What is a Soil Science Degree?

Soil – the natural resource on the surface of the Earth – affects the quality of life throughout the world. Soil scientists collect and evaluate soil data to find the best ways of producing food, fuel, and fiber. They advise land managers of capabilities and limitations of soils in the areas of timber sales, watershed rehabilitation projects, transportation planning, soil productivity, and recreation development. Their twofold goal is responsible soil usage and soil sustainability.

Students of soil science study soil formation, classification, and mapping; the physical, chemical, biological, and fertility properties of soils; and the use and management of soils.

Program Options

Degrees in soil science may be offered as degrees in ‘soil and crop science’ or as an agriculture degree with a soil science concentration.

Bachelor’s Degree in Soil Science – Four Year Duration
At the bachelor’s level, the soil science curriculum draws from multiple natural and life sciences including biology, chemistry, geography, and geology. This provides students with an understanding of the physical, biological, and chemical processes that occur in soil and the role of soil in plant production and environmental management. Many schools offer two soil science concentrations. The general soil science option prepares students for agricultural roles. The environmental soil science option is aimed at those interested in working in the environmental sector in areas like water quality, pollution control, and soil evaluation. Programs combine classroom instruction with lab work and field courses.

Here is a snapshot of some typical undergraduate courses in soil science:

  • Diversity in Plant and Soil Sciences – overview of the interactions between the soil/plant, animal, microbial, and human environments
  • The Nature of Life – cell biology; genetics and the evolutionary processes which lead to complex, multi-cellular life forms
  • General Chemistry / Structure Bonding and Properties of Material – atoms and molecules, bonding, molecular structure, and properties of materials
  • Introductory Microeconomics – consumption and production in a market economy, prices and costs, supply and demand, income distribution
  • Animal Agriculture and Food Science – issues and problems associated with animal production, processing, marketing, and food consumption
  • Agri-food Issues and Institutions – changes in the demand for food and bio-based products, changes in production processes, trends in productivity and pricing, government policy
  • The Diversity of Life – examination of how species have adapted to various environments, discussion of factors that lead to changes in biodiversity
  • Introduction to Organic Chemistry – an introduction to organic and bio-organic chemistry, properties and reactivity of organic compounds
  • Inorganic Chemistry – common structures of metals and ionic compounds, molecular properties
  • Environmental Physics – transport and storage of matter and energy in the environment, water cycles, climate change, the environmental impact of industrial and agricultural activity
  • Agri-food Resources Microbiology – an introduction to the general biology of microorganisms highlighting those that are important to agri-food, economics, and the environment
  • Mathematics for Life Science – the fundamentals of mathematical modeling for use in the life sciences
  • Principles of Plant Ecology – ecosystems and the impacts of agricultural practices on them
  • Environmental Soil Science – the influence of the environment on soil formation, soils as a critical component in environmental change brought on by human activity
  • Land Resource Economics – natural resource and environmental economics, issues in urban and rural land use and conservation
  • Grassland Soils and Vegetation – a field course to study landscapes, soils, and vegetation; soil and vegetation classification and sampling
  • Earth Systems – the interrelationships between the Earth’s landmasses, atmosphere, oceans, and biosphere, and the role of humans in their interaction
  • Statistical Methods – statistical methods and their application to experiments, data analysis functions of spreadsheet software
  • Soil Genesis and Classification – soil development and soil classification, the factors that influence soil formation and how soils respond to altered environments
  • Soil Fertility and Fertilizers – plant nutrients in soils, soil fertility evaluation methods, development of fertilizers, nutrient management
  • Environmental Soil Chemistry – the structural and chemical properties of soil components, environmentally relevant chemical reactions
  • Environmental Soil Physics – the solid, liquid, and gases phases of soil; the interactions between the phases; the movement of water, chemicals, air, and heat in soils; related effects on plant growth and the environment
  • Agronomic Soil Microbiology – the principles of soil microbiology in agroecosystems; bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that live in soil and their roles in agroecosystems
  • Terrestrial Restoration – ecological theories and technologies relating to the restoration and remediation of terrestrial systems such as landscapes, mine sites, forests, grasslands, and wetlands
  • Soil Ecology – the roles of soil organisms in the decomposition of organic matter for plant nutrition
  • Forest Soils – forest soil development, forest land capability; the effect of harvesting, fertilization, and site preparation on soil properties; natural occurrences such as fire and nutrient and carbon cycling
  • Introduction to Field Crops – resource availability, management of the crop life cycle and field environment

Master’s Degree in Soil Science – Two 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 or project option.

Doctoral Degree in Soil Science – Four 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 soil science. The Doctoral Degree in Soil Science 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. Here are some examples of taught courses that may be compulsory for soil science graduate students:

  • Introduction to Ethics and Integrity
  • Ethics and Integrity in Animal Research
  • Soil Science Field Studies
  • Physical, Chemical, and Biological Characterization of Soils
  • Experimental Design in Soil Sciences

Areas of research may include:

  • Applied pedology – the science that studies soil formation and evolution and potential uses of soil resources
  • Nutrient cycling and management
  • Environmental soil science
  • Soil remediation and reclamation
  • Soil biology
  • Soil chemistry
  • Soil fertility
  • Soil physics and hydrology
  • Soil-plant interactions

Degrees Similar to Soil Science

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.

Degree programs in this field teach students how to investigate the growth and behavior of crops, the development of new plants, the soils and nutrients that nourish them, and the control of pests and diseases.

Botany is the study of the physiology, structure, genetics, ecology, distribution, classification, and economic importance of plants. Degree programs in the field include courses in biochemistry, microbiology, photosynthesis, and plant evolution.

Environmental Science
The basis of this discipline is that all natural things interact. Individuals who earn a degree in environmental science develop plans to prevent, control, or find solutions to environmental issues, such as pollution.

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.

Geology, also known as geoscience and Earth science, is the study of the Earth. Students of the discipline learn about the processes that act upon the Earth, such as floods, landslides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions; the materials of which the Earth is made, such as water, oil, metals, and rocks; and the history, evolution, and past climates of the Earth.

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.

Hydrology is about the active nature of water, the movement of precipitation. Hydrologists study surface waters like rivers, lakes, and streams and examine how rainfall and snowfall cause erosion, generate caves, and permeate soil and rock to become groundwater or flow to oceans and seas. Students of hydrology study these and other aspects of the field. They learn about water management methods, land use, environmental issues, and how to collect water data, interpret statistics, conduct computer modeling, and use geographic information systems (GIS) and the global positioning system (GPS).

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 / systems analysis
  • Decision-making
  • Environmental sensitivity
  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  • Logical thinking
  • Observation, research, and data collection
  • Oral and written communication / report writing
  • Patience
  • Project management

What Can You Do with a Soil Science Degree?

Agricultural and environmental opportunities for soil science graduates exist in both the private and public sectors and international development work. Below are some examples of specific positions. Working in some of these roles may require further education and/or on-the-job training.


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