How to become a botanist (with duties and research fields)

Updated 17 August 2023

Many organisations specialise in conservation and maintaining the study of the natural world and its ecosystems. Botanists are at the forefront of this research, leading teams and projects across the globe studying ecology and natural systems in both wild and developed spaces. If you're considering a career as a botanist, there are many steps to building the profile of qualifications and experience. In this article, we discuss how to become a botanist and learn more about the duties and research fields of a botanist.

Related: 8 jobs for botanists (plus benefits of being a botanist)

What is a botanist?

Botanists are scientists and researchers who study plant life and plant biology. They study plant life on both sea and land, such as trees and coral, and also microscopic life such as algae and pollen. Many botanists may start their careers as research assistants with small conservation projects, moving on to larger projects with experience. Governments, charities and environmental groups may often fund botanists and their research groups, but many botanists can also find research funding from universities and other institutions.

Related: Research skills: definition and examples

How to become a botanist

Knowing how to become a botanist may allow you to prepare yourself better before you plan to enter the profession. Here are the steps you may follow to become a botanist:

1. Get a bachelor's degree

Botanists usually require at least a bachelor's degree to join research projects at any level. You may acquire a relevant undergraduate degree in botany, biology, natural science or life sciences to ensure you build the essential knowledge required for botanical work. If a botany-centric option is not open to you, a degree in science may generally allow you to access graduate-level opportunities and teach you fundamental skills. Specialising in botany as early as possible in your degree can also help you access opportunities such as botanical placements during a sandwich year.

Related: A beginner's guide to earning your undergraduate degree

2. Enrol in graduate qualifications

Most high-level botanists and researchers may possess graduate-level qualifications such as a master's degree or a PhD. This not only helps them to build the incredibly detailed subject knowledge to plan and carry out complex research projects but also helps them to publish research. Taking postgraduate qualifications can help you build a portfolio of research and take part in botany while you're still studying, which can enhance your applications greatly. Consider investigating the many funding opportunities and studentships donated by businesses, organisations and societies to train botanists to a graduate level.

Related: 14 common PhD interview questions

3. Build research experience and a publication portfolio

Building up a portfolio of research and publications can be essential to joining research schemes at a high level. Any experience working with research projects at a ground level as an assistant or even volunteering with excavations and conservation can be helpful. Some organisations and research laboratories offer horticultural or botanical apprenticeships and schemes which function similarly to research internships. These sorts of schemes are great for getting short-term experience with established research projects and can lead to permanent positions at these institutions.

Related: Botany degree: requirements, modules, careers and FAQs

4. Apply to graduate schemes and internships

Many organisations and businesses offer graduate schemes and internships for botany that may offer you a direct route into research positions through a period of training. These schemes are typically competitive and success in recruitment to these schemes is usually dependent on degree performance, research portfolio and interview. Consider preparing applications well in advance and researching institution websites and social media pages thoroughly for these opportunities, since they may not be very well advertised.

Related: Internships vs apprenticeships: similarities and differences

5. Apply to jobs and research positions as a botanist

With your education and experience profile at this stage, you may now apply to jobs and research positions as a botanist. They generally find research work in academia with universities and other educational organisations. Practical botanists, such as conservationists, may find funding from governments, businesses and non-governmental not-for-profit organisations and charities. Make sure to explore all local opportunities, charities and research hubs for botany to ensure that you can benefit from well-funded projects.

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What does a botanist do?

Many botanists work to restore endangered species and protect sites of rare plant life from deforestation or help manage invasive and harmful species. Some botanists also work closely with civil engineers and the energy industry to ensure sustainable urban development practice and promote renewable and sustainable energy and resources. Other botanists may work purely on an academic level, examining samples of wildlife to better understand their biology and publishing their findings in academic journals and magazines.

Typical duties for a botanist

The variety of specialisms available for botanists mean that there are many tasks that botanists can undertake throughout their career. Here is a list of tasks a botanist might perform in their career:

  • Office and laboratory research: Botanists spend a lot of time building general knowledge of plant life and also investigating particular aspects of a plant. Some botanists may research particular types of plant life.

  • Long journeys: Practical botanists may often travel regularly between laboratories and find research spots either alone or as part of a team.

  • Plant management and restoration: Many botanists manage invasive species on-site or help to restore damaged plants and habitats. This uses special tools and restoration can be a process of many months requiring careful supervision.

  • Imaging and surveying: Many botanists conduct regional surveys using software such as GIS and GPS. This may be indispensable for both taxonomy and ethnobotany to help find species and examine how they interact with human civilisation.

  • Field data collection: Many botany projects involve fieldwork in challenging conditions and carrying field equipment to find or manage wildlife. A base physical fitness and carrying capacity can be essential to carry out such duties.

  • Fundraising: Although many projects are fully funded, there are also many botany projects that constantly search for funding and donors. Botanists may take part in this process by sending emails to different organisations and writing proposals for research grants, funds and bursaries.

  • Coordinating with landowners: Often botany projects take place on private land or developments owned by landowners and companies. Being able to maintain positive working relationships with them can be essential to carrying out work.

  • Giving presentations: Presenting research finds and results of projects at conferences and seminars can be typical both during your degree and once you become a botanist. You may practise public speaking and presenting visual material well to help prepare for these events.

Example research fields for botanists

Botanists specialise in a particular field of study, usually based on what aspect of plant life their research examines. Here is a list of different fields in which botanists may specialise:

  • Ecology: Ecologists are the most common type of botanist, as it refers generally to research into how plant life reacts to its environment. This includes the study of both how plants thrive in natural living environments and how they survive non-living environments such as urban developments.

  • Taxonomy: Botanists studying taxonomy specialise in the discovery and classification of new species of plants. This role often involves practical fieldwork exploring different locales for rare species and the use of geographical imaging surveys to locate potential hotspots for new plant life.

  • Palaeobotany: A palaeobotanist studies fossilised or otherwise preserved forms of ancient plant wildlife. These researches often coordinate with palaeontologists to establish how ancient creatures and plant life interacted.

  • Reproductive biology: Some botanists specialise in the study of the processes of plant life reproduction. They can study a variety of specialised areas, such as particularly invasive species of plants.

  • Physiology: Researchers specialising in physiology examine the function and interaction of different systems and mechanisms within plant organisms and organ systems. They often investigate how physiological changes in plants occur due to processes like pollution and climate change.

  • Genetics: The study of genetics in relation to plants is just as important as the study of human and animal genetics. Botanical geneticists study variation and diversity within species of plants and conduct research to advance human knowledge of the processes that lead to biodiversity.

  • Systematics: This field is similar to genetics, but studies variation and diversification between different species of plants that occupy the same habitats or share a similar origin. Systematics is a thriving field of research for botanists trying to understand the relationships between different species.

  • Molecular biology: Botanists may specialise in molecular biology to study plant life at cellular and submicroscopic levels. This is an especially important field for academic research to further the understanding of the fundamental building blocks of plant life and the effect they have on the plant at a macro scale.

  • Ethnobotany: This is the study of the interaction of plants and humans, especially in relation to different cultures and systems. This field can see some crossover with anthropology and can involve a lot of research into local and foreign customs.

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