Dean’s Column: Some academic and industry trajectory aspects of career preparation for agriculture students

In today’s highly competitive world, students need to realize that graduate programs in agriculture are increasingly looking for students with greater preparation in the natural sciences, biotechnology, statistics/predictive analytics than the minimum requirements for a BS in agriculture.

By Bruce Mathews, dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource ManagementUniversity of Hawai‘i at Hilo.

Group of students stand in vegetable garden on the UH Hilo campus.
UH Hilo students in a class on sustainable agriculture gather in one of their vegetable gardens on campus.
Bruce Mathews
Bruce Mathews

A fall 2017 University of Hawai‘i at Hilo Student Association (UHHSA) survey of College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management (CAFNRM) students was recently shared with me by student Alexis Stubbs. The survey indicated that nearly 60% want a government job, a little over 25% will seek a career in some aspect of farming, about 5% want to work in the agricultural/landscape service sector, and the rest don’t know.

This information may be a bit concerning, particularly if one means a government job in agriculture as the number of annual entry level openings in permanent governmental agriculture positions are very limited in Hawaiʻi relative to the numbers of graduates. In terms of further graduate studies nearly 40% indicated that they definitely want to attend graduate school while nearly 35% indicated no intention of further studies. These data are also concerning given that quite a few students that I visit with seem to lack much of an idea about how to best prepare themselves for graduate studies and how to optimize their competitiveness for graduate school assistantships and scholarships.

How to prepare for graduate school

In today’s highly competitive world, students need to realize that graduate programs in agriculture are increasingly looking for students with greater preparation in the natural sciences, biotechnology, statistics/predictive analytics than the minimum requirements for a bachelor of science degree in agriculture. The advice here is for students to be wise in how they choose to fulfill their elective requirements if they plan to go onto graduate school.

As a junior in CAFNRM over 30 years ago, I was advised by several of the faculty to take at least a semester of organic chemistry, biochemistry, more genetics and breeding, and more math (calculus 1 and 2) just in case I ended up applying to graduate school. This was solid advice as I was only required to take make up one lower division undergraduate class in graduate school (analytical chemistry). Lower division undergraduate classes cannot be used to fulfill graduate level credit requirements. Too many B.S. graduates in agriculture are only informed that they will have to take more support classes in natural sciences/math after they are admitted to graduate school on a provisional basis.

Career planning

Next I will explore some trajectories in agriculture to take into consideration with respect to career planning. There is no doubt that profitable farming is becoming more technical and efficient and that if an operation is too small, the financial returns are often insufficient and one must seek income from non-farm sources. A major contributing challenge to the farm gate profitability is that technological developments in production have increasingly reduced the price of crop products relative to the prices of other goods. This decline has been of major proportions with real food comparative prices at the end of the 20th century being less than half their levels in the 1950s despite huge increases in demand.

As they tell you at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the primary impact of the Green Revolution was to reduce the share of household income spent on food in half thereby reducing poverty of the masses. On the other hand for the farmer this means that farm size increasingly impacts economic viability. And for many small farmers it means being on a constant niche product treadmill once their product is efficiently scaled up by others in regions with lower operational costs. If farms grow bigger at the expense of small farms there are also often serious economic consequences for displaced farmers.

Planning for the future

In CAFNRM we believe in the future of farming in Hawaiʻi. However, the promise of better days and sustainability is through resiliency based on innovation and willingness to adapt to change. The past can inform the future, however it is not the overarching basis for the future because what is sustainable changes with time and new challenges and technologies. Our goal is to lay the groundwork for students to have a bright and productive future but it is up to them to run with the ball.

Future farmers and agricultural professionals will have to become more knowledgeable of sensor technologies, automation and robotics, predictive and decision analytics, sustainability analysis, integrated farming systems, nutrient cycling and microbial processes, molecular and synthetic biology, etc. Critical thinking coupled with a solid science and business background will be key in assessing the pros and cons of the next wave of novel biotech inventions that could bring great benefits to society and the environment (Van Acker, et al., 2017). New technologies such as CRISPR gene editing avoid some the characteristics of GMO technology that are often criticized by the general public (such as insertion of foreign DNA) while offering even greater potential for desirable crop modifications.

Much of the above may make uncomfortable reading for some however the goal is to challenge students to start thinking more seriously about their future and positioning them- selves with the requisite skill sets to remain competitive through- out their careers.


Van Acker, R., M. Rahman, S.Z.H. Cici. 2017. Pros and cons of GMO crop farming. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Oxford Univ. Press, UK.

This column was originally published in the Feb 2018 CAFNRM/Agriculture Club Newsletter.