Degrees that plant the seed for a career in agriculture

By Jenny Lei Ravelo 08 November 2016

A farmer holds up harvested maize in a crop field. Photo by: Mitchell Maher / International Food Policy Institute / CC BY-NC-ND

Some jobs have straightforward requirements. If you want to be a doctor, you head to medical school. If you’ve set your sights on becoming a lawyer, you’ll need to enroll in law school.

But professionals can come from a wide variety of backgrounds and wind up doing development work. Take World Bank President Jim Yong Kim — a physician by training, he’s now managing a multibillion dollar multilateral institution.

Chuck Chopak, vice president of technical services at DAI, had a similar circuitous route to his current work after studying biology and sociology at Tulane University. Confused about what to do with his dual degrees after graduation, he ended up working on an aquaculture project in northern Senegal under the U.S. government’s Peace Corps program.

The job wasn’t completely outside his expertise, but working in the field, seeing the issues firsthand and meeting interesting people helped him realize what he really wanted to do.

“A lot of parts in the world that are food insecure are dependent on agriculture, live in fragile environments [and with] limited rainfall. And this is the kind of area where I was, and that requires … economics and a whole range of technical skills. And what I saw was that the agricultural economists working in that area were doing the kind of things that I thought made sense,” he told Devex.

After volunteering in northern Senegal with Peace Corps and spending an additional two years working on an aquaculture project with the U.S. Agency for International Development in the same place, Chopak flew home to pursue a master’s and doctorate in agricultural economics at Michigan State University.

Equipped with knowledge of both hard and social sciences, Chopak felt more confident in working on projects related to food security. Today, he leads DAI’s work on food security across Africa and Central Asia.

Young professionals wanting to break into the agricultural development sector or food security can follow his lead, or study related courses such as horticulture and agronomy. A number of agriculture-related positions advertised on the Devex jobs page look for applicants with these backgrounds. Food and Agricultural Organization Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva has a bachelor’s degree in agronomy.

Those interested in pursuing a career in agriculture should also remember that some of the issues agriculture professionals wrestle with these days cut across several disciplines. In reducing postharvest losses for example, one needs to also have an understanding of the linkages between agriculture and climate change. Those trying to increase food production may want to understand the linkages between agriculture and land ownership, or ways  to engage women and disadvantaged populations.

There are entry points and skills someone coming from a different discipline could bring into the sector, and it would be a plus if that someone is willing to understand these intersections, Chopak said.

But a basic understanding of agriculture is important, for obvious reasons, said Anne Mbaabu, head of markets and harvest management at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa based in Kenya.

“You cannot go to the field if you’ve never seen how a cassava grows,” she told Devex. “You need to understand the diseases, you need to understand crop maturity.”

That’s why Mbaabu, who studied food science and technology at the University of Nairobi, strongly advises young professionals wishing to work in this space to take a basic course in agriculture for them to have that foundation.

Then, top it up with a more specialized course or at least a few units on entrepreneurship, marketing, ICT, project management and even environmental protection, she advised.

“Farming is no longer subsistence; farming is a business,” said the AGRA marketing head. “If you can’t understand how to make profit … you can’t understand the cash flow, you cannot understand the balance sheet, then how can you take these farmers from where they are to the next stage? You need to provide holistic services to the stakeholders: extension, agronomy, access to inputs, finance, markets.”

Information and communications technology is also important, especially in terms of communicating and providing information to farmers.

Nothing beats practical experience, both professionals shared. You can take a course like postharvest loss courses offered by UC Davis, for example, but “until you really have to apply them yourself, you won’t fully internalize those ideas,” Chopak said.

“You’ve got to have the knowledge on how to do it right, but then you also have to know how to adapt that knowledge into specific situations,” he added.

To get that on the ground experience, Chopak often advises colleagues at DAI to volunteer, as he did.

“Offer your time, try to gain new skills and show your commitment,” he said. “I will say it again, you can learn stuff, but until you apply it, it only goes so far.”

There are, however, several practical trainings one can find, such as the Springfield Center’s Making Markets Work for the Poor training program, Chopak said. Those interested in the sector could also connect with groups such as the Society for International Development, where Chopak is co-chair of the food security and agricultural work group and the Association for International Agriculture and Rural Development where he once was president.

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree and specialization can be overwhelming. Devex and our partners are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a postgraduate education here.

About the author

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Jenny Lei Ravelo@JennyLeiRavelo

Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex senior reporter based in Manila. Since 2011, she has covered a wide range of development and humanitarian aid issues, from leadership and policy changes at DfID to the logistical and security impediments faced by international and local aid responders in disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries in Africa and Asia. Her interests include global health and the analysis of aid challenges and trends in sub-Saharan Africa.


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