How to Become an Arborist: Your Guide to a Career in Tree Care

Last Updated on January 3, 2024 by Kimberly Crawford

Arboriculture offers a rewarding career path for those passionate about trees and the environment. An arborist, sometimes known as a tree surgeon, is a professional trained in the science of planting, caring for, and maintaining trees.

To pursue a career in this field, one must acquire a blend of formal education and hands-on experience.

Educational pathways include degrees in arboriculture, forestry, horticulture, or environmental science, which provide a strong foundation in the principles of tree health, growth, and conservation.

Professional certifications, such as the ISA Certified Arborist credential, are valuable for those seeking to enhance their qualifications and stand out in the job market.

Beyond academic knowledge, arborists require a set of practical skills—ranging from climbing and equipment operation to assessing tree health and applying appropriate care techniques.

Gaining practical experience through internships, apprenticeships, or entry-level positions is crucial for skill development.

Additionally, a commitment to workplace safety, an understanding of legal and ethical considerations, and continuous learning about new practices and technologies in arboriculture are essential for long-term success.

In this article

becoming an arborist

Key Takeaways

  • Becoming an arborist requires education and hands-on experience in tree care and maintenance.
  • Professional certifications and practical skills are key to advancing an arborist career.
  • Workplace safety and updated knowledge of arboriculture practices are vital for professional growth.

Understanding the Arboriculture Field

The field of arboriculture focuses on the care and management of trees, which is vital for maintaining the health of our environment and green spaces.

History and Importance of Arboriculture

Arboriculture has a long-standing tradition rooted in both the practical and aesthetic care of trees. Historically, it has been an integral aspect of landscaping, reflecting a society’s value on natural beauty and ecological health.

The importance of arboriculture is evident in how it contributes to the upkeep of urban and rural green spaces, preserving the tree’s structure, health, and appearance while enhancing environmental quality.

Key Responsibilities of an Arborist

An arborist’s primary responsibilities revolve around the science and practice of tree care. They are tasked with the planting, maintenance, and removal of trees, ensuring they thrive in their landscape.

Arborists also play a crucial role in environmental science by managing tree diseases and infestations, thus protecting both wildlife habitats and urban areas.

Professional arborists must be adept at using sophisticated climbing and rigging techniques, as well as power equipment, to safely and effectively care for trees.

Educational Pathways

Becoming an arborist typically begins with foundational knowledge acquired during high school, progresses through specialized higher education in arboriculture or related fields, and is complemented by degrees that emphasize forestry, horticulture, or environmental science.

Post-secondary education is offered through various universities and may include an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

High School Preparation

During high school, students interested in a future arboriculture career should focus on subjects such as biology, environmental science, and mathematics.

Participating in agricultural programs or clubs can provide valuable early experience. Obtaining a high school diploma or equivalent is the first essential educational step in this career path.

Higher Education in Arboriculture

After completing high school, aspiring arborists often pursue specialized education in arboriculture. This can include obtaining an associate degree in arboriculture, which usually takes two years.

Those who seek more in-depth knowledge and expertise might consider a bachelor’s degree, which typically requires four years of study.

Related Degrees and Fields

For individuals interested in broader aspects of tree care and management, degrees in fields like forestry, horticulture, or environmental science may be appropriate.

These programs, offered by various universities, cover a range of topics that equip students with skills relevant to the arboriculture profession and may reduce the amount of on-the-job training required for certification.

Professional Certifications

Professional certifications are a critical step for arborists seeking to validate their expertise and advance their careers.

Achieving specific certifications can signify a high level of professional development and adherence to industry standards.

ISA Certification

The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) offers the ISA Certified Arborist credential as a standard for individuals trained and knowledgeable in all aspects of arboriculture. To obtain this certification, one must demonstrate:

  • Education: A degree in arboriculture, horticulture, landscape architecture, or forestry from an accredited institution, or
  • Experience: Three or more years of full-time, practical work experience in arboriculture.

Additionally, they must adhere to a code of ethics that bolsters the workforce’s credibility.

ISA certification also includes the level of ISA Board Certified Master Arborist for those with extensive experience and advanced knowledge in arboriculture.

Other Relevant Certifications

While ISA certification is highly recognized, there are other certifications that an arborist might pursue, including:

  • Specialty Certifications: Focused areas such as Tree Worker Climber or Aerial Lift Specialist.
  • State License: Some regions require a state license to practice arboriculture, which may involve additional testing or proof of competency.

It’s important to note that licensing and certifications not only affirm a professional’s capabilities but also often are necessary for legal and insurance purposes. Proper accreditation contributes to a safer work environment, improved job prospects, and promoted industry standards.

Skills and Training

seasoned arborist

The path to becoming a seasoned arborist involves not only formal education but also the development of specialized skills and hands-on training. Acquiring a blend of practical experience and theoretical understanding is crucial in this profession.

Necessary Skills for Arborists

Arborists must possess a variety of skills to succeed in their roles. They need a comprehensive understanding of tree biology, entailing knowledge of species identification, growth habits, and disease diagnosis.

Proficient use of power tools and heavy machinery, like chainsaws and chippers, is essential for executing arboriculture tasks safely and efficiently.

First aid knowledge is critical, as arborists must be prepared to handle on-site injuries and emergencies. They should also be familiar with best practices in tree care to maintain healthy tree populations and ensure environmental sustainability.

On-the-Job Training

On-the-job training is imperative for arborists, offering real-world experience that complements theoretical learning. This training typically includes proper pruning techniques, the use of personal protective equipment, and navigating the safe operation of machinery.

Mentorship from experienced arborists is invaluable, as it allows newcomers to learn industry-specific skills and knowledge such as tree cabling, soil management, and risk assessment.

Such experiential learning often starts with an internship or entry-level position where novices gain hands-on experience in the tasks that define the arborist’s daily responsibilities.

Advanced Training Opportunities

For arborists aiming to advance in their careers, there are numerous training opportunities. Certification programs, such as those offered by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), allow arborists to demonstrate their expertise and commitment to the profession.

Pursuing advanced training in tree risk assessment, management strategies, and urban forestry can further an arborist’s knowledge and open doors to specialized roles within the field.

Continuing education is also vital for staying updated with the evolving best practices and safety protocols, ensuring that arborists maintain their skills at peak levels.

Gaining Practical Experience

Before one can thrive as an arborist, practical experience is essential. It not only solidifies one’s understanding of tree care but also provides a competitive edge in the arboriculture industry.

Internships and Apprenticeships

Internships and apprenticeships are instrumental in providing real-world exposure to the arboriculture field.

Aspiring arborists should seek opportunities with landscaping companies, tree nurseries, and organizations affiliated with the Tree Care Industry Association.

These internships often offer structured training programs, allowing for the practical application of pruning, disease control, and tree maintenance techniques.

  • Internships:
    • Offer structured learning environments.
    • Provide mentorship from experienced arborists.
  • Apprenticeships:
    • This may lead to certifications.
    • Include hands-on work experiences.

Volunteering and Entry-Level Positions

Volunteering provides a unique platform to gain industry experience and is often available through local parks, golf courses, and community beautification projects. Not only do these positions build one’s resume, but they also foster connections within the industry.

  • Volunteering:
    • This can lead to valuable networking opportunities.
    • Allows for flexibility and a variety of tasks.
  • Entry-Level Positions:
    • Develop core skills like basic tree care and customer interaction.
    • May evolve into long-term career opportunities within a company.

Workplace Safety and Best Practices

In the field of arboriculture, safety is paramount. Arborists face various risks, including falls, electrical hazards, and the operation of heavy machinery. They must adhere strictly to safety protocols and use appropriate protective gear to ensure their well-being.

Personal Protective Equipment

Essential for any arborist is Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This includes:

  • Helmets: Protect against head injuries.
  • Eye protection: Shields eyes from flying debris.
  • Hearing protection: Essential when using loud equipment.
  • Gloves: Improve grip and protect hands from cuts.
  • Chainsaw protective clothing: Mitigates the severity of cuts from chainsaw accidents.
  • Boots with good traction: Prevent slips and falls.

Working Near Power Lines and Utility Services

Working near power lines and utility services presents significant hazards, necessitating vigilant safety measures and extensive training. Key guidelines include:

  • Maintain a safe distance from power lines, generally a minimum of 10 feet, to prevent electrical shock.
  • Each utility company may have specific safety protocols; always coordinate with them before commencing work.
  • In emergencies, such as downed power lines, contact the utility company immediately and secure the area to protect the public.

Specializations within Arboriculture


Arboriculture offers a variety of career paths to those interested in tree care. Each specialization requires unique skills and knowledge bases, allowing professionals to focus on specific areas such as tree maintenance, urban planning, or academic research.

Tree Climber and Tree Trimmer

Tree Climbers and Tree Trimmers have hands-on roles in arboriculture, involving physical skills and a good understanding of tree biology and safety protocols.

Tree Climbers scale trees to assess and manage their health, often performing delicate pruning to remove damaged or diseased branches. Tree Trimmers, on the other hand, focus on the aesthetic and functional trimming of trees to maintain a tree’s shape and health.

Urban Forestry and Consultancy

Professionals in Urban Forestry develop and manage green spaces within the urban environment.

They are responsible for public safety and the ecological well-being of urban trees. These arborists work closely with city planners and often assume the role of a consultant, advising on the selection, planting, and maintenance of trees in metropolitan areas.

Research and Education

Those who specialize in Research and Education focus on expanding the body of knowledge in the field of arboriculture through scientific study and teaching.

They typically work with universities and research institutions, studying tree physiology, pathology, and the impacts of various environmental factors on tree health. They also educate future arborists and the public on proper tree care practices.

Understanding Tree Health and Care

A comprehensive approach to tree health involves a firm understanding of tree biology and the management of diseases and pests. This ensures the vitality and longevity of the trees in our care.

Tree Biology and Physiology

Trees, as living organisms, have complex systems that are fundamental to their growth and survival. Tree biology encompasses the study of structural components such as roots, stems, leaves, and reproductive parts.

Each part plays a crucial role in functions such as nutrient uptake, photosynthesis, growth, and reproduction. For optimal tree health, it is essential to know how soil conditions affect the availability of water and essential nutrients.

Moreover, fertilizers might be necessary to compensate for nutrient-deficient soils, but they should be applied with care to avoid nutrient imbalances or environmental harm.

Disease and Pest Management

Tree diseases and infestations by insects can be detrimental to tree health. Early detection and accurate identification of the causative agents are key to effective management.

Pest management may involve cultural, biological, mechanical, or chemical methods. Pesticides should be used judiciously, considering their impact on the environment and non-target organisms.

Integrating a range of practices, such as maintaining robust soil conditions and fostering beneficial insect populations, can help manage pests while reducing chemical use.

Knowledge of common diseases and their symptoms, along with an understanding of the life cycles of potential pests, will empower one to implement timely and effective controls.

Legal and Ethical Considerations

Becoming an arborist involves more than just understanding trees; it requires a commitment to legal and ethical standards that govern the industry.

These include adherence to local and federal regulations, obtaining necessary licenses, and following a professional code of ethics.

Local and Federal Regulations

Arborists must comply with a variety of regulations that may differ by location. At a federal level, they need to be aware of occupational safety and health standards, while localities might have specific licensing requirements.

For instance, some states require arborists to have a license to practice, which often involves passing an exam and maintaining continuous education.

Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct

The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) provides a Code of Ethics to guide professionals in making environmentally responsible decisions and in the best interest of the community.

To obtain an ISA certification, arborists agree to uphold these ethical standards, which support the integrity and credibility of the field. Key aspects include honestly reporting their qualifications, avoiding conflicts of interest, and striving for continual improvement in their knowledge and competency.

The Arborist Career Trajectory

Arborists embark on a career path defined by a robust framework of credentials and responsibilities, with clear opportunities for advancement and competitive salary expectations meeting the increasing job demand.

Career Advancement Opportunities

An arborist’s career progression often begins with gaining hands-on experience in tree care, learning to perform various duties such as pruning, fertilization, pest management, and basic tree surgery.

As they gain experience, they might pursue credentials like the Certified Arborist designation from the International Society of Arboriculture. Progressing further, they can specialize in areas such as municipal or utility arboriculture, or move into management tasks, overseeing projects and teams.

  • Entry-level positions: Groundworker, Tree Climber
  • Mid-level: Certified Arborist, Tree Care Foreman
  • Senior-level: Board Certified Master Arborist, Arborist Manager

Career advancement can also come with the pursuit of further education, leading to roles in urban forestry, landscape architecture, or consultancy, which bring a broader scope of responsibilities.

Salary Expectations and Job Demand

The salary of an arborist varies based on experience, location, and credentials. According to industry data, entry-level arboreal positions may start at a median salary of approximately $36,000 per year, with those holding the Certified Arborist credential or higher earning a median salary of up to $56,000 annually or more.

Experience LevelMedian Salary (USD/year)

Job demand for arborists is on the rise, with growth expected due to increased awareness of the benefits of well-maintained trees in urban areas and the specialized skills required to care for them.

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, readers will find specific information about the qualifications, certification processes, and specializations for arborists in the United States.

What are the steps to obtain arborist certification in the United States?

Individuals must first gain experience in tree care, then they can sit for the certification exam offered by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). Passing this exam is essential to become a certified arborist.

What educational qualifications are required to become a certified arborist?

While a formal degree is not compulsory, many arborists have degrees in fields such as horticulture, forestry, or environmental science. The ISA certification exam requires arborists to have three years of experience if they do not have a related degree.

Are there any specific state requirements for arborists in addition to national certifications?

Some states require a specific arborist license, beyond the ISA certification. For instance, Connecticut demands a state license, which is necessary for employment within the state.

What is the process to become a certified arborist in Massachusetts?

In Massachusetts, one must obtain a state arborist license, which involves passing a written exam. A candidate must also provide proof of work experience or educational background in arboriculture.

Which certification level is considered the highest for professional arborists?

The Board Certified Master Arborist (BCMA) credential is considered the highest level of certification a professional arborist can achieve.

What types of specializations within arboriculture typically yield higher income?

Specializations such as tree risk assessment, utility arboriculture, or municipal arboriculture often lead to higher earnings. Advanced certifications and expertise in these areas may result in increased income opportunities for arborists.


  • International Society of Arboriculture > Credentials > Types of Credentials > ISA Certified Arborist. (n.d.).
  • Personal Protective Equipment – Overview | Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (n.d.).
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  • Indeed Editorial Team. (2022, June 24). 7 Careers in Arboriculture (Plus Common requirements).
  • International Society of Arboriculture > Credentials > ISA Ethics and Integrity > Code of Ethics. (n.d.).