Soil is a unifying element of our planet and every nation on it. But soil science is a career field that is often overlooked because it’s, well, always underfoot.
“Soil Science isn’t something most people know exists. Often people tell me, ‘I had no idea people even do that,” Senior Soil Scientist Chris McGee of Agri-Waste Technology said.
Graduate Demand is Rising
Soil science is a multifaceted field with growing demand and a dwindling labor pool. “It’s a niche career, and there really aren’t very many of us,” McGee said. “Last I counted there were 150-200 licensed soil scientists in North Carolina. There’s going to be a strong demand in coming years for graduates to fill these positions.”
The field of soil science is the study, analysis, and recommendation of soils for appropriate land use. The field usually diverges into two specialties – agricultural soils and environmental soils. There is a strong need for both soil scientists.
Environmental Soil Science
Every septic system in NC must be designed and approved by a licensed soil scientist. Looking to build a new house? Your building lot must have a permit from a soil scientist certifying that it will perk’ or drain properly. Even large municipal governments rely on soil scientists to work on waste and stormwater discharge or runoff containment designs. The intent is to harmonize human development with environmental protection.
“Soil scientists use soil as a resource,” McGee said. Human activity results in waste of different sorts. And it all gets recycled back to the earth’s land and waterways. So understanding how to manage the soil as a natural resource is paramount for human existence.
“We try to find creative ways for developers or municipalities to use the land effectively and responsibly. We work with individual homeowners up to large corporations. We provide them with environmental solutions that combine sound science, our experience, and government regulations.”
Environmental soil scientists work for private consulting firms (like Agri-Waste Technology), government agencies (like the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service), municipal governments, or even freelance as a sideline job.
A Day in The Life
Soil science is a job that isn’t always done at a desk. “It’s a good combination of field and office work. I couldn’t work behind a computer all the time, nor could I be on the road five days a week,” McGee said. “In this job, you can create a client base and expertise that allows you to make what you want out of the job. Me? I need to be outside sometimes.”
So what does an actual soil scientist do? Chris McGee describes his usual weekly agenda:
- Respond to emails from the weekend.
- Work on proposals/estimates for jobs.
- Update company project lists and goals for the week.
- Set up conference calls or meetings to discuss projects.
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays:
I typically spend anywhere from 12 to 24 hours in the field during these three days, about 16 hours on average.
- Travel to job sites to check on the status of larger jobs and assist crews with questions and technical issues.
- Train junior staff in the field.
- Travel for site meetings with clients, regulatory review staff, or marketing and new business development.
- Submit projects, review budgets and invoicing, and conduct strategic planning meetings within the company.
- Review reports and discuss projects with junior staff.
- Work with our administrative team on issues and plan for next week.
How to Become a Soil Scientist
If soil science sounds interesting, you might be wondering how to get started. Many college students with an interest in biology or environmental science stumble onto the field of soil science when looking for a hands-on career.
“I always liked science, math, and being outside, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew that I didn’t want to spend my life on theoretical studies. I liked practical science – something I could see the successes and failures of and watch from start to finish.” McGee graduated from NC State in 2006 with a degree in soil science.
The most direct path to a soil science career is for a college student to earn a bachelor’s degree in soil science. But often individuals discover soil science later in life – after completing a different undergraduate degree. They can take online classes for the required soil science coursework.
After required course completion, in NC new soil scientists must pass a state fundamentals exam and then usually work under the supervision of a licensed soil scientist for three years. Then they may take a professional licensing exam to hold their own soil science license. Over time they work on independent projects and often move into a management or market development role.
What Makes A Good Soil Scientist?
Versatility, Chris McGee says. “You need a mindset to learn new things. Every day is different with new challenges. Many times we are helping to guide clients who know they need our help but don’t understand the government regulations. We have to troubleshoot with them and communicate clearly and professionally.”
Must-Have Soil Science Skills
Soil science might seem like a stable, predictable career. But it’s evolving rapidly. “The regulatory environment is always changing. Land is becoming scarcer and more valuable. It’s pushing the limits on how we use the land, especially in NC where population growth has exploded.” So while the service demand is skyrocketing, so is the supporting technology.
“Clients expect us to share digital information and provide increasingly accurate maps. They used to be hand-drawn, but now everything is done with GIS and CAD skills. Any student interested in this field should have a keen grasp on GPS technology and mapping,” McGee said.
Professional associations are an excellent way to network and stay current with industry trends. In NC, soil scientists often belong to the Soil Science Society of NC and the Soil Science Society of America. Additionally, NC State offers Cooperative Extension and soil science continuing education classes and updates.
How To Stand Out In This Field
So how can future soil scientists differentiate themselves in a resume? “Find concrete ways to demonstrate your willingness to learn and keep learning. You’ve got to prove those intangible skills of hard work and dealing with challenging environments.”
McGee got his start at Agri-Waste Technology as an undergraduate internship that blossomed into a full-time position as an Assistant Soil Scientist. The undergraduate years are an excellent time to test-drive your chosen career path by working in the industry for a summer. You may discover a niche segment or a totally different direction to pursue.
McGee’s best advice to his junior soil scientists, “It’s better to do a thing right the first time. Slow down and be intentional so no one has to question what you’re doing.” When it comes to managing the shared resource of our planet’s soil, responsible, conscientious decisions are vital.
Visit NC State Virtually
If you are a high school student interested in soil and environmental science (or know someone who is) download our soil science ebook, learn about our multiple degree programs and sign up for an email exploration of our department’s undergraduate studies.
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