant or crop growth. They also study the responses of various soil types to fertilizers, tillage practices, and crop rotation. Many soil scientists who work for the Federal Government conduct soil surveys, classifying and mapping soils. They provide information and recommendations to farmers and other landowners regarding the best use of land, plant growth, and methods to avoid or correct problems such as erosion. They may also consult with engineers and other technical personnel working on construction projects about the effects of, and solutions to, soil problems. Because soil science is closely related to environmental science, persons trained in soil science also apply their knowledge to ensure environmental quality and effective land use.
Animal science. Animal scientists work to develop better, more efficient ways of producing and processing meat, poultry, eggs, and milk. Dairy scientists, poultry scientists, animal breeders, and other related scientists study the genetics, nutrition, reproduction, growth, and development of domestic farm animals. Some animal scientists inspect and grade livestock food products, purchase livestock, or work in technical sales or marketing. As extension agents or consultants, animal scientists advise agricultural producers on how to upgrade animal housing facilities properly, lower mortality rates, handle waste matter, or increase production of animal products, such as milk or eggs.
Working ConditionsAgricultural scientists involved in management
or basic research tend to work regular hours in offices and laboratories. The
work environment for those engaged in applied research or product development
varies, depending on the discipline of agricultural science and on the type
of employer. For example, food scientists in private industry may
work in test kitchens while investigating new processing techniques. Animal
scientists working for Federal, State, or university research stations may spend
part of their time at dairies, farrowing houses, feedlots, or farm animal facilities
or outdoors conducting research associated with livestock. Soil and crop scientists
also spend time outdoors conducting research on farms and agricultural research
stations. Entomologists work in laboratories, insectories, or agricultural research
stations, and may also spend time outdoors studying or collecting insects in
their natural habitat.
Agricultural and food scientists held about 30,000 jobs in 2008. In addition, several thousand persons held agricultural science faculty positions in colleges and universities.
About 1 in 4 salaried agricultural and food scientists work for Federal, State, or local governments. One out of 7 worked for State governments at State agricultural colleges or agricultural research stations. Another one out of 10 worked for the Federal Government in 2008, mostly in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some worked for agricultural service companies; others worked for commercial research and development laboratories, seed companies, pharmaceutical companies, wholesale distributors, and food products companies. About 10,000 agricultural scientists were self-employed in 2008, mainly as consultants.
Training, Qualifications, Adv.Training requirements for agricultural scientists
depend on their specialty and on the type of work they perform. A bachelor’s
degree in agricultural science is sufficient for some jobs in applied research
or for assisting in basic research, but a master’s or doctoral degree is required
for basic research. A Ph.D. in agricultural science usually is needed for college
teaching and for advancement to administrative research positions. Degrees in
related sciences such as biology, chemistry, or physics or in related engineering
specialties also may qualify persons for some agricultural science jobs.
All States have a land-grant college that offers agricultural science degrees. Many other colleges and universities also offer agricultural science degrees or some agricultural science courses. However, not every school offers all specialties. A typical undergraduate agricultural science curriculum includes communications, economics, business, and physical and life sciences courses, in addition to a wide variety of technical agricultural science courses. For prospective animal scientists, these technical agricultural science courses might include animal breeding, reproductive physiology, nutrition, and meats and muscle biology.
Students preparing as food scientists take courses such as food chemistry, food analysis, food microbiology, food engineering, and food processing operations. Those preparing as crop or soil scientists take courses in plant pathology, soil chemistry, entomology, plant physiology, and biochemistry, among others. Advanced degree programs include classroom and fieldwork, laboratory research, and a thesis or dissertation based on independent research.
Agricultural and food scientists should be able to work independently or as part of a team and be able to communicate clearly and concisely, both orally and in writing. Most of these scientists also need an understanding of basic business principles, and the ability to apply basic statistical techniques. Employers increasingly prefer job applicants who are able to apply computer skills to determine solutions to problems, to collect and analyze data, and for the control of processes.
The American Society of Agronomy offers certification programs in crops, agronomy, crop advising, soils, horticulture, plant pathology, and weed science. To become certified, applicants must pass designated examinations and meet certain standards with respect to education and professional work experience.
Agricultural scientists who have advanced degrees usually begin in research or teaching. With experience, they may advance to jobs such as supervisors of research programs or managers of other agriculture-related activities.
Job OutlookEmployment of agricultural scientists is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2012. Additionally, the need to replace agricultural and food scientists who retire or otherwise leave the occupation permanently will account for many more job openings than will projected growth, particularly in academia.
Past agricultural research has resulted in the development of higher yielding crops, crops with better resistance to pests and plant pathogens, and chemically based fertilizers and pesticides. Further research is necessary as insects and diseases continue to adapt to pesticides, and as soil fertility and water quality continue to need improvement. Agricultural scientists are using new avenues of research in biotechnology to develop plants and food crops that require less fertilizer, fewer pesticides and herbicides, and even less water for growth. Agricultural scientists will be needed to balance increased agricultural output with protection and preservation of soil, water, and ecosystems. They will increasingly encourage the practice of “sustainable agriculture” by developing and implementing plans to manage pests, crops, soil fertility and erosion, and animal waste in ways that reduce the use of harmful chemicals and do little damage to the natural environment. Also, an expanding population and an increasing public focus on diet, health, and food safety will result in job opportunities for food scientists and technologists.
Graduates with advanced degrees will be in the best position to enter jobs as agricultural scientists. Bachelor’s degree holders can work in some applied research and product development positions, but usually only in certain subfields, such as food science and technology. Also, the Federal Government hires bachelor’s degree holders to work as soil scientists. Despite the more limited opportunities for those with only a bachelor’s degree to obtain jobs as agricultural scientists, a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science is useful for managerial jobs in businesses that deal with ranchers and farmers, such as feed, fertilizer, seed, and farm equipment manufacturers; retailers or wholesalers; and farm credit institutions. Four-year degrees also may help persons enter occupations such as farmer, or farm or ranch manager; cooperative extension service agent; agricultural products inspector; or purchasing or sales agent for agricultural commodity or farm supply companies.
Median annual earnings of food scientists and technologists were $50,840 in May 2009. The middle 50 percent earned between $36,450 and $72,510. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $28,410, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $91,300. Median annual earnings of soil and plant scientists were $51,200 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $37,890 and $69,120. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,660, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $88,840. In May 2008, median annual earnings of animal scientists were $49,920.
The average Federal salary for employees in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions in 2008 was $87,025 in animal science and $73,573 in agronomy.
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, beginning salary offers in 2009 for graduates with a bachelor's degree in animal sciences averaged $35,614 a year; plant sciences, $34,649 a year; and in other agricultural sciences, $39,189 a year.
Related OccupationsThe work of agricultural scientists is closely related to that of biologists and other natural scientists, such as chemists, conservation scientists, and foresters. It is also related to managers of agricultural production, such as farmers, ranchers, agricultural managers. Certain specialties of agricultural science also are related to other occupations. For example, the work of animal scientists is related to that of
Agricultural career brochures are available from: Information on careers in agricultural science is available from: Information on acquiring a job as an agricultural scientist with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government’s official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or TDD (978) 461-8404. These numbers are not tollfree, and charges may result.
Sources of Additional Information
Agricultural career brochures are available from:
Information on careers in agricultural science is available from:
Information on acquiring a job as an agricultural scientist with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government’s official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or TDD (978) 461-8404. These numbers are not tollfree, and charges may result.