Academic routes into the food and drink industry: research-based Masters, PhDs and apprenticeships
The food and drinks sector has an array of graduate schemes for students in several exciting areas such as product development, marketing, sales, and the supply chain to name a few. However these types of programmes may not be suited to everyone. If you didn’t go to university or you are looking for further study that still allows you to experience the world of work, a research-based Master’s, PhD or apprenticeship might be a better option.
The food industry would be nowhere without its researchers. Whether it’s helping companies test out new products, or figure out better ways to reduce the environmental impact of the supply chain – they’re essential to the sector. One of the best ways to enter the academic field in the industry is through a postgraduate qualification. At the Inspiring Careers in Food event held in London last November, Dr Natalia Falagán, Lecturer in Food Science and Technology at Cranfield University discussed the Master’s, PhDs and academic apprenticeships available there and how they enable students to secure an academic job upon graduation.
Both the Master’s and PhD degrees at Cranfield require students to complete a thesis at the end of the course. This is typically sponsored by an industry partner, giving students the opportunity to already make a start in their career while still studying. “Most students end up being recruited by those companies they’ve been working with in their thesis,” says Falagán. For the Master’s course some past industry partners have included Deloitte, Kellogg’s, and Carlsberg.
Students completing a PhD are also paired with industry at Cranfield. “Students work with businesses through a longer project which can last between three and four years,” Falagán says. The companies PhD students have worked with recently include the sandwich and pie-makers Samworth Brothers, and AMC Fresh, a company that uses traditional breeding techniques and advance biotechnology to create improved varieties of fruit.
Master’s students at Cranfield will take eight modules covering different topics. After completing the necessary assignments there will then be a week where students will be able to work in the lab, get to know different industry fields, and visit companies to figure out what they want to focus on in their thesis. Between February and the summer months students then follow a more independent style of learning, where they will choose either to do research in a lab or take an internship at a food and drink company, if it relates to their thesis topic.
A PhD student’s project with the industry partner is a bit like a normal job to an extent, explains Falagán. “You will have a series of objectives that you aim to achieve during your years at the company, but you will also want to contribute knowledge to the research surrounding the topic you are researching.” As PhDs involve a lot of independent learning, they do differ to the structural nature of a 9 to 5 job as they allow you to follow your own working hours and pick your own holidays. “There’s a lot of flexibility. You’re essentially your own boss”, says Falagán.
Alongside Master’s and PhD programmes, Cranfield also runs ‘Masterships’ – postgraduate courses that are equivalent to the UK Government’s Level 7 Master’s Degree Apprenticeship. This programme enables students to work in important roles that are present in a range of industries, including food and drink. “When you think about research, you may think about a person in a lab, but actually at Cranfield we have a very applied approach, and we work a lot with the industry,” says Falagán.
Some Masterships currently offered at Cranfield are:
- Bioinformatics Apprenticeship Standard: ideal for life sciences graduates who have an interest in IT and data and are intrigued by a career in bioinformatics.
- Digital Technology Solutions Specialist Standard: this training course is good for students who want to learn more about designing digital technologies and solutions such as artificial intelligence, AR/VR, data analytics and data management.
- Materials Process Engineer Standard: this programme will equip students with the skills they need to work in industries where thermal processing is used, such as F&B, where the technology is often used to sterilise food and make it safe to eat or to give it a longer shelf-life.
- Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship Standard: for students interested in developing their understanding of ‘organisational sustainability’ and learning how to guide businesses on improving their sustainability strategies.
- Systems Thinking Practitioner Apprenticeship Standard: this course gives apprentices the consultancy skills they need to provide solutions to serious challenges which can sometimes impact several parties at once (e.g. decision-makers and stakeholders). Possible tasks relating to F&B could include helping to cut down the number of single-use plastics in the bottled drinks industry or figuring out how to implement sustainable measures into food production and the supply chain.
An academic career is anything but boring, stresses Falagán. Her working day involves studying a wide range of exciting and topical issues in the world of food and drink, and what she focuses on changes continuously. One day she could be researching what fruits and vegetables are the most wasted in the supply chain, or carry out applied research on suitable alternatives to plastic and strategies for storage which have low carbon emissions. Another day could feature working with universities in Africa and India, teaching and training sustainable food cooling initiatives to local farmers and cooperatives to help them improve their supply chain system. Other tasks could also include developing solutions for supermarkets and food producers, by helping to create seaweed-based packaging to replace plastic or figuring out ways to extend the shelf life of fresh produce. Working in academia is incredibly varied, she says, and involves “lots of applications, lots of travelling, and lots of opportunities for innovation. Life in academia is not just us looking at a computer or being a ‘lab rat’!”