The major employers of plant biologists are educational institutions, federal and state agencies, and industries. Job opportunities usually depend upon educational training and experience. New positions in botany are expected to increase at an above-average rate through the turn of the century. Growing world population continues to increase the need for better food supplies. Environmental concerns, such as air, water and soil pollution, will create openings for ecologists in government and industry. The search for new drugs and medicines and useful genes for improving crop plants will continue to create a need for botanical explorers.
Educational institutions, which employ most plant biologists, range from high schools and community colleges to universities. High schools and community colleges have few openings for those who wish to teach specialized courses and there is little time or equipment for research activity. Nevertheless, for botanists who primarily enjoy teaching, such positions are very satisfying.
Most positions for professional plant scientists are in colleges and universities. Almost all colleges and universities offer courses in plant science and there are faculty positions for botanists who have different specialties. In addition, educational institutions employ botanists as researchers and as administrators.
Federal and state agencies need botanists in many different fields. Plant biologists work in various branches of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including the Medical Plant Resources Laboratory, the Germplasm Resources Laboratory, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the National Arboretum, and the U.S. Forest Service. The U.S. Department of the Interior, which includes the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Geological Survey, also employs botanists. Plant scientists also work in several other federal agencies, including the Public Health Service, State Department, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Smithsonian Institution, and Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, each of the 50 state governments employs plant scientists in agencies similar to those of the federal government. Environmental organizations, like the Nature Conservancy, also hire botanists.
Industry is the third major employer of plant biologists. Drug companies, the oil industry, the chemical industry, lumber and paper companies, seed and nursery companies, fruit growers, food companies, fermentation industries (including breweries), biological supply houses and biotechnology firms all hire men and women trained in botany. Recently the first genetically altered food crop, the FlavrSavr(tm) tomato, reached store shelves. This opens a new career field for botanists.
Botany offers many interesting and worthwhile career opportunities. The work is frequently varied and the surroundings pleasant. Because of the great diversity in the plant sciences, people with many different backgrounds, abilities, and interests can find a satisfying career in botany.
View one member's perspective of a "career in botany" at: Unknown id.
View current botanical/plant science employment opportunities at: http://jobs.botany.org.
On Becoming an Economic Botanist
My high school biology, which was pre-Sputnik, was dreadful and it's a little hard to pinpoint why I took a freshman botany course in college to satisfy the science requirement. I found it interesting, especially the parts about the genetic basis of population variation and the concepts of succession in plant communities.
My junior year I took a course in the History of Cultivated Plants: Their Origin and Evolution and I changed my career direction from forestry to economic botany. I did a graduate thesis on Teosinte, the closest relative of maize, which took me the length and breadth of Mexico and Guatemala, where I got to meet a lot of indigenous people and their maize, beans and squash. I've been to India twice on Fulbright Fellowships and developed an understanding of crop plants in South Asia. Most of my research has centered in Mexico and Central America.
I have a teaching appointment at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and my research has been with the origin of maize and its relatives. This primary research took me about twenty years ago into genetic conservation of the wild relatives of crop plants. Subsequently, I have written on plant genetic resources policy issues, reorganized the world maize gene bank and tried to assess the role of crop plants in the expanding human population and the exploitation of environments for food. My advice for someone interested in becoming an economic botanists is: 1) travel to see plants, plant products, and people in as many places as possible; 2) get to know one region of the world, a specific group of plant products and/or the evolutionary history of one of the major crops in depth; and then 3) think about the implications of how we are now using the plant resources of the planet and the consequences for the future.
Garrison Wilkes, University of Massachusetts - Boston