New Zealand Rural landscape 9795

Is it too late for a satisfying career in agricultural research in NZ?

By Anna Campbell

I recently came across a comment – in relation to the state of agricultural science in New Zealand – from Lincoln University’s Professor Jon Hickford.

He stated that he would not recommend agricultural research as a career to his children because “quite simply, it is neither a rewarding career, nor a nice place to be” (; scientists criticise state of agricultural research).

I embarked on my agricultural science career back in the 1990s, when similar comments were made to me by scientists from large organisations.

“Why would you ever start a PhD in this funding climate?”

Yet, I have thoroughly enjoyed my career thus far, which has spanned employment at a university, a crown research institute, and a private consultancy company.

I do not in any way wish to undermine Professor Hickford and others’ comments about the state of agricultural research funding. There are some real issues and challenges here for the government.

But I do want to defend agricultural research as a viable and dynamic career option for our young people.

Embarking on studies is a big decision for any young person and I think it is increasingly hard to envisage future careers in this modern era.

Career paths in general are being enormously disrupted by globalisation and technology.

According to an article in Real Leaders “Does your work make you a better person?”, the work that will really matter in the future will demand a high degree of thinking agility and social intelligence.

“It’s simple… the future of work will reward people who have an open mind and play well with others.”

With advances in technology, knowledge is far easier to come by, and processes that had to be done by specialised practitioners can now be completed with basic knowledge and good software tools.

As such, many traditional careers are being ‘disrupted’ and that includes careers in law, accountancy, medicine, academia, and many of the trades. Think of accountancy; many of the fundamental tasks can now be done by smart software.

Skilled accountants of the future will still need a sound financial understanding, but they will also need to develop a broader range of skills such as business and interpretive skills.

Internationally, according to the Forbes magazine, many traditional accounting firms are buying consultancy and advisory companies that complement the traditional services – in order to provide integrated solutions to clients.

Similar agility and cross-disciplinary teams will also be needed for agriculturalists and agricultural science organisations.

My advice to young people thinking about future careers – including my own children (only one of which has any interest in agriculture!) – is to develop a base capability.

Whether that be science, finance, plumbing, or law, but dress it with something that extends and differentiates you, perhaps science and mandarin, or law and nutrition, or finance, women’s studies, and agriculture.

The last combination sounds weird (I know), but think about the plight of female agriculturalists in developing countries and that combination is suddenly full of purpose.

The knowledge combination of the formal training is less important than the creation of a person who is agile and open minded. These are attributes, along with a love of learning that will stand anyone in good stead for any sort of career.

The days of career paths being linear and structured are over for many professions.

Those that will do well in the future will be those who are willing to duck and dive, and sometimes move backwards or sideways on their career path.

The opportunities for those embarking on a career in agricultural research are many and exciting!

We desperately need bright young sparks to help us overcome the enormous challenges of growing more food with increasingly limited resources.

We also need young agricultural researchers to provide the tools to lift our agricultural products out of the commodity market.

If those bright young sparks are open minded, ambitious, and able to work with people from different walks of life, their careers will be challenging, purposeful, and maybe sometimes a little unusual!