What is a Botany Degree?

Botanists, also known as soil and plant scientists, are scientists who study plants. But the subject matter of their work goes far beyond plant anatomy. Botanists study crop cultivation, soil erosion, the chemical properties of plants, and more – for application to many different fields, including ecology, agriculture and food, medicine, and energy.

The courses taken by botany students prepare them to join the field and work to answer questions like these: Which plants have medicinal properties? How can we help useful plants grow more efficiently? How can we control invasive species? Which plants will benefit this soil or farm? How do some plants survive extreme climates? Which plants and strains of plants provide the most food fiber for humans? Which pollinators rely on this plant? What is the relationship between this plant and another organism?

As these wide-ranging questions prove, botany is for more than just nature lovers. It is for explorers, experimenters, and innovators.

Program Options

Degrees in botany may be offered as degrees in ‘plant biology.’

Bachelor’s Degree in Botany – Four Year Duration
Bachelor’s degree programs in botany focus on the fundamental biology of plants. The undergraduate program prepares students for entry-level research assistant roles in the field or for further studies in botany or related disciplines such as forestry, landscape architecture, and horticulture.

Here is an example of a bachelor’s level botany curriculum:

  • Introduction to Botany – structures and function of cells, tissues, and organs of flowering plants
  • Plant Diversity – survey of the biological diversity of modern algae and land plants, the traditional classification of plants, the evolutionary processes that generate biodiversity; evaluating perceived threats to biodiversity, such as invasive species and global warming
  • Practical Plant Taxonomy – the identification, naming, and classification of plants; identifying common ferns, fern allies, gymnosperms (flowerless plants that produce cones and seeds), and flowering field and garden plants
  • Plants in Human Affairs – introduction to the variety of plants and plant products that shape our lives, examination of the structure and function of plant tissues and metabolites in the body of the living plant, experimentation with plants to show their importance in our lives
  • Essential Cell Biology – introduction to the fundamental concepts of molecular cell biology; topics include biophysical principles of macromolecular assembly, membrane and protein trafficking, the cytoskeleton and cell movement, cell signaling mechanisms, and the cell cycle
  • Physiology and Molecular Biology of Plants – the chemical organization, cellular organization, metabolism, nutrition, growth, and molecular biology of the higher (relatively complex) plants
  • Plant Ecology – principles of ecology at scales ranging from individual plants to landscapes; emphasis on local species, ecosystems, and environmental programs
  • General Ecology – form and function of living organisms in their natural environment; an overview of global ecology, ecosystem ecology, organismal ecology, population ecology, and community ecology; the interplay between the science of ecology and society
  • Plant Geography – patterns in distribution of plants around the world and factors that influence plant geography
  • Paleobotany – a look at the evolution of plants through geologic time, based on the fossil record; the earliest land plants, the first leaves, the first trees, and changes in reproductive biology; the response of plants to changes in climate
  • Individual Studies in Botany – guided research with a botany faculty member
  • Special Topics – varying topics such as plant symbioses, pollen and spore morphology, research and methods in plant evolutionary biology
  • Plant Anatomy – the arrangement of tissue and cell types, the characteristics of specialized cells and their components; the relationship between internal structure, physiology, and ecology
  • Proteomics: Theory and Practice – general biochemical properties of proteins; protein fractionation, separation, and purification technologies; protein databases and bioinformatics

Master’s Degree in Botany – Two to Three Year Duration
At the master’s level students take some required courses but can design their program in consultation with a faculty member, to focus on their particular area of interest. The master’s program’s culminating requirement is typically a thesis based on original research. Some schools may offer a non-thesis option.

Doctoral Degree in Botany – Six to Eight Year Duration
The master’s program involves a lot of taught courses. It emphasizes the transition from pure subject learning to independent research. On the other hand, the doctoral degree is like a very long dissertation project. Ph.D. students have a great deal of independence. They have the benefit of supervision from a faculty advisor and may complete some taught classes, but their focus is on their independent research, on contributing original – new – knowledge to the field of botany. The Doctoral Degree in Botany is targeted at students who aspire to a career as an independent researcher or university professor.

The courses taken by individual master’s degree and Ph.D. candidates will vary, depending on the focus of their thesis or dissertation. The aim of all courses, however, is to promote excellence in research. Some schools may require that all graduate students take one or two compulsory classes, such as these:

  • Seminar Studies in Botany – introduction to professional scientific communication, building sound scientific argument, preparing visual aids, conveying scientific information to diverse audiences
  • Thesis Seminar – presentation by students of their master’s thesis or Ph.D. dissertation in preparation of defending it

Here are some sample areas of research in the field of botany:

  • Plant Hydraulics
  • Pollination Biology
  • Evolution and Genetics of Mating Systems
  • Plant-Animal and Plant-Fungal Interactions
  • Biological Conservation
  • Biomedical Applications

Here are some fascinating discoveries that have been made through research in the field:

  • Native California wildflowers can save their seed during drought and then spread them when the climate is better.
  • Parasitic plants can control the genes of their hosts by turning off the host plant’s defense mechanisms and stealing its nutrients.
  • Plants can learn via classical conditioning.
  • A moss in Sweden can remove arsenic from water.

Degrees Similar to Botany

Degree programs in this discipline teach students about one or more aspects of general agriculture. Coursework may cover topics like farm management, crop science, animal husbandry, agriculture technology, soil science, and food distribution.

Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture
Degree programs in this field teach students how to practise environmentally sustainable farming. Courses include soil science, animal science, plant science, and organic farming.

The focus of biochemistry is the chemical processes and reactions that occur in living matter. Biochemists apply principles of both biology and chemistry to issues in many different sectors, including the environment, medicine and health, industry and manufacturing, agriculture, biofuels, and marine science.

A general biology degree program may include subjects like animal biology, invertebrate biology, vertebrate biology, cellular and molecular biology, evolution, microbiology, and ecology.

Students who pursue a degree in ecology study how organisms interact with the natural environments that they live in and how these environments can be protected. In other words, the focus of ecology is to understand ecosystems as well as the social and political interests and policies that threaten them. An ecology curriculum, therefore, starts with courses in both the natural sciences – like biology, chemistry, physics, and geology – and the social sciences.

Forestry degree programs teach students how to conserve and manage forests through sustainable practices. This means the curriculum covers both preserving biodiversity, as well as producing wood products in ecologically responsible ways. Classes also address contemporary issues like climate change, carbon management, and how to plan and manage urban forests or green spaces in metropolitan areas.

Genetics is the study of heredity. It attempts to answer questions about how inherited traits are transmitted from parents to offspring.

Degree programs in this field teach the science and art of cultivating fruits, vegetables, flowers, and/or ornamental plants. Horticulture students learn about plant biology and nutrition, soil science, and greenhouse and nursery management.

Landscape Architecture
Landscape architecture students learn how to apply both the creative and technical skills of architecture to plan outdoor spaces and landscapes, such as parks, gardens, playgrounds, residential areas, and college campuses. The curriculum includes computer-aided design (CAD) and courses specific to landscape architecture, such as horticulture, hydrology, geology, environmental design, and landscape design.

Natural Resource Management
Natural resource management is about finding ways to sustain the Earth’s resources in the face of the growing human population. Majors in this discipline are typically passionate about clean water, clean energy, and clean environments. They study in the classroom, in the computer lab, and in the field and learn how to apply scientific and ecological knowledge, as well as economic and social awareness to find solutions to preserving our natural world.

Soil Science
Soil science degree programs are focused on the formation, ecology, and classification of soil. Students take courses in seed science, fertilizers, geology, weed science, and genetics.

Zoology students learn about animals, their evolution, anatomy, physiology, and natural habitats. Graduates may be employed by zoos, veterinary clinics, or labs. Their work may involve monitoring and writing reports on animal behavior, analyzing specimens to test for diseases, and/or working in the areas of ecology and conservation.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Ability to communicate findings and results using models, graphs, and charts
  • Ability to consider problems with a scientific approach / problem-solving
  • Ability to work both independently and as part of a team
  • Attention to detail
  • Capacity to work in physically demanding environments and conduct fieldwork
  • Critical analysis and evaluation
  • Logical thinking
  • Observation, research, and data collection
  • Oral and written communication / report writing
  • Patience

What Can You Do with a Botany Degree?

Research in the field of botany is relevant to environmental protection, energy, public health, pharmaceuticals and drug formulation development, and the world’s supply of foods, fibers, and building materials. This diverse application of botany means that career opportunities for botanists are wider than many people think they are. Let’s take a look at where these plant biologists and plant explorers find themselves working.

Government Departments and Agencies

  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  • National Park Service
  • Public Health Service
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • State Department
  • US Customs and Border Protection
  • US Department of Agriculture (USDA), including the Medicinal Plant Resources Laboratory, the Animal and Plant Inspection Service, the National Arboretum, and the US Forest Service
  • US Department of the Interior
  • US Geological Society
  • State Agencies, including Departments of Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Services, Forest Services, Water Management Districts, Fish and Game Commissions, Utility Companies, and Environmental Protection Agencies
  • City and Municipal Governments hire botanists as arborists and city planning consultants

Botanical Study and Display

  • Arboretums
  • Botanical Gardens
  • Museums
  • Zoos

Plant-Related Industries

  • Animal Inspection
  • Biological Supply Houses
  • Biotechnology Firms
  • Chemical Companies
  • Food and Beverage Companies
  • Fruit Growers
  • Greenhouses
  • Lumber and Paper Companies
  • Oil Industry
  • Pharmaceutical Companies
  • Plastics Industry

Education and Research

  • Community Colleges and Universities
  • High Schools
  • Publishing Companies
  • Research Institutions

Non-Profit Sector

  • Organizations that address environmental, food supply, and health issues


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