Agricultural or Food Scientist

Agricultural and food scientists work to ensure that agricultural establishments are productive and food is safe.

Interest Area: 
Thinking
Average Yearly Pay: 
$57980
Education Needed: 
Bachelor's Degree
Employment: 
Growing as Fast as the Average
Job Growth: 
16%
Job Prospects: 
Good

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Job Duties: 

Agricultural and food scientists typically do the following:

  • Conduct research and experiments concerning animal nutrition and field crops
  • Develop ways to improve the quantity and quality of field crops and farm animals
  • Create new food products and develop new and better ways to process, package, and deliver them
  • Study the composition of soil as it relates to plant growth
  • Communicate research findings to the scientific community, food producers, and the public
  • Career Overview: 

    Agricultural and food scientists work to ensure that agricultural establishments are productive and food is safe.

    Duties

    Agricultural and food scientists typically do the following:

    • Conduct research and experiments to improve the quantity and quality of field crops and farm animals
    • Formulate new food products and develop new and better ways to process, package, and deliver them
    • Study the composition of soil as it relates to plant growth
    • Communicate research findings to the scientific community, food producers, and the public
    • Travel between facilities to oversee the implementation of new projects

    Agricultural and food scientists play an important role in maintaining and expanding the nation’s food supply. Many work in basic or applied research and development. Basic research seeks to understand the biological and chemical processes by which crops and livestock grow. Applied research uses this knowledge to discover ways to improve the quality, quantity, and safety of agricultural products.

    Many agricultural and food scientists work with little supervision, forming their own hypotheses and developing research methods accordingly. In addition, they often lead teams of technicians or students who help in their research. Agricultural and food scientists who are employed in private industry may need to travel between different sites to perform various duties for their employers.

    The following are types of agricultural and food scientists:

    Animal scientists typically conduct research on domestic farm animals. With a focus on food production, they explore animal genetics, nutrition, reproduction, diseases, growth, and development. They work to develop efficient ways to produce and process meat, poultry, eggs, and milk. Animal scientists may crossbreed animals to get new combinations of desirable characteristics. They advise farmers on how to upgrade housing for animals, lower animal death rates, handle waste matter, and increase production.

    Food scientists and technologists use chemistry and other sciences to study the underlying principles of food. They analyze nutritional content of food, discover new food sources, and research ways to make processed foods safe and healthy. Food technologists generally work in product development, applying findings from food science research to develop new or better ways of selecting, preserving, processing, packaging, and distributing food. Some food scientists use nanotechnology, problem solving techniques that work on the atomic scale, to develop sensors that can detect contaminants in food. Other food scientists enforce government regulations, inspecting food processing areas to ensure that they are sanitary and meet waste management standards.

    Soil and plant scientists conduct research on soil, crops, and other agricultural products.

    Soil scientists examine the scientific composition of soil as it relates to plant or crop growth, and investigate effects of alternative soil treatment practices on crop productivity. They develop methods of conserving and managing soil that farmers and forestry companies can use. Because soil science is closely related to environmental science, people trained in soil science also work to ensure environmental quality and effective land use.

    Plant scientists work to improve crop yields and give advice to food and crop developers about techniques that could enhance production efforts. They develop ways to control pests and weeds.

    Agricultural and food scientists in private industry commonly work for food production companies, farms, and processing plants. They typically improve inspection standards or overall food quality. They spend their time in a laboratory, where they do tests and experiments, or in the field, where they take samples or assess overall conditions. Other agricultural and food scientists work for pharmaceutical companies, where they use biotechnology processes to develop drugs or other medical products. Some look for ways to use agricultural products for fuels, such as ethanol produced from corn.

    At universities, agricultural and food scientists do research and investigate new methods of improving animal or soil health, nutrition, and other facets of food quality. They also write grants to organizations such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to get steady funding for their research. For more information on professors who teach agricultural and food science at universities, see the profile on postsecondary teachers.

    In the federal government, agricultural and food scientists conduct research on animal safety and methods of improving food and crop production. They spend most of their time conducting clinical trials or developing experiments on animal and plant subjects. Agricultural and food scientists eventually present their findings in peer-reviewed journals or other publications.

    Work Environment: 

    Agricultural and food scientists held about 38,500 jobs in 2012. About 14 percent were self-employed. Most agricultural and food scientists work in research universities or private industry. Only 5 percent worked in the federal government. The work of agricultural and food scientists takes place in laboratories, offices, and in the field. They spend most of their time studying data and reports in a laboratory or office. Field work includes visits to farms or processing plants. When visiting a food or animal production facility, they must follow biosecurity measures, wear suitable clothing, and tolerate the environment associated with food production processes. This environment may include noise associated with large production machinery, cold temperatures associated with food production, and close proximity to animal byproducts.

    The industries that employed the most animal scientists in 2012 were as follows:

    Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state 33%
    Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 16
    Agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting 9
    Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 8

    The industries that employed the most food scientists and technologists in 2012 were as follows: 

    Food manufacturing 33%
    Management of companies and enterprises 9
    Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 9
    Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state 8
    Crop production 7

    The industries that employed the most soil and plant scientists in 2012 were as follows: 

    Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 17%
    Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state 14
    Federal government, excluding postal service 10
    Merchant wholesalers, nondurable goods 10
    Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 9

    Work Schedules

    Agricultural and food scientists typically work full time and have standard schedules. Some positions may require these workers to travel for a moderate portion of their work time.

    Education and Training: 

    Agricultural and food scientists need at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited postsecondary institution, although many obtain more advanced degrees. Food scientists and technologists and soil and plant scientists typically earn bachelor’s degrees. Some scientists earn a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). Most animal scientists earn a doctoral or professional degree.

    Education

    Every state has at least one land-grant college that offers agricultural science degrees. Many other colleges and universities also offer agricultural science degrees or agricultural science courses. Degrees in related sciences, such as biology, chemistry, physics, or in a related engineering specialty also may qualify people for many agricultural science jobs.

    Undergraduate coursework for food scientists and technologists and for soil and plant scientists typically includes biology, chemistry, botany, and plant conservation. Students preparing to be food scientists take courses such as food chemistry, food analysis, food microbiology, food engineering, and food processing operations. Students preparing to be soil and plant scientists take courses in plant pathology, soil chemistry, entomology (the study of insects), plant physiology, and biochemistry.

    Undergraduate students in the agricultural and food sciences typically gain a strong foundation in their specialty, with an emphasis on teamwork through internships and research opportunities. Students are also encouraged to take humanities courses, which can help them develop good communication skills, and computer courses so that they may become familiar with common programs and databases.

    Many people with bachelor’s degrees in agricultural sciences find work in related jobs rather than becoming an agricultural or food scientist. For example, a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science is a useful background for farming, ranching, agricultural inspection, farm credit institutions, or companies that make or sell feed, fertilizer, seed, and farm equipment. Combined with coursework in business, agricultural and food science could be a good background for managerial jobs in farm-related or ranch-related businesses. For more information, see the profile on farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers.

    Graduate level study further develops an animal scientist’s knowledge. Most students with bachelor’s degrees in application-focused food sciences or agricultural sciences typically earn advanced degrees in applied topics such as nutrition or dietetics. Students who major in a more basic field, such as biology or chemistry, may be better suited for getting their Ph.D. and doing research within the agricultural and food sciences. During graduate school, there is additional emphasis on lab work and original research, where prospective animal scientists have the opportunity to do experiments and sometimes supervise undergraduates.

    Advanced research topics include genetics, animal reproduction, and biotechnology, among others. Advanced coursework also emphasizes statistical analysis and experiment design, which are important as Ph.D. candidates begin their research.

    Some agricultural and food scientists receive a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine before they begin their animal science training. Similar to Ph.D. candidates in animal science, a prospective veterinarian must first have a bachelor’s degree before getting into veterinary school.

    Important Qualities

    Communication skills. Communication skills are critical for agricultural and food scientists. They must be able to explain their studies: what they were trying to learn, the methods they used, what they found, and what they think the implications are of their findings. They must also be able to communicate well when working with others, including technicians and student assistants.

    Critical-thinking skills. Agricultural and food scientists must use their expertise to determine the best way to answer a specific research question.

    Data-analysis skills. Agricultural and food scientists, like other researchers, collect data using a variety of methods, including quantitative surveys. They must then apply standard data analysis techniques to understand the data and get the answers to the questions they are studying.

    Decision-making skills. Agricultural and food scientists must use their expertise and experience to determine whether their findings will have an impact on the food supply, farms, and other agricultural products.

    Math skills. Agricultural and food scientists, like many other scientists, must have a sound grasp of mathematical concepts.

    Observation skills. Agricultural and food scientists conduct experiments that require precise observation of samples and other data. Any mistake could lead to inconclusive or inaccurate results.

    Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

    Agricultural and food scientists can get certifications from organizations like the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists (ARPAS), Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), or the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). These certifications recognize expertise in agricultural and food science, and enhance the status of those who are certified.

    According to the organizations, certification of professional expertise is broadly based on education, a comprehensive exam, and previous professional experience. Scientists may need to take continuing education courses every year to keep their certification, and they must follow the organization’s code of ethics. Certifications are generally not required, but the agricultural and food science community recognize their importance. Some states require soil scientists to be licensed to practice. Licensing requirements vary by state, but generally include holding a bachelor’s degree with a certain number of credit hours in soil science, a certain number of years working under a licensed scientist, and passage of an examination.

    Other Experience

    Internships are highly recommended for prospective food scientists and technologists. Many entry-level jobs in this occupation are related to food manufacturing, and hands-on experience is very important in that environment.

    Pay: 

    The median annual wage for agricultural and food scientists was $58,610 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $34,750, and the top 10 percent earned more than $104,840.

    In May 2012, the median annual wages for animal scientists in the top three industries employing these scientists were as follows:

    Management, scientific, and technical consulting
    services
    $82,720
    Research and development in the physical, engineering,
    and life sciences
    72,050
    Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state 49,930

    In May 2012, the median annual wages for food scientists and technologists in the top four industries employing these workers were as follows:

    Management of companies and enterprises $71,440
    Research and development in the physical, engineering,
    and life sciences
    70,920
    Food manufacturing 54,890
    Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state 47,880

    In May 2012, the median annual wages for soil and plant scientists in the top five industries employing these scientists were as follows:

    Federal government, excluding postal service $72,540
    Merchant wholesalers, nondurable goods 63,280
    Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 59,980
    Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 56,550
    Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state 46,710

    Agricultural and food scientists typically work full time and have standard schedules. Some positions may require these workers to travel for a moderate portion of their work time.

    Job Outlook: 

    Employment of agricultural and food scientists is projected to grow 9 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

    Ongoing animal science research, as well as an increased reliance on food safety through biotechnology and nanotechnology, is expected to increase demand for agricultural and food scientists moderately. Agricultural scientists will also be needed to balance increased agricultural output with protecting and preserving soil, water, and ecosystems. They increasingly will help develop sustainable agricultural practices by creating and carrying out plans to manage pests, crops, soil fertility, erosion, and animal waste in ways that reduce the use of harmful chemicals and minimize damage to the natural environment. In addition, demand for biofuels—renewable energy sources from plants—is expected to increase.

    Job growth for food scientists and technologists is expected to be driven by the demand for new food products and food safety measures. Food research is expected to increase because the public is more aware of nutrition, health, food safety. They will also continue research efforts that maintain and increase crop and herd health and productivity.

    Most growth over the next 10 years for agricultural and food scientists will be in private industry. Private industry has increased its demand for agricultural and food scientists because their expertise is necessary for developing food, crops, and drugs, along with ensuring quality and safety.  

    Furthermore, research in genomics and agricultural sustainability also is expected to increase the number of available agricultural science positions. Findings from these scientists’ studies may improve crop yields or have an impact on other fields, such as biofuels.

    A number of job vacancies will arise as many scientists are expected to retire within the next 10 years.

    For More Information: 

    For more information about food and animal scientists, including certifications, visit  

    American Society of Agronomy

    American Society of Animal Science

    American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists

    Institute of Food Technologists

    For more information about agricultural and soil scientists, including certifications, visit

    Soil Science Society of America

    For information from related governmental agencies, visit

    Food and Drug Administration

    Smithsonian Institute

    US Department of Agriculture