Botanists are scientists who study plant life and its impact on global social, economic and ecological issues.
Botanists are academic or field scientists who study plant life. Their work covers a wide array of subjects; indeed, plants affect innumerable aspects of our daily life, as they are the raw material for many food sources, industry materials, medical drugs, etc.
Botanists can work in one of the following areas:
- Ecology and conservation: botanists analyse environmental threats to plants, forecasting plant systems’ responses to climate change and pollution, and helping to protect ecosystems and rare species
- Agriculture: botanists research ways of developing and producing new varieties of efficient and disease-resistant plants to feed the world’s population, control the proliferation of weeds and fight plant diseases and pests
- Biotechnology: botanists study plant genetics, isolate plant chemicals for medical use (medical drugs, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, etc.) in a laboratory environment. In the UK alone, a quarter of all medical drugs are derived from plants.
- Renewable energy: botanists research ways of using plants as clean fuel to replace oil
- Taxonomy: botanists can also specialise in identifying and classifying plants
Some botanists conduct laboratory research while others work outdoors, carrying out field research or more technical tasks in botanical gardens, parks, forests, nature reserves, etc.
Botanists work both in the public and private sectors: they are employed by environmental and plant conservation groups, government research institutes, agribusiness, food and pharmaceutical companies.
Some botanists work as freelance consultants or can become lecturers in higher education if they hold a PhD in plant science.
The starting salary for a botanist may be between £16,000 and £20,000 a year.
In higher education, lecturers get a salary of between £38,000 and £45,000 per year.
Senior lecturers and professors earn between £59,000 and £82,000 per year, according to their place of work.
Salaries in the private sector can vary widely according to the industry type and can be above £50,000 at senior level.
Tasks vary greatly according to the branch of plant science you choose to follow. Typical responsibilities include:
- Collect and identify samples of plants
- Monitor the evolution of plant species
- Search for new plant species
- Study plant characteristics and genetics in a laboratory using specialist tools such as electron microscopes and radioisotopes
- Breed plant tissue culture in glasshouses and outdoor plots
- Identify and isolate chemical substances from plants that can be used in drugs, food, fabrics, industry materials, biofuels, etc.
- Diagnose and identify plant pests and pathogens
- Develop plant crops that are less susceptible to diseases, pests and drought
- Identify insects and their interaction with plants
- Plan and carry out environmental surveys to study the effects of human activity on plant life
- Produce reports on findings and advise farmers, landowners, governmental agencies, etc.
- Supervise projects and staff
- Give presentations at conferences
- Publish articles in scientific journals
- Undertake continuing professional development
- Teach and give lectures
To become a plant scientist, you will normally need at least an undergraduate degree in one of the following disciplines:
- Plant biology
- Plant science
- Biological sciences
- Environmental science
A degree in plant science will cover at least these key subjects:
- Cell biology
- Plant identification
Several UK universities offer a specific degree in plant science:
- BSc (Hons) Applied Biosciences (Plant Sciences) at Plymouth University
- BSc Plant Science at the University of Sheffield
- BSc Plant Science at the University of Manchester
- BSc Plant Science at the University of Nottingham
- BSc Biological Sciences (Plant Biology] at the University of Birmingham
- BSc (Hons) Plant Science at the University of Worcester
- BSc (Hons) Plant and Soil Science at the University of Aberdeen
- BSc Plant Science at the University of Edinburgh
- MSc Plant Diversity at the University of Reading
You can enhance your undergraduate qualification through specialised training programmes. Organisations offering practical and advanced training include:
If you plan to work in academic research or as a university lecturer, you will need to undertake postgraduate studies (at least an MSc, but preferably a PhD) in a specialist field.
- Keen interest in the natural world
- Scientific skills, particularly biology and chemistry
- Research and analytical skills
- Critical evaluation skills
- Problem-solving skills
- Excellent communication skills
- High standards of accuracy and attention to detail
- Systematic approach
- Logical thinking
You will usually work regular office hours if you undertake research in a laboratory or teach at university.
If you carry out field work or environmental surveys, you need to be physically fit and be prepared to work in tough conditions. Undertaking field work means that you may travel all over the world. Days of work will vary according to the season and the life cycle of the plant(s) you are studying.
In terms of employment security, it can be difficult to get a long-term position as most botanists are employed on short fixed contracts.
Competition for jobs is fierce. You will greatly enhance your chances of getting a first job if you work as a volunteer for relevant organisations during your studies and undertake additional short training courses.
Major public sector employers include:
- The Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI)
- The Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA)
- The Forestry Commission
- Natural England
- The Royal Horticultural Society
- The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
- The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
You may have opportunities to take on a more senior position, which normally involves managerial and administrative duties, for example overseeing field projects and training staff.
You can start your own business, working as a freelancer or setting up a consultancy in collaboration with other scientists, especially ecologists.
Also known as…
- Plant Biologist
- Plant Scientist
- Horticultural Scientist
- Environmental Scientist
- Waste Management Officer
- Conservation Officer
- Biodiversity Officer
- Botanical Artist
- Garden Designer
What’s it really like?
Alastair Culham, 46, is a lecturer in botany at Reading University.
What is your job title?
I am a Lecturer in Plant Taxonomy and the Curator of Reading University Herbarium.
How long have you been in this particular job?
I have been at this institution for 22 years and I have been a curator there for a year.
What did you do before this job?
I was a PhD student.
How did you end up doing this job?
This is an area I have a great interest in and I find it very stimulating so I applied having seen a job advert, was interviewed and offered the job.
What academic qualifications do you have?
I have a BSc Botany and did my PhD on “A Systematic Study of the Droseraceae”.
Do you think that school prepared you for the way the work gets done in the real world?
To some extent, although I had no idea what a pressured life an academic job could be. I work long hours now, typically 40-50 hours per week including all the admin associated with my role.
What area(s) of botany do you specialise in?
I am a plant taxonomist specialising in plant evolution, identification and classification.
What do you do in a typical working day?
I don’t have typical working days – every one is different – that is the appeal of the job. One day I might be teaching students how to identify plant families from herbarium specimens; another I might be discussing how computers could be taught to tell one fruit from another by appearance, blogging on biodiversity, or teaching developments; or I might spend the day answering emails or writing a paper, or aligning DNA sequences to build a phylogenetic tree, or managing a research project.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
Drive, commitment, enthusiasm.
Is there a lot of competition for people wishing to become botanists, and what kind of work experience could help them to get into this field?
There is a lot of competition for PhD places, for postdoc places and for more permanent jobs. Many botanists gain experience working as a volunteer. We have some volunteers at Reading, but others might work at Kew Gardens or for a wildlife trust, for instance.
Do you get to travel a lot for your work, and if yes, which parts of the world have you been to?
I travel a lot, often to neighbouring European countries but also to the USA, Bangladesh, Korea, South Africa, even Australia.
What do you like about the job?
The constant challenge and variety.
What do you dislike about the job?
The ever increasing administrative load associated with teaching.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Be sure you enjoy it for the sake of the subject.
If you left this position, what else would you consider or enjoy doing?
I guess I would become a botanical consultant or the manager of a research group elsewhere. More and more, I enjoy the strategic planning of research.
Do you mind us publishing your salary / rate per hour – this is very helpful for job seekers?
I prefer not to, but UK academic salaries are on a public scale.