Expert tips on making the most of your ag course

You want to make the most of your time at college or uni, right? Farmers Weekly asks five leading academics for a few pointers on what to do – and what not to do – to ensure your student days are as enjoyable and productive as possible

Tim Jackson, principal, Sparsholt College

Tim Jackson

One of the most enduring aspects of your student experience will be the friends and connections you make – lifelong bonds that will enrich you personally and professionally.

So try to be open to new experiences and new people. After all, you’ve made the choice to go to a land-based learning environment so you’re starting off with lots in common.

Of course, starting out can feel daunting, but remember everyone around you is in the same position – excited and nervous.

It’s worth giving plenty of thought well in advance of beginning to put all your basic living needs in place. This means choosing the accommodation or travel option that suits you best.

You can expect to be particularly well looked after if you opt to live in at college as an under-18.

Many land-based colleges receive high praise from Ofsted for their care of this age group so make the most of the people who are there to do just that – such as senior residents and residential officers.

They are there to help you through all the new stuff and to be independent – while making sure you don’t feel lost.

At every college and university there are professionals who really care and who can support you to be the best you can be, so if you ever need extra help, just ask.

Your tutors will always be there and pastoral support beyond the classroom is also readily available – whether that’s for concerns about money or relationships or deeper health or anxiety issues.

Also, if you are studying agriculture, equine, horticulture, gamekeeping or another specialist subject, grasp opportunities for gaining additional ‘tickets’ like NPTC qualifications or BHS stages in the case of equine. These will make you stand out from the crowd and will deepen your learning.

Your student experience should give you so much more than a certificate and a line on your CV – grasp the opportunities that come your way and shape a life out of the ordinary.

Paul Wilson, professor of Agricultural Economics, University of Nottingham

Paul Wilson

First and foremost, it’s important to keep on top of the work. This means going to lectures, practicals and tutorials and doing coursework assignments when they need to be done.

Being at uni or college is a great time of life, but ultimately if you don’t pass your exams, then your days there will be cut short!

Employers want people who can work hard and achieve good results – and great grades are the best way of showing them you can do just that.

It’s not all work, though. There are loads of social and sporting clubs, and other activities going on.

These are a great way to meet new people and make lifelong friends and new contacts that will help you in the next step in your career.

Showing an employer you were part of a club – perhaps also being on the committee or having a responsible position – demonstrates commitment and a willingness to lead.

It’s all about taking opportunities as they arise, so if you’re invited to talks, meetings, conferences or demonstrations, grasp these to meet people in the industry.

Many unis and colleges arrange practical training on top of your course – or help societies to run these – so why not, for example, get your trailer licence or your telehandler certificate while you are studying?

It will be great for the CV and probably be cheaper to do it at this time than when you’re in a job.

Remember, too, while the world of academia is great, you also really need some work experience to land your dream job, so summer jobs or placements are a must to earn some much-needed cash and boost your CV.

Rebecca Payne, head of Land, Farm and Agribusiness Management Department, Harper Adams University

Rebecca Payne

It’s called “reading for a degree” for a reason. There will be lots of books, journals and case studies involved, so make sure you keep up with your reading.

We don’t ‘teach’ you once you’re an undergraduate – we facilitate your learning, and most of it will happen outside our lecture theatres and tutorial rooms. 

We want you to learn how to think critically and so for those three or four years we will be feeding you lots of information. We ask you to synthesise this and form your own unique view.

This process will build knowledge and carry you forwards into your career. 

It’s a bit like riding a bike – we provide the stabilisers and explain the basic mechanics, but you have to take your seat, grab the handlebars and guide yourself towards success. 

My colleagues and I provide lots of advice, guidance, feedback and opportunities to question our point of view, but ultimately you will get back much more than we can ever give you in the form of lecture handouts.

So make friends with your librarian – they know where the lecturers hide the answers to those tricky exam questions (hint: they’re mostly within the pages of the recommended reading list) – and develop skills that will stand you in good stead as you progress into your working life. 

Engaging and engaged students succeed in their degree and eventually in the world of work because they learn how to acquire new skills, how to develop their critical thinking and express their points of view in a constructive and eloquent way. 

Enjoy your time at university by doing lots of reading – and of course have some fun. There will be plenty of time for both.

Dafydd Jones, Agriculture tutor, Coleg Cambria Llysfasi

Dafydd Jones

As a young person entering the industry, you need to ensure you gain as much experience as possible in different sectors. This includes livestock, arable, agri-environment and farm business modules.

When your work experience timeframe comes up, try to do it in a sector that’s new to you. Having this wider subject knowledge will assist you vastly and help you decide which areas most interest you.

If your work and hobby coexists, life will be very enjoyable!

Any opportunity that arises with societies outside student life should be grasped. Sports clubs and Young Farmers are a popular choice.

All this additional lifestyle away from education will further develop your skills as a person and will improve your CV. 

Another thing to consider is your finances – a potentially boring but nonetheless essential topic. Budget your monthly income and expenses on a simple spreadsheet and try to save a little every month if possible. 

Take up some part-time work, but be careful that it doesn’t have a negative influence on your course work. 

Also, keep an eye out for any available grants or scholarships as these help massively and a few do pop up every year. 

Agriculture is constantly changing and those in it are constantly developing their skills. Be confident and open to learn and you will succeed.

Jan Connell, senior tutor, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC)

Jan Connell

A good way of ensuring you’re in a prime position to gain further experience is by keeping an up-to-date CV and have it primed to fire off for holiday jobs or to apply for voluntary work, if you’re in a position to do the latter.

Add anything relevant to your CV so it will look good to a prospective employer and get your feet firmly on the first rungs of the career ladder.

Don’t be afraid, either, to ask your lecturers for advice. Some of us have been doing this for quite a few years and we’re more than happy to help.

You should also take every opportunity – whether that’s external competitions, work experience or exchange programmes. Also, accept invitations to conferences and industry events then, when you’re there, network as much as possible.

Have confidence in yourself and show your passion for the industry.

Another bit of advice is to try to stay healthy. While it might be tempting – particularly in the midst of pre-exam stress – to go down the route of fast food, energy drinks and chocolate, remember to look after yourself.

Keep physically active by joining a sports club or taking regular walks. There is, after all, definitely truth in the saying of “healthy body, healthy mind”.

We take the mental wellbeing of our students seriously and encourage them to speak to their tutors, support staff or Students’ Association if they have any concerns. As the old adage says: “A problem shared is a problem halved”.

Ag Careers Live

Ag Careers Live is a Farmers Weekly event showcasing some of the most exciting and rewarding education and career opportunities in food and farming.

It brings together leading academic institutions and some of the sector’s most dynamic companies, all looking to recruit new talent, either through open vacancies or apprenticeship opportunities.

Join us at the event, on 15 November 2018 at Villa Park in Birmingham and find your new dream job.

Register now for free

See highlights from last year’s Ag Careers Live.