Further study popular amid “sluggish” demand for graduates

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

Graduates from the UCD School of Agriculture & Food Science’s class of 2020 spoke to Noel Bardon about the challenges and opportunities encountered following the completion of their degree programmes last year.

Stage-Four students in the School of Agriculture & Food Science find themselves nearing the end of their undergraduate studies, almost a third of the way through the Spring trimester. An atmosphere of uncertainty pertaining to potential opportunities for further study or employment has shadowed many undergraduates’ exploration of possible progression options. Some graduates have succeeded in overcoming the challenges posed by the current reduction in industry career offerings, forging an opportunity to develop career prospects through the completion of postgraduate study. Many others have opted to bring technical knowledge back to the home farm, helping family members and neighbours in running their enterprises while weathering the temporary lull in graduate demand at sectoral level.

Reports indicate that many companies have advertised positions and offered interviews with intentions of expanding their workforce, only to then find employee training too difficult to implement in line with extended government restrictions. Clodagh Forbes, a recent Animal & Crop Production graduate, commented on her experience of the application process for roles in industry: “Whilst the need for graduates grows, the companies are just reluctant to take new people on and introduce new bodies into the working environment”. This challenge of equipping fresh graduates with the applied skills they require in the working environment is made difficult by the high degree of in-person, client-customer contact many roles in the sector entail. The completion of PWE programmes will likely aid UCD agricultural graduates, as many elements of such on-the-job training regimes have been completed in the third year of study.

Clodagh also mentioned the re-emergence of an optimistic outlook amongst recent graduates as the volume of positions advertised has begun to increase. “Things are picking back up, with companies showing that there are ways and means around the obstacles of Covid”. She commented on her relief, with the benefit of hindsight, to have begun a part-time Diploma in Leadership for the Agri-food Sector in UCC.

"Sources employed at various levels of industry and education have aired a word of
caution to those whose plans are entirely reliant upon applications for industry-provided graduate programmes"

One element of the Stage-Four study experience that current final year students will miss out on is the Ag Soc Careers Fair held annually on campus. The graduates interviewed have commented on the immense value of employer-student exposure at such events and the understanding of the jobs market that can be gained from the personal resources offered at job fairs. Any online event will face serious challenges in generating the same degree of engagement and relaxed atmosphere that many seek at these fairs. It is understood that the Ag Soc Careers’ Committee has initiated contact with previous exhibitors to gauge the appetite amongst potential employers for a replacement event to be held virtually.

Not all graduates from the class of 2020 feel their plans have been subjected to the same levels of disruption described by others. Studying the part-time MSc programme in Agricultural Extension and Innovation, Patrick McCarron from Co Donegal has found his progression to have been insulated, to an extent, from the changing circumstances of many. Patrick had always hoped to complete a Masters in the area of knowledge transfer, and with the full-time taught course moved online, the decision was made to opt for the two-year part-time course. This course is normally delivered online and, as a result, has faced little disruption with changing government restrictions. The part-time programme has also allowed him to work alongside his studies.

Christopher Heffernan, a Kerry native pursuing a research-based PhD in animal nutrition through Teagasc and UCC revealed the immense strain placed on studying, at this academic level, remotely. An inability to work from his research centre in Teagasc Moorepark has hindered, Chris believes, the capacity of him and other PhD candidates to access resources and engage with fellow researchers. Whilst agricultural research is deemed an essential service under current government guidelines, many educational and research institutions are reluctant to increase the volume of interpersonal contact, be these contacts on-site or in the wider farmer community relied upon in research studies. Christopher, like many postgraduate students, is hopeful that he will continue to put his time spent away from campus in Cork and the research centre in Moorepark to constructive use in working through his literature review.

One aspect of the application process that the graduates who spoke with the University Observer believe has improved, following an initial period of adaptation, is the move to remote interviewing for job openings. Interviewers and job applicants alike have reached a level of familiarity in the operation of online communication platforms that have reduced the disparity in the experience of interviewing on the digital interface, in comparison with traditional face-face interviewing methods.