Advanced Degrees and the Future of Agriculture

phd student in wheat field

Until World War II, the United States was still a largely rural, agriculture-based nation, although the percentage of the population involved in farming already was on decline from its high of around 70 percent a century ago. Today, farming accounts for only about 2 percent of the U.S. workforce, yet food production has never been higher.

But also at a record level is the general public’s lack of understanding of how modern agriculture works and what is required of farmers and others in related fields to make it happen.

“Most people today don’t know anyone who is a farmer, which is a major contributor to not understanding our food system,” according to Ruth MacDonald, Ph.D., chair of Food Science and Human Nutrition and Assistant Dean of Graduate Programs at Iowa State University’s School of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering.

That lack of acquaintanceship has helped maintain the public image of farmers as ill-educated “hicks” who live isolated from technology, or more recently, as minions of giant corporations – Big Ag – that have gobbled up the majority of family farms of all sizes and are filling grocery stores and restaurants with dangerous genetically modified food. Neither image is accurate, as explained by Pat Westhoff, Ph.D., director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) at the University of Missouri.

“Agriculture has changed a lot since 1900. Obviously, the level of technology is much higher now, as is the need for sophistication,” he said. “A much higher proportion of commercial scale operators today have college and even graduate degrees; back then, few went to college. The median family household income now is even with or slightly higher than the average U.S. household. So where farmers may once have been considered very poor, that’s no longer the case, in general.


“Agriculture has changed a lot since 1900. Obviously, the level of technology is much higher now, as is the need for sophistication.” — Pat Westhoff, Ph.D.


“The actual number of people classified as farmers today is in the same ballpark as 15 years ago, but that is very misleading because it includes a rapid growth in ‘hobby’ farms. The official USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] definition of a farm is a place that sells $1,000 in crops or livestock each year, but that’s still not a lot of people.”

Harvey James, Ph.D., professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, has seen a growing interest in and demand for master’s (MS) degrees in agriculture.

“In some respects, the MS degree today is playing the role that the BA/BS [bachelor’s] degree did decades ago. Because there are so many students graduating from undergraduate programs, students need to differentiate themselves and employers can be choosier about whom they hire. Both of these factors promote growth in MS programs,” he said. “Ph.D. programs are different. I can’t say one way or the other about what will happen to the trend in Ph.D. programs, [although] I think there will be a lot of growth in programs that offer interdisciplinary training.

“I don’t see specific disciplines disappearing – economics, sociology, chemistry, etc. But many of the problems we are facing in agriculture and society are extremely complex. It is not possible for scholars within their individual disciplinary silos to make a meaningful contribution to solving these problems. Genetic engineers need to work with economists who need to work with rural sociologists and anthropologists who need to work with plant and animal scientists. We need greater respect for what scholars in other disciplines can bring to the table. Academic programs that foster this kind of interdisciplinary collaboration will succeed.”

advanced degrees at VA tech

A Virginia Tech student participates in the online animal breeding graduate program. While some of those who earn master’s or doctoral degrees in agriculture-related fields do plan to work on farms, many pursue employment in academia or industry. Credit: Ron Lewis, Virginia Tech

A major emphasis in American education in recent years, from grade school through grad school, has been raising the level of STEM education – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Universities are heavily promoting those, gaining status – and funding – when one of their Ph.D.s makes a noteworthy breakthrough.

“But there needs to be equal consideration [of] the social sciences. Science does not develop in a vacuum. Problems we face in society are not merely technical ones requiring technical solutions. In fact, more often than we like to admit, technical solutions end up creating new problems,” James said. “We need to understand better how science connects with the human and non-human world.

“This is why the science disciplines have to work with and respect the social sciences. When universities and employers realize we live in a social rather than technical world, demand for agricultural economists, rural sociologists, anthropologists, and other social sciences will increase. So I would like to see a more visible association between the hard and social sciences.”

While providing better educated employees for the increasingly high-tech U.S. industrial sector – including agriculture-related R&D, manufacturing, and processing – the STEM focus also is attracting more foreign students, both undergrad and graduate.

“The U.S. has one of the best graduate educational systems in the world. We are seeing continued interest from international students in our program, which is roughly an equal split between U.S. and international graduate students, but there are differences in the MS and Ph.D. programs. Most of our U.S. students are in the MS program, while less than one-third of Ph.D. candidates are U.S. students,” he continued.

“Students from outside the U.S. have farm and rural backgrounds. That is becoming less common in students from the U.S. That does not mean there is not a lot of interest in agricultural economics; [indeed], I find it intriguing that students from urban settings want to complete an MS degree in agricultural economics. There also is definitely an increase in the number of women pursuing graduate degrees. Our current mix is roughly 50-50, but that ratio seems to be changing in favor of women.”

University ag school officials agree that advanced degrees are essential to the future of American agriculture. While knowledge can be acquired outside of educational institutions and experience can be a great teacher, acquiring in-depth and intensive interdisciplinary formal training is predicted to become even more important in the future.

“I do believe agriculture is driven by technology, which has been the trend in the U.S. since the end of World War II, when we really started applying technological solutions to agriculture. That’s not going to change,” MacDonald said.

“And as we continue to face growing populations with less farm land and all the issues associated with climate change, technology will play a bigger and bigger role in how we do agriculture. And having well-educated people to make breakthroughs in technology will be essential.”

Westhoff said he isn’t sure if the demand for advanced degrees is growing or leveling off, but much of it is coming from foreign students focusing on agriculture business and economics, especially the latter.

“We probably could fill our entire master’s and Ph.D. programs with students from China alone,” he noted. “The vast majority of people getting advanced degrees [go to] work for industry or academia, not on working farms. But in other countries, such as China and India, you are expected to have educational credentials, and a degree from abroad is highly valued.”

Despite concerns about a shortage of STEM degrees among U.S. citizens, MacDonald said the foundation on which America’s high technology leadership has depended remains in place within the nation’s universities. That applies to the relatively new world of high-tech agriculture as well as it does to space exploration, physics, biotechnology, and computer science.


While knowledge can be acquired outside of educational institutions and experience can be a great teacher, acquiring in-depth and intensive interdisciplinary formal training is predicted to become even more important in the future.


“The U.S. is considered to be at the top in training people for higher degrees, so those graduating from good schools internationally want to come here to pursue their master’s or Ph.D. degrees,” she said.

Agriculture is committed to using new technologies to expand productivity, such as autosteer on tractors, variable-rate applications of chemicals on crops, the use of GPS and, with increasing importance, unmanned aerial vehicles, Westhoff said, adding there also is some concern about being overwhelmed by big data and who controls and uses it.

One of the most controversial issues for American agriculture is genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While only a handful of crops overall have GMO variants, more than 90 percent of combined planted acreage in corn, soybeans, and cotton is genetically engineered. Given the size of U.S. exports, Westhoff said, “there obviously are customers out there.” There are no American GMO wheat or rice products, although some non-commercial work has been done on both.

“Consumer acceptance is a huge issue with GMOs, especially overseas, so there is a lot more than just science involved. As we look forward, on the animal side, we recently got approval of a genetically engineered salmon that grows more quickly on less food per pound of gain. Here at Missouri, an animal scientist recently announced developing a pig that is resistant to serious pork diseases,” he said. “There have been some grocery stores and restaurants that have said they will not buy GMOs.”


Christina Walters, Ph.D., Plant Germplasm Preservation Research Unit research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP), speaks to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack about the seed-quality research her team of international scientists is doing. Many Ph.D.s find positions with the USDA. Credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung

With a technology utilization level second only to the Pentagon, American agriculture has become a magnet for graduate degree students, most of whom are not from rural backgrounds and few of whom plan to work on farms. Iowa State University offers an insight into where those with new advanced degrees are going – about 33 percent into industry and 25 percent into academia, with a substantial proportion continuing their educations to further develop their research skills, in both academia and industry.

“A lot of factors have played a role in increasing interest in higher degrees, including the higher technologies associated with the agriculture and life-science sector, which covers a wide range of disciplines. More interest and drive for research in agriculture have led to opportunities for people with higher degrees,” MacDonald said. “We also see a substantial number of students with bachelor’s degrees getting very good jobs. I also see a new trend happening with business education, with more people already employed pursuing master’s degrees.

“So I anticipate there will continue to be growth in demand for higher degrees in agriculture. I don’t see technology declining but continuing to become important in all aspects of agriculture and life sciences, with a higher expectation for people with skills needed to pursue new solutions for problems, which is what a Ph.D. does. Leadership positions and levels of higher responsibility have an expectation you will continue your education. The whole technology issue in agriculture drives some of that, so you need people who can think in a new way in order to advance the company or the systems on which they are working.”

A lot of students graduating with bachelor’s degrees do plan to go into farming, but some of those are expected to pursue master’s degrees, such as the online degree Iowa State offers in seed management.

“A pretty wide range of industries will hire master’s students, from production to management to research. The food sector is a very strong employer, as is the ag industry in general – large manufacturing companies such as Monsanto and ADM. We also see a lot of Ph.D.s going into genetics and government positions with the USDA,” she said.

In an eerie parallel to a recent warning by the Chief of Naval Operations about the narrowing technology gap between the United States and nations such as China, MacDonald voiced concern the United States can’t maintain its leadership in agriculture if sufficient American students are not educated to use increasingly complex technologies to solve problems. Thus the need to maintain a very strong education program in agriculture.

“Personally, I think we are potentially at risk of losing some of our advantages in agriculture because of the somewhat challenging economic situation we are in in the U.S., with fewer opportunities for graduate student financial support. We fund graduate students through research, where dollars come from the U.S. government and industry,” she said.

“In the past, government funding provided salaried funding for graduate assistantships, but that has shrunk with the reduced budget for overall research, so we have fewer opportunities to bring on students with financial support. That is a major concern for all of us in higher education – that we are losing the ability to bring more students into these advanced areas and so are not making the advancements we need to make. It’s a downward spiral.”

Caption for top photo: Brittany Hazard, a University of California-Davis doctoral student conducting wheat and resistant starch research, collects samples from a wheat field for analysis at UC Davis’ Dubcovsky Lab. As agriculture continues to turn to technology for solutions to challenges presented by growing populations and climate change, well-educated people capable of making breakthroughs will be essential. Credit: USDA Flickr feed

This article was originally published in the 2016 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.

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