What is a career in soil science? Guest blog post by Willie Towers

In a special blog post, Willie Towers, who has recently retired from the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen reflects on his career in soil science.

I have recently retired from the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen and having worked there and it’s legacy Institutes, the Macaulay Institute for Soil Research and the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute for forty years, it is an opportunity for me to reflect on what my career entailed and where it took me.

I guess my first observation is that my career involved a lot of luck and not much prior planning. That is not to say I sort of stumbled through life, but I did not follow the normal academic route of Honours degree, PhD, post doc (or two), followed by PI/Research Fellow and beyond. I came into soil science as a field soil surveyor and one of the key criteria I met was showing a willingness to work and live in a remote (to most people) part of Scotland; I was born and educated in the Orkney Islands so this suited me down to the ground. I honestly believe that it was this grounding (in the literal sense!) and apprenticeship that gave me the knowledge to do everything else that followed in my career. I guess the message I would pass to aspiring PhDs is to try not to ‘over plan’ your career; an envisioned career path might lead to disappointment if it is unfulfilled and you might miss other different but as exciting alternative opportunities.

Increasingly academics (and their employers) are judged, not just by the number and quality of their refereed publications, but also by their wider impact and influence on society. This can be in relation to education (of all ages), influence on and relationship with politicians and policy makers, engagement with environmental regulators and provision of advice and data through both conventional methods and new technologies. These alternatives are not for everyone, so early career scientists should not feel compelled to undertake these activities, but I found them extremely fulfilling and gave me fresh insights into others’ views of the world. Having said that, scientific research does not deserve that name if fundamental work does not continue; soil scientists should find what is best suited to them, if we like what we do, we do it better.

I hope the career of today’s young scientists take them to unexpected places, both intellectually and physically. Some of my career highlights have involved working with other disciplines for example, ecologists, social scientists, hydrologists, modellers, IT specialists and those who specialise in assessing risk. This collaboration was always challenging and it wasn’t always successful, but immensely satisfying once you produced a paper, won a grant proposal or even better both.

Field work group

If someone told me at the start of my career that I would provide evidence to the House of Commons, House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament, I would have seriously questioned their judgement! But it happened, again through no prior planning, just showing a willingness to raise awareness of soils to an audience who ultimately can have a profound influence on scientists’ careers through decisions they take on funding levels. And of course, I had the privilege of visiting some interesting parts of the world: Mexico, Australia, South Korea and numerous places in continental Europe. Iceland in mid summer remains my favourite though, a stunning landscape and friendly people.

House of Lords

Although retired, I am still involved in soil science (over and above writing this!). I am an Associate editor for Soil Use and Management and I am involved in a number of the British Society of Soil Science training courses.  These have proved extremely positive for tutors and pupils alike and I am amazed at the team spirit that they encourage; get out there and dig a hole!  I also sit on the organising committee for the World Congress in Glasgow in 2022; I like forward to welcoming many of you to my home country, Glasgow is a great conference city and will put on a great show.


Author: Willie Towers

Twitter: @WillieTowers