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Department of Microbiology & Plant Pathology

Plant pathology as a career

What is a plant pathologist?

A plant pathologist is a person who specialises in plant health just like a doctor specialises in human health or a veterinarian in animal health. Keeping plants healthy requires an understanding of the organisms and agents that cause disease and an understanding of how plants grow and are affected by disease.

Plant diseases are caused by several organisms (called pathogens) such as fungi, bacteria, viruses, nematodes, protozoa, and parasitic plants. Non-living agents such as air pollutants, nutrient imbalances, and various environmental factors can also cause disease. New diseases and changes in existing pathogens remain a constant threat to our forests, food and fibre crops and landscape plants. Control of plant diseases traditionally involved the use of chemical compounds to protect plants. This inevitably contributed to pollution of the environment. The modern plant pathologist strives to apply his knowledge to a better understanding of factors involved in plant diseases and to develop and/or evaluate control measures which are not detrimental to the environment.

In their work, plant pathologists co-operate with plant breeders, crop managers and insect and weed specialists. They work together to develop integrated, environmentally sound approaches to the management of crops and their pests and pathogens. Through this co-operation, plant pathologists contribute to the production of a stronger economy, safer food, a cleaner environment, conservation of soil and water resources, and the health of workers on farms. Plant pathologists and bio-engineers also are cooperating closely in developing disease-resistant plant varieties, preserving food from spoilage, developing new strains of organisms for biological control, and even in developing composting processes for solid waste disposal. Molecular plant pathologists use modern molecular techniques to gain a better understanding of pathogen population genetics, plant-microbe interactions and gene transfer between pathogens and even the host.


What are your career opportunities as a plant pathologist?

Plant pathologists have a wide choice of occupations, ranging from basic to high-technology research to practical fieldwork. Career opportunities include research or teaching at universities, technicons, institutes of Agricultural Research Council, organisations like the CSIR, Medical Research Council, SABS, agricultural control bodies, agrochemical and seed companies, co-operatives and private estates. Plant pathologists can also practice on their own, or operate as consultants.

Depending on your background, education and experience, there are a number of options or fields of specialisation to choose from in your career as a plant pathologist. You might prefer to specialise in plant virology, forest, market or nursery pathology, mycology, phytobacteriology, plant protection or extension and will be involved in the improvement of plant health and food production. You could also be closely involved in environmental protection, plant breeding, molecular biology and microbial ecology. Listed below are examples of the opportunities available to you once you complete your education.


Degree options available?

Upon graduation, your baccalaureate degree in plant pathology (three year BSc Plant Pathology or four year BSc(Agric) Plant Pathology or BInstAgrar Crop Protection), will help you qualify for many technical, research, teaching, agricultural or environmental positions. You will also be in a position to report your findings at local congresses and symposia. Positions available include:

·           Research assistant: A key player to research teams, providing technical support to conduct research.  A research assistant participates in a team with a project leader and other technical specialists (e.g., biochemists, molecular microbiologists, geneticists, plant physiologists) as well as marketing, administrative and sales professionals.

·           Technical assistant: Provides technical support to research and development programmes in the agrochemical, nursery, forestry and seed production industries.

·           Extension plant protectionist: Act as advisors to small-scale farmers in rural areas on how to protect their crops against microbial pathogens, weeds and pests.

·           Estate pathologist / Nursery Pathologist / Industry: Manages pathological research and production systems aspects on large farms or estates.

Honours degree

The honours degree (BSc (Hons) Plant Pathology, BInstAgrar (Hons) Plant  Protection or BInst Agrar (Hons) Plant Quarantine) is usually a one-year training programme. This degree will put you one step ahead of the BSc or BInstAgrar degrees and broaden your career opportunities.

The degree consists mainly of coursework and a small research project that will better prepare you for your future career.

Master's degree

A master's degree (MSc Plant Pathology, MSc(Agric)Plant Pathology, MSc Post-harvest Technology, MSc Integrated Pest and Disease Management or MInstAgrar Crop Protection) will broaden your career choices in marketing, sales, administrative, managerial, research, teaching and technical support positions. A masters degree consists mainly of research work and the publication of your results in an international journal. Your master's degree will typically offer you a better position with higher salary, greater prospects for advancement, more responsibility and increased dependence.

Opportunities include:

·           Supervisor or laboratory manager: Supervises day to day activities in a variety of laboratories

·           Research manager or associate: Performs experiments and provides technical support to research teams.

·           Lecturer: Teaches courses at university and technicon level.

·           Practicing pathologist in agriculture, food or forestry industry

Doctoral degree (or equivalent)

A PhD or more senior DSc degree is almost always required for higher level positions in plant pathology and other sciences. A doctoral degree focuses on in depth research work on a topic where you need to contribute new knowledge to science. Achieving your doctoral degree will greatly enhance your opportunities, as there is a tremendous need for plant pathologists at this level. There is extensive scope for travel, you may be invited to visit overseas laboratories and can make contributions at both local and international congresses. You will be able to perform independent research, teach undergraduate and graduate students and assume executive level responsibilities in government and industry. Specific jobs include:

·           Scientist: Formulates hypotheses for experimental investigation, development and management of research programmes, conducts research and trains students and laboratory personnel.

·           University or University of Technology Lecturer: Teaches plant pathology, trains students in research, conducts research and performs community service.

·           Academic Science Administrator: Serves as technicon or university dean or in other administrative positions such as vice-president or president of societies or institutes.

·           Research Director: Leads research teams that explore and try to understand unanswered questions and unproven theories.

·           Corporate Executive: Oversees part or all of a company such as a biotechnology, agricultural or environmental firm.

·           Consultant: Advises and reports information to large estates, farmers or organisations such as businesses or government bodies.

What does undergraduate training involve?

The BSc degree takes three years to complete, and the BSc (Agric) and BInstAgrar four years. During the first year of study the student receives schooling in basic aspects of Chemistry, Mathematics, Microbiology, Genetics, Botany, Zoology and Molecular Biology. From the second year onwards specialised training is undertaken in Mycology, Virology, Bacteriology, Botany, Plant Breeding, Microbial Ecology, Parasitology, Epidemiology, and Disease Control. Students following the BSc(Agric) option also take courses in supplementary subjects like Biochemistry, Plant Production, Agricultural Economics, Horticulture, Computer Science, Soil Science and Biometry. Another option is the BInstAgrar degree in Plant Protection, which specialises in Plant Pathology, Entomology, Weed Control and Extension.

What about bursaries and loans?

The Industry, Tukkies and the NRF (only for postgraduate studies) make generous provision for bursaries to deserving students. Financial support can also be obtained from other institutions. More information in this regard is available in a brochure which can be requested from the University.

What do I have to do to register for a Baccalaureate degree in Plant Pathology?

Complete an application form for admission to the University of Pretoria, and post it to the Registrar. Application forms can be obtained by phoning the University. Application for hostel accommodation and financial support can be done on the same form. School subjects necessary for admission include Mathematics, Physical Science and Biology mainly on higher grade. Please apply well in advance, especially for financial arrangements and residence accommodation.

Where can I obtain more information?

Kindly phone Prof Lise Korsten at 012 420 4097 or send an email to for further information.

Welcome to the wonderful, exciting world of plant pathology

Projections for the next 20 years indicate a continued demand for plant pathologists. The image of plant pathologists being stuck out on a farm is no longer valid. In addition to extensive field work, projects require laboratory work, and many include a great deal of research using techniques on the cutting edge of science.

Where you end up is your own choice. Your future is bright and promising. With a solid foundation in science and the desire to discover the world of plant pathology, your possibilities and opportunities are numerous.