Online PhD in Plant Science

Those who pursue a PhD in Plant Science will obtain professional skills and knowledge that will advance their careers; but plant scientists can also improve the quality of vegetation in urban cities, on dinner tables, and in the farmers' fields. The research conducted by plant scientists can regulate and guide leaders who make decisions that impact the world's ecosystems. Depending on the area of focus, students who pursue a PhD in plant science can study food crops, textile plants, urban agriculture, and even conservation. The role of a plant scientist is to unleash the power of helpful plants, but this duty may also include subduing less helpful plants, such as weeds.

Plant scientists go by many different names, two of the most common being agroecologists or agronomists. Those who have studied genetics may assume the title of Plant Breeder. During their postgraduate research, plant scientists can choose from many different areas of specialization. Most potential candidates will need a background in Plant Biology or Plant Pathology and will be required to pass a preliminary exam before being considered for candidacy. Upon passing all admissions guidelines, candidates will be asked to present a dissertation proposal that will guide two to three years of study and research. Like all terminal degrees, a PhD in plant science culminates with an oral defense of a dissertation.

About Online PhD Programs in Plant Science

Because plant science requires a large amount of field work and laboratory research, there are currently no fully online PhD programs in plant science. While some postsecondary institutions offer select graduate courses online, many of these classes include an element of independent research and may also require lab equipment. For example, in the graduate course offered by Montana State University, the home-based experiment requires a grow light. While it may be probable to one day have fully online PhD programs in plant science, the student would still need access to a full-scale lab, high-tech software programs, green houses, or field crops.

Year One:

  • Genomics. An integrated presentation of genome organization, genome sequencing and characterization, comparative genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics.
  • Crop Breeding Techniques. Evaluation and practice of breeding methods used to develop superior genotypes in crop species across public and private breeding programs.
  • Laboratory Methods in Weed Science. Chemical, analytical, and physiological methods for determining pesticide residues in soil and ground water; and herbicide absorption, translocation, and metabolism in plants.

Year Two:

  • Field Design I. Application of various field designs, factorial and split-plot arrangements, orthogonal and non-orthogonal comparisons, models, components of variance, correlation, and regression to biological problems.
  • Population Genetics. Concepts and principles related to genetic properties governing random and non-random mating populations.
  • Advanced Plant Breeding. Application of genetic principles to improvement of self- and cross-pollinated crops.

The potential Ph.D. candidate should enter his or her program with an established thesis topic. During the first semester, students will collaborate with advisors and committee members to refine the final goals of the research. Research for a final thesis must be original, valid, and important. Annual reviews will be held to monitor the progress of each student's research and to troubleshoot any potential problems. Once the work is completed, the student will defend his dissertation and will receive final revisions on his work.

Value and Criticisms of a PhD in Plant Science

Just as the world is filled with different ecosystems, so is the field of plant science filled with diversity. With a variety of specializations from which to choose, plant scientists can forge their own research to take scholastic ownership of an ecosystem, plant species, or research project. Earning a Ph.D. also allows plant scientists to compete for highly coveted research and teaching positions. To top it off, earning a PhD in plant science doesn't limit the grad to the classroom. Plant scientists can collect data from the field, conduct research in laboratories, or work in government facilities.

On the other hand, it isn't necessary to obtain an advanced degree to enter the field of plant science. Agricultural scientists who work to ensure agricultural productivity and food safety typically only earn bachelor's degrees. While the variety of work environments is a positive aspect on one hand, some positions held by plant scientists are located in processing plants, which can present unpleasant working conditions. Those who work as plant scientists can also be regularly exposed to harmful chemicals, such as insecticides.

Application & Admission Requirements

The application and admissions process varies with each program, but there are a few consistent requirements potential candidates can expect. Students will need to submit GRE scores, and in addition to the general exam, the Advanced Biology GRE may be encouraged. A statement of purpose or an essay of intent will be required in addition to three letters of recommendation. If the candidate has completed an M.S. thesis, a summary will need to be submitted to the admissions board.

Although it may not be required, an advanced background in Plant Biology can help candidates gain admittance to a PhD program in plant science. At the very least, such knowledge will be helpful if any preliminary exams are required. Also, having formerly completed a master's thesis can prepare students for the rigor of original research and the intensive undertaking of a final dissertation. Upon completing all of the aforementioned requirements, the candidate will be required to submit a proposal for his or her dissertation, which must be approved by an advisory board. Some universities prolong this approval process for a semester, or even as long as a year, to give the candidate time to revise and receive feedback on his proposed specialization and research.

Career Options & Job Market

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the plant science industry is anticipated to grow at an average rate of 10% until 2020. The median wages of agricultural and food scientists are $58,450 per year. For agricultural engineers, the median salary is higher at $71,090 per year, but the job growth is projected as slower than average at 9% until 2020. Those who are hoping to enter the world of academia may earn average salaries of $62,050 as postsecondary instructors. Though the job growth rate is anticipated to grow at 17%, such positions remain highly coveted in the plant science industry and are extremely competitive.

Where to Find Information

  • UC Davis Department of Plant SciencesAs one of the leading plant science departments in the nation, potential Ph.D. candidates can browse the offerings of UC Davis to get a feel for the different courses, careers and specializations that can be pursued via this subject.
  • Plant Science BulletinCovering scientific discoveries, plants in pop culture, and recent education innovations; the Plant Science Bulletin is a fantastic resource for any professional plant lover.
  • Environmental Science Majors and Potential JobsFor those who are passionate about natural science, but aren't quite sure which degree will lead to the career of their dreams, this site takes out the guess work by pairing degree paths with jobs.

How to Get Funding

Pursuing a PhD in Plant Sciences is an intensive endeavor, and most students consider researching, studying and teaching to be a full-time job. Funding your Ph.D. is essential in launching your career successfully after graduation. Funding options such as grants, fellowships, and scholarships can help you avoid incurring large amounts of debt while you postpone your career to advance your education. Most programs offer some type of funding, whether through assistantships, stipends, or grants. Researching each program's funding options is an important part of planning your Ph.D. path. Keep in mind that scientific research organizations such as the American Society of Plant Biologistsalso award grants and prizes to promising researchers.

  • Federal Direct Stafford Loan. All U.S. graduate students are eligible for the Stafford Loan which awards a maximum of $12,000 per year. The Stafford Loan interest rate is currently fixed at 6.8%.
  • Federal Perkins Loan. The Federal Perkins loan is awarded to students who provide evidence of financial need. Eligible graduate students receive an average of $3,500 per academic year. The interest rate of the Federal Perkins Loan is fixed at 5.0%.
  • Campus-Based Aid. Many universities offer their own merit-based or need-based scholarships and grants. Connect with your school's financial aid officer to access a federal database of scholarships and grants.

Essential Advice

  • Use your research skills to fully exhaust all of your opportunities for funding. Consider applying to programs with generous stipends, fellowships, and assistantships. Achieving an advanced degree may be a step in the right direction for your career, but graduating debt-free will protect you from financial stress and will provide more flexibility in terms of which jobs you can take.
  • Research for research's sake may be noble, but it doesn't pay the bills. When determining your specialization and final thesis, think beyond academia to your future career. Reach out to professionals in your field for advice on which skills would satisfy the current market demand. On the other hand, if you are particularly passionate about an area of research, you will need to make the appropriate connections to find the right position after graduating.
  • Before choosing your Ph.D. program, sit down with a professor and/or student who is currently involved in the program. Understanding the expectations and culture of the program will give you insight to the level of professionalism, challenges, and support that are offered by the department. Even a small amount of insight can help you find the program that will be a right fit for you.