Licensed to Drill: Educating the Professional Soil Scientist 

North Carolina’s meteoric real estate market was once frequently bottlenecked at its beginning, soils permitting. Every new septic system requires a site survey and permit to approve the land’s ability to support its future use. That used to depend on a single individual or two in county offices.

Not every soil can accommodate the grand visions we create. Incompatible land use can cause catastrophic impacts on environmental and human health. Understanding soil types, function and appropriate use requires independent expertise that starts with classroom soil science.

Licensed Professionalism

Licensed NC soil scientist Ryan Smith studies a test site
Licensed NC soil scientist Ryan Smith of Piedmont Environmental Associates studies a test site

As NC land interest took off in the 1980s and 90s, eager real estate sellers and human health specialists occasionally claimed to potential buyers they ‘knew the land’ and made uninformed land use assurances. For speculative buyers, trusting lay experience on the pivotal issue of land use was a risky bet when multi-million dollar deals were on the table.

That changed in 1995 when the NC legislature approved a law requiring individuals doing soil mapping and analysis to be licensed soil scientists. The law also made it a misdemeanor to practice without a license.

“Back in the early 90s, anyone could purchase an auger and do soil work,” said Jim Beeson, founder of Piedmont Environmental Associates. “Many trained soil scientists realized that our industry had grown into a true profession, not unlike surveyors or engineers, and it needed licensure.”

Licensing soil scientists ensured practitioners had the education and on-the-ground experience to assess and recommend land use accurately. It also established an authoritative body.  

“Now, as licensed professionals, we are governed by a board that can take disciplinary actions if needed,” Beeson said. “Licensing connotates a standard of service that provides confidence and value to our clients and the citizens of North Carolina.”

In NC, over 160 licensed soil scientists can now site and approve the growing number of new commercial and residential septic systems. 

Mapping Careers with NRCS

But soil scientists work in other capacities. Some work as civil engineers, while others work with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service or forest services.

NRCS employment offers ten titles in different soil science positions, from local soil scientists to soil survey leaders up to state, regional and national soil scientists. Many NRCS employees start as student trainees in soil science, which often leads to a permanent position. 

Soil scientists needn’t be licensed to work with NRCS. However, every soil position at NRCS necessitates a minimum educational requirement of 15 hours of soil-specific academic courses. Applicants may be graduates with a soil science degree or other related degree while carrying the required 15-hour soils classes. 

USDA NRCS David Lindbo instructs a group of Envirothon students from an NC State soil pit.
USDA NRCS David Lindbo instructs a group of Envirothon students from an NC State soil pit.

How to Become a North Carolina Licensed Soil Scientist

No matter which direction a soil career path takes, becoming licensed can be a crucial step.

NC soil science licensure requires:

  • General character qualifications with four letters of reference
  • A bachelor’s degree with 30 hours in agricultural, biological, physical, or earth sciences 
  • 15 hours of soils-specific academic coursework 
  • Three years of hands-on experience under a qualified supervisor or an advanced degree in soil science
  • Passage of a written fundamentals exam and a professional practice exam

Soil samples from an NC State soil judging event

Amassing Academic Credit Hours

NC State’s soil science courses are offered as an undergraduate soil science certificate program, which provides the curriculum to prepare students to take the NC soil licensing board exam

While the program doesn’t require admission to the university as an undergraduate student, the classes are the same rigor and variety as those available to our traditional students. 

While many colleges offer a handful of soil classes, NC State’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences is one of the few sources for all of the necessary academic classes for NC soil science licensing and NRCS educational requirements. 

“Many colleges offer one or two soil classes. But it can be a hassle to chain them together to meet the requirements, ” said David Crouse, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences’ Director of Undergraduate Programs. “NC State is one of the few places where an individual can get all the credit hours needed to qualify for the soil science fundamentals exam.

NC State’s soil certificate classes are conveniently offered in person in Raleigh, NC and online for prospective soil students anywhere in the country. Most students in the program are working professionals who enroll in one class per semester and complete the certificate in five semesters.

Interested students should check with their employers. Applicants are often surprised to find that some employers will pay tuition expenses.

Once in the workforce, NC State also offers ongoing professional development in many areas of environmental science.

NC State soil science professor David Crouse instructs a group of students in the field
NC State soil science professor David Crouse instructs students at a university field site.

Same Goals, Different Paths

Soil science student Alex McElwee takes a soil core sample.
Soil science student Alex McElwee takes a soil core sample.

Most soil certificate students are non-traditional. They are usually full-time working professionals looking to expand their skill sets and career opportunities. 

Alex McElwee is working towards being a licensed soil scientist and environmental health specialist in Gaston County, South Carolina.

“I came to NC State to gain the necessary soils credit hours via distance education. But I wasn’t expecting the wide variation of classes offered. I was able to choose from many different options for classes that suited my specific needs. The program is allowing me to learn about soils in a way that I do not encounter in my day to day duties.”

Picture Yourself in Crop and Soil Sciences

If you are looking for an academic path that leads to a career of impact, consider crop and soil sciences. Our students learn from expert professors and experience hands-on adventures every day.  

Learn more about our student degree pathways, including deep dives into our agronomy, soil science and turfgrass programs. Then, join us for a guided email tour of our Crop & Soil Sciences Department.  

Connecting students with fertile careers is just part of how we are growing the future.
NC State's logo in a soil pit