Long before I reached my college years, I already had a powerful interest in Natural History. By fourth grade I was dabbling with science experiments, and by fifth grade I was paging through field manuals to identify plants, birds, and rocks that I found on our acreage. Family camping and fishing excursions, museum trips, and my time in Girl Scouts all fueled my interest in the outdoors. By my junior high and high school years, I knew I wanted to go into the life sciences as a career. It was only a matter of deciding which branch.
It was in college that I decided on botany. A job as a research assistant to my botany professor confirmed the direction I followed into graduate school. Through many twists and turns in life my career took me into science education, but I took a Master’s degree in systematic botany with me.
Early interest in natural history is common among people who take up botany and other life sciences as a career. If you already have a strong interest in the natural world, especially plants, you may be on your way to a career in botany.
Botany is a wider field than many people outside of the sciences might suppose. While I ended up studying plant systematics and ecology, others interested in Kingdom Plantae may study plants on the microscale. Plant physiology and pathology are of critical interest in the agricultural sciences. Plant genetics, too, is a hot field. An interest in the commercial uses of plants may lead a student into horticulture, crop science, or forestry. A parallel interest in anthropology may direct a student into ethnobotany as a field of study, while a fascination with past geological eras might take a student into the field of paleobiology.
Whatever area of the plant sciences piques a student’s interest, any student who is drawn to plant science can begin preparing while still in middle school or high school – or even younger – by choosing school coursework and extracurricular activities that will support future studies.
IF YOU’RE IN HIGH SCHOOL OR MIDDLE SCHOOL…
Future botanists who are still in their school years should sign up for all the science and math courses that they can fit into their schedules. Life science majors in college usually need to take chemistry, biology, and physics, so taking these subjects in high school helps prepare for college courses. Earth science is good to take, too: after all, most plants grow in soil, and the type of soil affects what kind of plant can grow there. Be sure to master math as well. Life science majors must eventually pass college math at least through calculus, and a sound knowledge of statistics is essential for all science majors. Any computer courses that involve databases, computer modeling, or elementary programming may be helpful as well.
If there is a science club or an environmental club at school, join up. The experiences gained from club projects are valuable, and there may be opportunities to participate in science fairs or to apply for science-related scholarships. You may also meet science professionals who can advise you further.
Be sure to pursue your own personal studies in botany. If you like gardening, try your hand at cross-breeding or selective breeding experiments, and keep close records of your results. If there are natural areas near you, learn to identify the plants that live there and try making original observations on them. You might, for example, study the insects that pollinate particular flowers. Discuss your projects with your science teachers at school. They may be able to help you, or connect you with working botanists at nearby universities or government agencies. These professional contacts can be valuable in steering you into college programs that are best for you, while your personal research notebooks may attract the interest of future college professors who may get you involved in their own research.
Read scientific literature on your own, too. Bookstore selections in the sciences are unfortunately limited, but campus bookstores at larger universities often have excellent selections. Read general science magazines such as Science News and Scientific American to keep current. Also check out the Botanical Society of America website (http://www.botany.org/) to learn more about botany as a career. The site has student resources, and the Career section has profiles of professional botanists that can be useful as you decide on a direction for your career.
Choosing a college or university to attend may be confusing. Most universities have biology departments and many have dedicated botany department. Large universities may have multiple botany departments for the many different fields. Your high school teachers and any science professionals you have met can help provide guidance as you decide what college has the best program to fit your interests.
While large universities may have the research dollars, don’t overlook smaller schools for your undergraduate experience. At large universities, lower division classes are often foisted off on graduate teaching assistants, or may be held in huge lecture halls with hundreds of students in attendance. Small colleges and universities generally have smaller classes, where it’s much easier to get to know your professors and fellow students. There may also be better opportunities to participate in undergraduate research at smaller schools.
ONCE YOU’RE IN COLLEGE…
Don’t be shy! Make sure you get around the botany department early in your first year to chat with the professors during their office hours, or set up an appointment to meet with them. Talk about your interests and find out what their research interests are. Professors are most intrigued by students who share their interests. If they’re impressed with you as a student, they’re more likely to recommend you for departmental scholarships and to find undergraduate research opportunities for you. At the very least, you’ll get the extra instruction needed to shine in your classes.
Your professors can provide the guidance you need as you decide where your career in botany is going to take you. You may get to know a particular professor or two whose research programs interests you, or who show particular interest in you as a student. These individuals can help you made career decisions and pick the best graduate programs to meet your needs, if your career path requires graduate work.
While in college, look for opportunities to work in your chosen field to gain both work experience and research experience. Professors may hire you as a research assistant. There may be internships you can apply for, or summer work at seed labs, agricultural research stations, or with government agencies such as the Forest Service. Your botany department and the campus career center can help you find these opportunities.
Many botanists work at universities as professors and researchers At a university, botanists teach courses while conducting their own research. They may travel if their research involves tropical botany. They may work collaboratively with other researchers as they develop their programs. At large universities, they advise graduate students who may help them with their research.
Government agencies need botanists as well. In the U.S., the USDA Forest Service and state forest services often hire botanists to help manage forests. The Bureau of Land Management needs botanists to help understand rangeland ecology. The National Park System may need botanists for research and public education. The Agricultural Research Service hires botanists with a knowledge of horticulture, crop science, plant pathology, plant physiology, and genetics.
Private industry may also need botanists. Lumber and paper companies need scientists who understand forestry and plant physiology. Museums, arboretums, or botanical gardens may need botanists to manage plant collections and conduct research. Conservation groups often need botanists with knowledge of plants native to endangered habitats, especially in the tropics.
It’s hard to predict where you’ll end up in life, since you never know what opportunities may arise or what interests may catch your fancy. However, if you’re interested in botany, guidance from professionals in the field is extremely valuable in directing your path. Start with a solid foundation of science coursework, get to know professionals in the field, and your career in botany will be off to a good start.