Average Salary:

$64,110 according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (salary for Soil and Plant Scientists)

Training in Alabama:

Auburn University, College of Agriculture, Department of Agronomy – Undergraduate, Masters and PhD programs

“Did I choose the career or did the career choose me? That is an interesting question. I have always been interested in science, and grew up on a farm. So the marriage of science and agriculture was a natural for me.”
Career Interview:
Briefly describe your career in agriculture/plant breeding.
I am a professor of agronomy and plant breeding at Auburn University. My job involves genetic research on crop plants (soybean and cotton), and I teach basic courses in agronomy and plant breeding. I also work with undergraduate student organizations, and advise undergraduate and graduate students.

What type of environment do you work in?
Most of my time is spent in my office, but I also spend considerable time in meetings, in the field where my research plots are located, in the lab where samples are processed, and some time traveling, both domestic and overseas.

Describe a typical workday.
A typical workday for me is to arrive at the office between 7:30 and 8:00 am, check email and phone messages, and then start to work on whatever specific projects I have going on, whether it is writing a grant proposal, working on a journal article reporting on research, or preparing for a class that I am teaching. I am often called upon at a moment’s notice to counsel students (either undergraduates on academic matters or graduate students on academic or research matters), or consult with other faculty members on some academic or research issue. There is really no such thing as a typical day; there is always something new going on. Usually I arrive at work with a clear idea of what I want to accomplish that day, but it may be lunch time before I can actually begin to work on it because I may be greeted with several unanticipated problems that are awaiting me when I get to work. It is always a surprise to see what will come up next. Sometimes I go home for lunch, but rarely. Usually I bring a lunch so that I do not have to spend time going out for lunch. Afternoons are usually a little quieter than mornings, because most of the important matters that need immediate attention have been taken care of. I try to finish the day by 4:00 pm and head home, but as an advisor to undergraduate student organizations I am often called upon to stay for late meetings, and may not actually get home until 7:00 pm. Evening meetings and programs are also fairly common. When class is in session, days are certainly different, because I usually spend at least 2 hours a day related to class work, with one hour devoted to lecture itself and another hour at least devoted to preparation, and interacting with students both before and after class. Lab teaching days are different still.

What type of education and experience is required for a career like yours?
A good, basic science and math education is a good place to start. In high school, you should concentrate on chemistry, biology and math. Undergraduate college should also be centered on the basic sciences, expanded to include genetics, biochemistry, organic chemistry, statistics, plant taxonomy, plant physiology, entomology and plant pathology. In graduate school you should continue with these subjects, adding more statistics, molecular biology, specialized genetics courses (quantitative and population genetics for example) and courses in plant breeding. Experience is generally gained on the job, but the graduate portion of the education also provides a lot of hands-on experience that will help you move smoothly into a career position, with graduate research and teaching assistantships available. With these assistantships you take classes, but also receive a small stipend for teaching classes and assisting your major professor with his research.

What is your educational background?
Quite simply, I graduated high school at Jackson County (Georgia) High, I received the B. S. degree from the University of Georgia in agronomy, the M. S. degree from the University of Georgia in agronomy, and the Ph. D. degree from Purdue University in agronomy. I am somewhat unusual in that all three of my college degrees were in agronomy.

Why did you choose this career?
Did I choose the career or did the career choose me? That is an interesting question. I have always been interested in science, and grew up on a farm. So the marriage of science and agriculture was a natural for me. While I was at the University of Georgia pursuing a degree in agronomy, with no real idea of what I wanted to do, I took two classes that really interested me: genetics and plant pathology. These are two of the most important foundation courses for a career in plant breeding. Also, my uncle was a faculty member at the University of Georgia in agronomy, and he was a plant breeder. With my natural interests in agriculture and science and the particular environment I was in, I sort of gravitated toward a degree in plant breeding. There was also much talk at the time about the importance of the role of agronomy, particularly plant breeding, in feeding the growing world population (something that we have achieved very successfully to this point). I felt a career in plant breeding was a way to make a difference.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of your job?
Favorite: I like to teach. I get the opportunity to teach and interact with students on a daily basis, and I find that very rewarding. I like it when a research project is well-planned and executed, and everything goes the way it should (this is the exception more than the rule). I like “special projects” as they come along, things that break up the day-to-day routine. For example, I like to serve on grant review teams for USDA and other organizations. I have served as an expert witness and consultant on legal matters related to agriculture. I recently was able to lead a study abroad experience in China for a group of graduate students from the College of Agriculture at Auburn. These special assignments are really what keep the job interesting and never dull. Least favorite: I dislike January, when all the reports for the previous year are due. Reporting is a necessary part of research, especially when it is funded by organizations other than the university. I dislike the paperwork associated with it, the deadlines, and the fact that everything seems to be happening at once. January is a very hectic month, impossible to properly prepare for even by working through much of your Christmas vacation.

Do you have any suggestions or words of wisdom for high school students interested in a career in your field?
Learn all you can about it. Start your academic career early; treat it like a job. Take all the math and chemistry they will allow you to take in high school; college will be a lot easier as a result. Go slow; do not try to take so many dual-enrollment classes in high school just so you can get through college faster. Get involved in student organizations, even if all you do is go to meetings. Take every opportunity to learn. Study a foreign language.

Are there any other career opportunities in your field you think students should be aware of?
There are many opportunities in plant breeding, besides being a university professor. More plant breeders are employed in industry than anywhere else. The big corporations (Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF) have a great need for well-trained plant breeders. Someone has to develop the next generation of green bean varieties for the canning industry for example. This same example can be applied to any plant species that has proven useful, and there are many of them. The broader field of agronomy has even more opportunities. Even the United Nations and the U.S. military have need for agronomists. As long as people eat food, wear clothing, and need shelter there will be a need for plant breeders and agronomists.

If applicable, briefly describe your research interests.
My interests have changed over the years, from primarily being a soybean breeder to my current interest, which is cotton breeding. I am working mostly on development of cotton with resistance to nematodes, and tolerance to heat and drought stress. I am also interested in germplasm development in cotton (discovery of new genes in plants that are related to cultivated cotton). I also work to develop improved cotton varieties for farmers in Alabama, particularly varieties with higher yield and better fiber qualities.
Dr. David Weaver
Professor, Department of Agronomy and Soils