STEM Careers Start with A College Major in Soil

Student in red hat digs in garden soil

We have one earth. It’s currently our single place in the universe on which to build our homes, feed our communities, and sustain life.  This common ground is a rich career field for anyone interested in STEM and environmental science. You might not give it much thought, but our soil supports every step of life.

The Roles of Soil in Our Lives: 

  • Supporting plant growth: including our natural areas, agricultural land, and play spaces
  • Recycling waste products of society and nature: the universal composting system to process what we don’t need
  • Modifier of the atmosphere: the underground system to contain and reuse carbon
  • Habitat for the majority of earth life: One gram of fertile soil can contain up to one billion bacteria.  A small handful contains more organisms (from microscopic bacteria to substantial earthworms) than the entire human population
  • Engineering medium: providing construction material and support for building
  • Water supply and purification: our subterranean filter for drainage and clean water

Every facet of our daily lives depends on our soils, around the globe. This unifying element for life requires responsible management and study through the fields of soil science and soil conservation. Because soil is a universal resource, students who are interested in soil study come from all backgrounds and cultures – urban, rural, domestic, and international. Here are seven reasons it might just be for you too.

aerial view of farm community
Soil affects every facet of life in agricultural and environmental studies.

Seven Reasons to Dig A Soils Career

1. Fresh Air 

While lab positions exist, most jobs in soils require you to get out of the office and get hands-on. If you prefer an office outdoors to a 9 to 5 job in a cubicle, soils might be for you. “It’s hard, sometimes dirty work that requires a solid science background. It’s the only white-collar job I know of that gets dirty,” musecd Jeff Vaughan, NC State graduate and President of Agri-Waste Technology, Inc.

2. Environmental Impact

Working with soils offers the chance to affect our environment. Through environmental preservation, you can create lasting contributions that improve our planet. “If we lose beautiful places, what’s the point of being here? You have a chance to make a difference and create a place for all living things to thrive,” said. Dale Threatt-Taylor, NC State graduate and Executive Director for the Nature Conservancy in South Carolina.

3. Practical Science

 If you love doing, rather than studying theory, soils is your chance to apply STEM knowledge in the real world. “Soil is a matrix of diverse materials integrating the study of biology, chemistry, and physics,” John Havlin, NC State professor of soil science, said. Soil careers require a solid science footing but also a fair amount of math calculation – a real integration of STEM concepts.

4. Appreciation for Land

Soil is the foundation of life. “Life simply wouldn’t exist without it,” Havlin said. Making wise choices on human development impacts the entire world. If you enjoy the diversity of earthly places and are interested in land stewardship, a soils career could be your best path.

5. Hiring Demand

The universal importance of healthy soil makes soil careers potential paydirt for graduates. Human development, suburban expansion, urban restoration, and wetland preservation provide an ongoing need for soil professionals. “There’s been a policy shift away from government regulation towards environmental services which requires a new crop of soils professionals,” said David Crouse, NC State’s director of undergraduate programs in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. The US Bureau of Labor projects 3-8% job growth in this category over the next 10 years, on pace or faster than most other fields.

6. Public & Private Paths

The field of soil study branches in many directions.  Opportunities exist in both field and lab settings with private businesses, government agencies, and non-profit groups. Positions range from laboratory scientists to entrepreneurial business leadership depending on your interests and skill set. “Soil study used to be focused on agriculture.  But that has changed. There has been a dramatic increase in the environmental soil industry,” said Deanna Osmond, NC State Extension lead and graduate advisor.

7. You’re Good at Chemistry or Biology or Math or Environmental Science or Human Geography

Soil science is interdisciplinary. And it goes way beyond agriculture. This field bridges geology, chemistry, biology, statistics, and physics. “Most of our soils students aren’t farm kids. They are interested in environmental science and want a specialty that makes them a highly valued team member,” David Crouse said. 

Advisors consult on golf course development
Soil specialists are essential in land use planning.

Career Field Crossover

Soil study generally tracks into two slightly different and potentially overlapping career fields:

chart of soil career paths


What kind of job can you actually do with a soil degree? Here are a few:

soil career job titles

Man measures soil samples in the field
Soil scientists are often required for land planning and development.

Why a Soil Degree?

You’ll Have a Specialty

Teams require specialists. Just like a sports team trains and relies on specific positions, having a unique, niche role makes you a valuable team resource. Our soil programs teach specific, marketable skills not covered by more general fields of study.

Soil Professionals are Essential

Soil specialists are required for many projects like building permits and environmental compliance.  And soil-specific training is required for many government positions. 

A World of Opportunity

Because soil unites all life, a soil degree expands your career opportunities between agriculture and environmental science. “There’s a lot of flexibility in this field. You don’t have to stay tied to a specific path. Be open to opportunities that arrive knowing you can switch tracks,” said David Lindbo, former NC State professor and NRCS Director of Soil and Plant Sciences.

Soil researchers in the field
Soil study offers many specialties and research opportunities.

Which Soil Program is Right for You?

Four-Year Bachelor of Science

NC State offers two bachelor’s degree soil study programs which correlate with these two career paths:

  • Soil Science 
  • Soil, Water, & Land Use 

Who should consider the bachelor’s degree option

High school graduates and other students interested in a university degree leading to a soil career or graduate-level soil study.

Which major should I choose – Soil Science or Soil, Water, & Land Use?

Our two soil degrees have a similar foundation with common classes in biology, chemistry, geology, soil science, statistics, soil classification, and soil fertility – in addition to general education requirements. They roughly equate to the 2 career paths of soil science and soil conservation but there’s a lot of room for flexibility.  

So What’s the Difference?

Our two programs have different required courses and are customizable through elective selection. Here’s a comparison: 

Soil degree class differences

Still Not Sure?

Our Undergraduate Programs Office would be happy to walk you through the comparison and find the right fit for you. Schedule a no-pressure call to see how either of these degrees can work for you.

Soil Science Minor

We also offer Soil Science as a 17 credit hour minor to complement other NC State undergraduate degree programs.  

Who should consider a soil science minor

Undergraduate students who want to bolster their knowledge of soils to supplement another four-year degree major. Majors benefiting from soil science minor include, but aren’t limited to, forestry, geology, environmental science, horticulture, biological and agricultural engineering, and natural resources.

Soil Science Certificate (online only)

Our online program is designed for non-degree seeking students interested in becoming a licensed soil scientist (in some states) or a national Certified Professional Soil Scientist.  Our online certificate program includes a combination of undergraduate and graduate-level courses totaling the 15-hour requirement. A simplified admissions application is required. 

Who should consider a soil science certificate?

  • Students with an Associate’s degree who want more soil specific training
  • Extension or other adult professionals seeking career advancement
Professor in red hat describes soil conditions
NC State’s soil programs prepare students for employment or graduate work.

Digging Deeper

For students and graduates who want to build a rock-solid soils foundation, your career path may recommend or require additional training.

Graduate Degrees

NC State’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences offers three higher-level soil science degrees. Graduate students work through courses in soil chemistry, soil fertility, soil genesis and classification, soil microbiology, and soil physics.

  • Master of Soil Science (on-campus or online) 
    • A non-thesis program requiring 36 credit hours, typically completed within 2-3 years. Available as an on-campus and online option for remote students.
    • Generally considered a final degree.
  • Master of Science in Soil Science (on-campus), M.S.
    • A research-based degree that requires successful completion of an original research project and presentation of a written thesis. 30 credit hours required, typically completed within 2-3 years. 
    • Prepares students for advancement to Ph.D. level, if desired.
  • Doctor of Philosophy in Soil Science, Ph.D.
    • An original research degree with minimal supervision requiring a dissertation and publication in a scholarly journal.
    • Requires 72 credit hours, typically completed within 3-4 years.  Up to 18 credits may be transferred from a Master of Science program.

Is a graduate degree required for this field?

It depends on your career aspirations.  “You can be successful and earn a good living with a bachelor’s degree,” professor David Crouse said. “But if you fall in love with the science or want to accelerate your career trajectory, a graduate degree helps.” 

A master’s degree fine-tunes your knowledge and provides opportunities to practice writing and speaking – critical skills for this industry. “A Ph.D. is a big commitment. Most candidates are interested in research or academic teaching positions. It provides very specific training, so students should know where they are headed,” said Josh Heitman, NC State professor of soil physics. In either case, a graduate degree can potentially earn you a higher starting salary and lead to management positions. Talk with our Graduate Program Director to see if it might be a fit for you.

Graduate students measures soil samples in a lab
NC State offers graduate research that can propel your career.

Continuing Education

NC State Extension is home to North Carolina’s premier soil science continuing education programs.  Many soils career paths require ongoing education.  Our programs provides classroom and hands-on training in:


Why NC State for Soil Study?


NC State is one of the few dedicated soil programs in the country. Employers recognize the commitment and quality of a soil degree from NC State, making our graduates easily employable. We have a legacy of excellence as one of the founding and top-performing schools in soil judging, a highly regarded & employable job skill.  Soil judging is offered as both a credit-earning class and an extra-curricular competition team. Employers recognize and value the field-based skills students develop through soil judging.

Curriculum Breadth & Depth

Our two undergraduate soil study paths offer students the ability to focus their interests and dive deep into a specialized career field. We present a mix of urban and agricultural challenges rarely found elsewhere giving our students exposure to a variety of topics and allowing them the opportunity to try them all on for size. “Many universities offer an environmental science degree.  We specialize in soil,” professor David Crouse said.

Real-World Skills

As a preeminent university in soil research and continuing education, we offer classroom and field opportunities that build your resume with the skills employers need. “In my Soil Classification course I assign a small subdivision project. Students are tasked with mapping and evaluating a 20-acre parcel for land use. They are asked to create a soil map, calculate potential erosion, estimate small agricultural crop yield, identify areas for septic and roads in the fictional community. It’s something to put in their portfolio and demonstrate field competency,” said Matt Ricker, NC State assistant professor of soil pedology and land use. 

Soil science students sit in a circle outdoors
Hands-on soil classification takes the class into the field.

Specialized Faculty

“We have a large and diverse soil faculty who span all soil science sub-disciplines,” said Mike Mullen, NC State Director of Graduate Programs in soil science. As one of the few universities with a dedicated soils program, our faculty have a broad range of specialties in agronomy, waste, and environmental issues. Our low student to faculty ratio means you’ll be a name, not a number, with faculty who spend one-on-one time understanding your interests and advising you on class choice and career paths.

Research Active 

NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Science (CALS) ranks nationally in the top five land-grant universities for research grants.  “Our research faculty are working on many of the grand challenges of environment and agriculture. These active research labs offer both undergraduate and graduate students hands-on access to novel, cutting edge research experience that is highly valuable to future employers,” Mike Mullen said. 

Diverse Location

NC State’s home in Raleigh, North Carolina, offers a unique combination of urban and agricultural land.  While NC ranks sixth nationally in agriculture, its largest cities (Charlotte and Raleigh) nationally rank in the top 40 of metropolitan areas and are frequently in the top 5 for population growth. “The study of soil is a mix of urban and agricultural challenges. There are few other places a student can find and switch between the two. The diversity of experience in our faculty provide both perspectives,” professor Josh Heitman said.


NC State has a history of placing soil students in prominent career fields. Establishing and maintaining connections made here on campus are powerful tools for any job seeker. “Soil science is a small family. Networking is imperative, often opening doors for career moves. Students should make a point to connect with their professors and fellow students whom they will undoubtedly encounter again,” NRCS’s Dave Lindbo said.

Instructor teaches from a soil pit
Soil study provides real-world skills.

Scholarships, Internships, & Fellowships


The Department of Crop and Soil Sciences is part of NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).  CALS annually grants over $1 million in undergraduate scholarships to over 600 students. Through the 42 scholarships awarded through our department, Crop and Soil Science major and minor students cumulatively receive over $175,000 each year. 

Internships are not required for graduation but are highly recommended and regarded by future employers. Our faculty help students find and tailor internship opportunities to your interests and career goals.


Our graduate program offers financial support through assistantships in our extensive research program. Availability depends upon current research needs. We also work with our graduate students to identify and compete for outside-funded fellowships. Interested students should contact our Soil Science Graduate Program Director for current openings.  

Bottom Line? 

If you are interested in studying soil at NC State, we can help you find a way.  

Graduate student presents research on topsoil
NC State soil students research and share their work alongside our specialized faculty.

Test Drive

If we’ve piqued your interest in soil study, you might like to take us, and the field of soils study, for a test drive. 

Current High Schoolers

(prospective undergraduates)

Current College Students

(prospective graduate students)

  • BESST – Our National Science Foundation program for college undergraduates interested in soil science research. It’s a highly competitive applicant program, so follow the deadlines and apply early!
  • Graduate student visits – Our graduate programs office would love to get to know you and your study interests to see if we are a match.  Online meetings and on-campus visits are available. Schedule a time to envision your Pack possibilities with us. 
Student in an orange shirt digs soil samples to identify
High school programs like Envirothon let students explore the field of soil.

Visit Virtually

Want to explore another Crop and Soil Sciences option? Take a similar deep dive into our turfgrass degree program to see if it’s a fit for you.

Want the full Crop & Soil Science experience? If you are a high school student interested in soil and environmental science (or know someone who is) enjoy our email exploration of our department’s full undergraduate programs. Then contact David Crouse to schedule a time to discuss your role in the Pack.  We want you here!

Keep abreast of all the latest news and research from the Department of Crop & Soil Sciences by joining our Friends of Crop & Soil Sciences weekly newsletter. We are #growingthefuture.