Botanist

The Job and What's Involved

Botanists study plants, from trees and flowers to algae, fungi, lichen, ferns, grasses and mosses.

There are many different roles for botanists. They may work in:

Field research - conducting scientific surveys of natural habitats, identifying, recording and monitoring plant species, and searching for new species.

Conservation - protecting, managing and enhancing plant life.

Laboratory research - on a huge range of projects such as discovering how plants convert simple chemical compounds into more complex chemicals, or studying how genetic information (DNA) controls plant development.

Tasks vary enormously depending on the employer and particular projects, but may include:

  • Studying, monitoring, classifying and keeping records of plant species, using computers to record and process the data.
  • Studying the structure of individual plant cells.
  • Using sophisticated techniques and tools like electron microscopes, radioisotopes, digital imaging analysis, polymerase chain reaction, cell and tissue culture, satellite imaging and telemetry.
  • Identifying and purifying potentially useful chemicals produced by plants, which may be used in products such as drugs, food, fabrics, solvents or building materials.
  • Studying the effects on plants of human activity such as construction and farming, and of environmental factors like pollution and climate change.
  • Advising the government on environmental protection policies.
  • Studying the interactions between plants and other living organisms such as insects.
  • Researching past environments by studying plant remains on archaeological sites or investigating lake sediments.
  • Studying plant genetics and evolution.
  • Breeding plants.
  • Promoting public awareness through talks, tours, literature, displays, workshops and liasing with the media.
  • Motivating local groups to become involved in environmental issues.
  • Applying for grants and funding.
  • Training and supervising junior staff, researchers and volunteers.
  • Teaching students in higher education.
  • Presenting the results of research in books and journals, and at academic conferences.

Botanists may work with other scientists and technicians, employees and volunteers from conservation organisations, and representatives from local and national government and industry.

Hours vary depending on the exact nature of the job. Botanists working in research and higher education usually work about 37 hours a week, Monday to Friday. Additional hours may be required at busy times. Those working in conservation may be required to host open days for the public or work with volunteers at weekends and bank holidays. They may also have to go to evening meetings. Botanists doing field research work when conditions are appropriate, e.g. when plants are flowering or seeds are germinating.

Experimental botanists spend most of their time in laboratories conducting research, while environmental botanists often spend a lot of time in the field making observations. Those working in higher education divide their time between lecture theatres, classrooms, laboratories and offices. Conservation botanists work in offices and laboratories as well as outdoors in the field. Field researchers can spend most of their time outdoors, although this may vary depending on the time of year.

Botanists can work all over the world and may have to cope with difficult climates. Fieldwork can be physically demanding.

A driving licence is often required to travel between different places of work.

The starting salary for a botanist may be around £16,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Botanists are employed across the UK, although there are generally more opportunities in England. There are around 5,000 botanists in the UK and competition for jobs, especially in conservation and fieldwork, can be intense. Many jobs are offered on short-term contracts. Employers include:

  • Universities.
  • Private research organisations and institutes.
  • Conservation organisations.
  • Local authorities.
  • Government agencies.
  • Bodies such as the Central Science Laboratory (CSL), the Scottish Agricultural Science Agency (SASA) and Natural England.
  • Nature reserves and country parks.
  • Botanical gardens and museums.
  • Food and pharmaceutical companies.

Vacancies are advertised in magazines such as New Scientist and Nature. Jobs are also found in The Guardian and other national newspapers. Academic research posts are advertised in the Times Higher Education Supplement and on websites such as www.jobs.ac.uk and www.environmentjob.co.uk.

Education and Training

It is possible to enter at trainee or technician level with GCSE's/S grades or A levels/H grades, or equivalent qualifications. Useful subjects include sciences (including biology), maths and English. Geography and geology can also be helpful.

However, most botanists have degrees. Relevant subjects include botany, biological sciences, plant biology and plant sciences. These are offered at universities throughout the UK.

To study for a first degree, candidates usually need at least two A levels/three H grades, and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3). Alternative qualifications in relevant subjects may be accepted.

Successful applicants have often spent time working as volunteers for relevant organisations, and learning skills such as plant identification and conservation techniques.

For some careers, a postgraduate qualification is required. The entry requirements for a postgraduate course are normally a first degree.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Some employers provide on-the-job training. It is also possible to study for postgraduate qualifications whilst at work.

The Field Studies Council, the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) and local Wildlife Trusts offer a wide range of training programme's in biological recording skills. Qualifications to accredit existing skills are offered by the Natural History Museum.

Employers in industry may offer their own in-house training courses.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A botanist needs:

  • A logical and enquiring mind.
  • To be able to keep accurate records of research.
  • Good problem-solving skills.
  • Good communication skills to convey technical information to people with little or no scientific knowledge.
  • To work well in a team and on their own initiative.
  • A methodical approach to work.
  • Good computer skills.
  • Leadership skills to work with students, volunteers and junior staff.
  • The ability to motivate people to donate funds or become involved in conservation.
  • Knowledge of a foreign language if intending to work overseas or with plant collections from abroad.

Your Long Term Prospects

There is no established career structure for conservation and field research workers. Progression usually involves taking on more responsibility for projects and advising or managing others.

In universities, botanists may be promoted from researcher to lecturer, then to higher grades such as senior lecturer, principal lecturer, reader, professor or head of department.

There may be an established career structure in industries, with experienced botanists being promoted to more senior positions.

Some botanists become self-employed and work as freelance consultants.

Botanists working in conservation, fieldwork or for multinational companies may have the opportunity to work overseas.

Get Further Information

Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI),
Botany Department, Natural History Museum,
Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD
Website: www.bsbi.org.uk

British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV),
Sedum House, Mallard Way, Potteric Carr, Doncaster DN4 8DB
Tel: 01302 388888
Website: www.btcv.org.uk

Central Science Laboratory (CSL),
Sand Hutton, York YO41 1LZ
Tel: 01904 462000
Website: www.csl.gov.uk

Field Studies Council, Montford Bridge,
Preston Montford, Shrewsbury SY4 1HW
Tel: 0845 345 4071
Website: www.field-studies-council.org

Natural England,
1 East Parade, Sheffield S1 2ET
Tel: 0114 241 8920
Website: www.naturalengland.org.uk

Natural History Museum,
Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD
Tel: 020 7942 5000
Website: www.nhm.ac.uk

Scottish Agricultural Science Agency (SASA),
1 Roddinglaw Road, Edinburgh EH12 9FJ
Tel: 0131 244 8890
Website: www.sasa.gov.uk

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