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Plant Science & Technology

Make a difference by developing new food crops and technologies which will help feed an ever growing global population and aid their wellbeing. Help find urgently needed solutions to the environmental challenges we face. New pests and diseases are appearing all the time and we need scientists to help us fight them

While it is easy to categorise different careers within horticultural science and technology many problems require more than one specialisation so many scientists will work in multidisciplinary teams to solve specific problems.  This creates a complete range of career paths from the narrow specialist to the broad general scientist or engineer.

There are many science careers either within horticulture or interacting with horticulture and the topics below attempt to give a general flavour.  However, there are many more for example engineers designing machinery or greenhouses and mathematicians studying plant populations, Plant Health Inspectors and Lecturers.

Horticultural Chemist

What they do: Chemistry comes into all aspects of horticulture. As well as investigating how plant processes work chemists can be involved in developing new and improved plant nutrients and growing media. As well as developing new systems for composting and recycling plant materials and identifying and developing new medicines and fuels derived from plants.

Chemists also analyse soil and plants to identify nutrient problems, undesirable residues and disease. They are also involved in both fresh and processed food to ensure the final product is safe and healthy.

Career path: For most jobs you will need a degree. Relevant subjects include chemistry, biochemistry, chemical engineering, materials science.

Where they work: Although some chemists work for the well-known international chemical companies, most of those involved with horticulture work either in public bodies such as universities and research institutes, or in medium or small private companies developing new materials, diagnostic tests and plant medicines.

More info: SCI Horticulture Group

Horticultural Scientist / Crop Physiologist / Taxonomist

What they do: Horticultural scientists and crop physiologists study all forms of plant life in the laboratory, in the field and in the natural environment. They have many different job roles, as their work is used in a variety of areas, including environmental conservation, agriculture, forestry, horticulture, medicine, biotechnology and food science. Their work could include identifying, classifying, recording and monitoring plant species, understanding their growth and how to improve it or studying the effects of the environment on plant life.

Career path: For most jobs you will need a degree. Relevant subjects include botany, horticulture, plant biology, plant science, environmental science and ecology.

Where they work: You could find work as a horticultural scientist in areas such as:

  • Government research institutes
  • Universities
  • Conservation organisations including botanical gardens and collections
  • Food producing companies
  • Retail companies (fresh produce)
  • Food processing & marketing companies
  • Consultancy & supply companies

More info: Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland, Natural History MuseumHortax, Plant Science Courses at Kew

Landscape Scientist

What they do: Landscape scientists are landscape architects who investigate and explore the geology, wildlife and natural features that make up the landscape. Working closely with professionals like landscape architects, civil engineers and planners, landscape scientists focus on the physical and biological issues at the heart of landscape design and management. Landscape scientists often oversee construction work and apply scientific expertise to practical problems.

Career path: Landscape science is a chartered profession like architecture, accountancy or surveying. In order to pursue a career in the profession, you will need a degree followed by a period of study at work in order to qualify fully as a chartered landscape scientist. You will also need to be a member of the Landscape Institute, the professional body, qualifying authority and regulator for the landscape architecture profession.

Where they work: Most landscape scientists work for environmental consultancies within landscape practices. However, some are employed as ecologists by local authorities. In the education sector a small number of scientists work in research, teaching or lecturing.

More info: SCI Horticultural Group

Pathologist - Bacteriologist / Entomologist / Mycologist / Virologist

What they do: The control of pests and diseases is one of the most important factors affecting the success of plants whether they are growing for food, ornamentation or in the wild. They can be equally damaging in stored and processed food as well as fresh food on its way to the customer.

Bacteriologists (bacteria), Entomologists (insects) Mycologists (fungi) and Virologists (viruses) identify and study the life cycles and modes of infection of pests and diseases and develop strategies for their control. These can encompass a wide range from physical and chemical barriers to using the insects own chemistry (pheromones) to trap them. Increasing effort is devoted to identifying and rearing other insects and pathogens that will attack the pest or disease of the crop. This involves not just the species involved themselves but their interaction with the natural environment, including other plants and insects around them.

Career path: In order to pursue a career in the UK in any branch of pathology you will need a good degree in a science subject, usually biological sciences, and then take a relevant MSc or PhD.

Where they work: Pathologists are mainly employed as researchers or consultants who work in a variety of fields aimed at tackling crop or garden pests and the insects and diseases that spread plant, human and animal diseases. Pathologists are also concerned with the conservation of our native flora & fauna and their habitats.
Most pathologists are employed by various public organisations, such as the research institutes, museums, universities and national and local government departments concerned with agriculture, horticulture, health, conservation and environmental protection.
In the private sector they are employed by agricultural estates, pest control contractors and companies that develop and manufacture biological and chemical insecticides. As well as by environmental consultants, County Wildlife Trusts and other environmental charities.

More info: The Royal Entomologist SocietyBritish Society for Plant PathologySCRI (Scottish Crop Research Institute)SCI Horticulture GroupSCI Bioresources Group

Environmental Scientist

What they do: In addition to studying plants, insects, fungi etc. within a strictly horticultural field they can also be involved in studies in the wider environment. Thus an entomologist may be studying insect populations in the wild, either to assist their survival or to better understand the interaction between wild populations and those on horticultural crops.

Career Path:  Environmental scientists will usually study to degree level and beyond in their chosen discipline and specialise in environmental work as their studies progress or after their completion.

Where they work: They will work in a variety of public bodies and private companies as well as conservation and landscape management organisations.

More info: SCI Horticulture GroupSCI Bioresources Group

Plant Breeder / Geneticist

What they do: Changing growing conditions, consumer demands and shifts in farming and environmental policies means there is a constant need for new plant varieties. Plant breeders/geneticists apply a range of techniques to produce new and improved varieties of plants for cultivation and use. The work combines the traditional work of crossing existing plants and selecting new strains, with the expertise of the plant geneticist and biotechnologist. Roles vary between academic, research and commercial settings.

Career path: A good honours or postgraduate degree is required to become a plant breeder. Relevant degree subjects include biology, genetics, molecular biology, biotechnology, botany and plant science, agriculture, crop and plant science or horticulture.

Where they work: The plant breeding sector employs around 5,000 people, with most commercial plant breeding taking place within the private sector. Plant breeding work is also carried out in a limited number of research institutes. Plant breeders and geneticists become involved with many other disciplines particularly entomology and pathology as part of their work while geneticists become involved with understanding pests and diseases in order to better understand and develop their means of control.

More info: British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB)SCI Horticulture Group

Propagation Scientist

What they do: Propagation scientists study the best ways to create new plants from old by collecting seeds, taking cuttings or through micropropagation, which is propagating new plants from just a few cells of parent plants in a laboratory. This may be to propagate a new variety, to multiply a difficult to propagate plant or to save an endangered species.

Career path: Propagation techniques can be taught on the job at nurseries, or learnt as part of a wide range of horticultural courses, including degrees, National Diplomas and distance learning.

Where they work: Nurseries, research bodies (eg Central Science Laboratory), commercial plant breeders.

More info: International Plant Propagators SocietySCI Horticulture Group

Related job titles: Micropropagator

Soil Scientist

What they do: Soil and other growing media are vital for food production, supporting plant and animal life and providing a foundation for building. A soil scientist provides information about the chemistry, biology and physics of the growing media to help with everything from landscape design to food production and environmental quality.

Career path: To become a soil scientist, you’ll need a degree in a science or science-related discipline such as agriculture, archaeology, biology, botany, chemistry, soil science etc. In the UK, the University of Aberdeen is currently the only institution offering an undergraduate degree programme in plant and soil science.

Where they work: The largest numbers of soil science opportunities are available within specialist research centres such as the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) and others which are funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Others may work in the companies developing and producing growing media. Soil scientists can also be found researching and teaching in higher education institutions. Other institutes include the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) and the National Soil Resources Institute (NSRI). Jobs are sometimes available in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Environment Agency (EA), Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and in local government.

The Royal Horticultural Society also employs soil scientists.

More info:  ProspectsSCI Horticulture GroupBritish Society of Soil Science

Journalist / Public Relations / Consultant / Field Advisor / Agronomist

What they do: Ensuring that new scientific discoveries reach the people that can use them and benefit from them is as essential as making the discoveries themselves.  Plant scientists can develop careers in writing and scientific publishing as well broadcasting and public relations. In addition to these more general means of communication, consultants deal with growers on a one to one basis advising them on the practical application of up to date scientific knowledge.
Career path: Most scientists who move into these areas do so after an initial period working in another area of horticultural science. Those that enter these jobs directly do so with a science degree.

Where they work: Public organisations or private companies.  Journalists and consultants will often work free-lance from a home office.  However they will spend a considerable amount of time visiting clients to gain the information needed to base their writing or advise.

More info: SCI Horticulture Group,  British Institute of Agricultural ConsultantsHortimediaRBG Kew

Information supplied by SCI