Crop science combines plant and soil sciences, biotechnology, horticulture and other disciplines to improve crop production. Learn about jobs in the field, salary ranges, related degree programs and topics of study.
Closely related to agronomy, the field of crop science focuses on agricultural productivity of crops for livestock and human consumption. Crop scientists often use biotechnology, chemicals and genetic modifications to maintain and improve crop production, enhance nutritional value and help crops withstand pesticides. They often use breeding and cross-fertilization techniques to develop new strains of crops resistant to pests, weeds and climate extremes, such as droughts. Some focus on conservation, biodiversity and organic farming through the application of sustainable agricultural systems.
Studies in crop science can lead to private and public sector careers in the areas of education, agricultural management, laboratory research, consulting and seed marketing. Federal, state and local government agencies often hire crop scientists to research and develop new methods by which to enhance crop yields and food production. You could further combine research and teaching at a college or university with an advanced degree in the field.
Additional public and private sector jobs may be found in the areas of environmental management and consulting. Related job titles you could qualify for include agronomist, plant scientist, crop manager, weed technologist, environmental consultant and farmer, among others. You need computer skills and knowledge of agricultural production and chemical processes in this area of work.
If you're interested in pursuing a career as a crop scientist, now may be a good time to do so. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasted faster-than-average job growth for agricultural and food scientists, at 16%, between 2008 and 2018 (www.bls.gov). The BLS reported that an increasing population and demand for healthy and environmentally safe food would contribute to job growth. As of May 2010, the median salary for soil and plant scientists was $57,340, with the top ten percent earning over $101,000 per annum, according to the BLS.
Crop science can be studied at the bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree levels, often through departments of plant, crop and soil sciences. While you can also earn an associate's degree in this and related fields, such as field crop technology and turfgrass management, a bachelor's degree is generally the minimum requirement to work as a crop scientist. A master's or doctoral degree is generally needed for high-level environmental positions, as well as for careers in research and teaching in colleges and universities. Both research-oriented thesis and professional non-thesis programs are available at the master's degree level, while doctoral degree programs typically require researched dissertations. Closely related degree offerings include plant and soil sciences, plant physiology, agroecology, agribusiness and crop chemistry.
In a crop science program, you'll learn how plants grow and how to maximize the efficiency of biological and physical factors that contribute to that growth. Courses you may take include organic chemistry, turfgrass management, plant breeding, plant physiology and weed management. Most programs incorporate field and lab courses for more hands-on learning, as well as internship opportunities that can better prepare you for a career in the field. Most graduate programs offer further specialization, such as in plant genetics, agronomy, crop physiology and crop management.
If you wish to work as a soil scientist, you may need to obtain licensure in your state. The Council of Soil Science Examiners maintains national exams used by state licensing programs. In addition to passing an exam, licensure requires a bachelor's degree and relevant work experience in the field (www.soils.org).
Ongoing professional development opportunities are available as well. The Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) provides job postings, publications and meeting announcements to its members (www.crops.org). The CSSA and American Society of Agronomy further offer professional credentialing as a Certified Crop Adviser or Certified Professional Agronomist (www.agronomy.org). Certification requires some combination of formal educational training and relevant work experience, passing an examination and renewing certification every two years through continuing education.