Soil Scientist


Soil scientists study the chemical, physical, and biological properties of the first few metres of Earth’s crust. More specifically, they study soil formation, classification, and soil characteristics such as the organisms found in the soil and relationship between soil types and plant growth. The information provided by soil scientists is vital to industries such as agriculture and forestry, as well as policy-makers addressing issues of public health and environmental protection.

At a glance

Imagine you are standing on the former site of a busy cattle feedlot on the edge of what is now a picturesque summer village. The feedlot has been gone for years, the previous owner having retired and dismantled the operation to make room for the swell in tourism to the area. Now a group of developers has bought the site with plans to build a championship 36-hole golf course, but before they can do that, they need your expert opinion of the site. You are a soil scientist, and these developers have hired you to analyze the soil of the former feedlot to assess if it can support the specific varieties of grass, trees, and shrubbery they intend to grow on the course. Since much of the course's success hinges on the quality of its greens and fairways, the developers need to know what can grow on the site. As a soil scientist, you are an expert in the chemical, physical, and biological properties of soil and know what you need to look for to determine if the site is suitable for a golf course. First you and your team of technicians must take a number of sample cores from the site, which will be sent to the lab for analysis. One of the tests you'll run will detect residual contaminants in the soil that could affect its viability for growing grass and such for the golf course. You will also test for other characteristics, for example nutrient levels and organic carbon content. In addition to lab analysis, you will examine these cores for texture, bulk density, hydraulic properties, and moisture levels, including a close inspection looking for different colours in the soil, indicating the presence of a water table. At the end of the process, you will give the developers a thorough report on the soil's health and physical attributes and indicate whether it is a suitable site for their golf course.

Job duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a soil scientist:
  • Study soil origins and composition, as well as nutrient movements from soil to the atmosphere and into water systems.
  • Study organisms in the soil and how they contribute to ecosystem function and stability.
  • Manipulate soil organisms to improve productivity, reclamation success, or to achieve other goals.
  • Study plant and crop responses to added nutrients and soil amendments.
  • Collect and analyze soil samples and data from a range of environments.
  • Collect data and build computer simulation models for estimating water budgets and contaminant transport in soils.
  • Research different soil systems and soil management.
  • Prepare reports describing land and soil characteristics.
  • Investigate issues of soil quality and monitor activities to assure compliance with applicable regulations.
  • Investigate and remediate soil that has been negatively impacted by human activities, for example oil and gas, manufacturing plants, and landfills.
  • Manage soil for land enhancement, for example landscape design, mine reclamation, and site restoration.
  • Evaluate soils as they relate to natural resource management, for example forest soil properties, ecological evaluations, and endangerment assessments.
  • Produce maps of soil types and characteristics and their distribution.
  • Provide advice on soil usage to practitioners in other industries, including agriculture and forestry.
  • Monitor and investigate ways to mitigate catastrophic soil erosion in relation to natural phenomena such as forest fires and intense rainfall.

Work environment

Soil scientists work in a variety of locations, including: In the office:
  • Doing paperwork and analyzing data for reporting
  • Using GIS software for making or adjusting maps
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, stakeholders, government departments, colleagues, and experts in the field
  • Researching new technology and advancements in soil science
  • Participating on committees for policy, regulation, and research and educational program development
In the field:
  • Inspecting and testing soils, taking measurements, and collecting samples
  • Making presentations to land users, including farmers, foresters, and urban gardeners, and participating in training sessions
  • Responding to requests from clients
  • Mapping soil features
In the lab:
  • Processing and analyzing samples

Where to work

There are a number of places soil scientists can find employment. They include:
  • Federal, provincial/territorial, or municipal government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Environmental consulting and management companies
  • Conservation agencies
  • Land development and management companies
  • Reclamation and waste disposal companies
  • Consulting firms providing services to agriculture, forestry, oil and gas, and mining industries

Education & requirements

If you are a high school student considering a career as a soil scientist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Mathematics
  • English
  • Geography
In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a soil scientist is a university undergraduate degree. If you are interested in research, a graduate degree is usually required. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a soil scientist, the following programs are most applicable:
  • Soil Science
  • Agronomy
  • Natural Resource Management
  • Land Reclamation
  • Environmental Science
  • Environmental Earth Science
Although in most cases it is not mandatory to become certified in order to work as a soil scientist, some practitioners choose to apply for professional status, for example Professional Agrologist. Requirements for certification and professional status vary among provinces.

Salary

Soil scientist in an entry level position make an average of $58,250 per year in Canada. A soil scientist with several years of experience and education can make between $55,500 and $102,000 per year.

Role Model

Tim Spedding

Tim Spedding understands the «wonder of soil.” To Tim, soil isn’t just dirt, "it is an amazingly thin layer between the cold dark earth and the atmosphere.” It was an enthusiastic professor during his undergraduate studies who showed Tim how soil "is so diverse, and how fundamental it is to all of our terrestrial systems.” Almost a decade later, with a B.Sc. with Honours in Geology and an M.Sc. in Soil Science, Tim is a professional soil scientist with Komex International. In the summer months, he works in the field, often in remote locations for weeks at a time. He performs everything from preliminary environmental site assessments to remediation work. Once the season is over, Tim spends most of his time behind a desk, analyzing data, finalizing reports, and summarizing his fieldwork. Tim enjoys the variety of responsibilities and the autonomy his job offers. "We do run our projects a lot ourselves…this job offers a lot of management responsibility.” He also is happy to be employed in a profession where there is an unprecedented demand for soil scientists. "The industry is on fire, and it’s only just going to keep on growing.” But, Tim says, much of what soil scientists do goes unrecognized and unappreciated by the public. He points out that his job is more than just the study of dirt. "Soil is a medium that contains so many of life’s processes…it’s pretty amazing.” He adds that, for many people, soil is not considered a natural resource in need of protection. "It’s viewed more as something you need to excavate if you want to build a house.” Tim looks forward to the day when the importance of soil science—and soil scientists—is fully recognized "because the role of soil, and the people who study it, is fundamental” to the health of our environment.