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If you’re looking to follow a sustainable career path in the food and drinks industry but aren’t sure if a conventional job in the sector is the right fit, it might be worth considering sustainable food and drink PhDs. Taking on this degree is no easy feat. It’s the highest academic qualification you can receive and involves several years of independent and original research on a particular topic. But if you thrive as a scholar, it could prove to be the ideal opportunity to become a specialist in a particular area of the field of sustainable food and drink.  

Sustainable food and drink PhDs

The UK is home to a wide range of PhDs tackling themes around sustainable, circular food systems. Whether your background is in nutrition, biology, engineering, or agriculture, there are plenty of research opportunities available which allow you to tackle some of the most urgent sustainability challenges affecting the food industry. Some examples of these PhDs include the following:

Please note the above is by no means an exhaustive list of PhDs available in the UK. It is worth doing plenty of research to ensure you apply to the right course for you.

Applying for a PhD

You will need an undergraduate degree and almost certainly a Master’s qualification to apply to a PhD programme. However, this depends on the institution and the PhD you apply for. The EDESIA course at UEA for instance is open to anyone who has obtained a 2:1 or equivalent Honours undergraduate degree in a science-based subject, so long as it relates to some of the key themes within the programme, such as plant science or plant-based nutrition. It is worth checking with the specific university department on their PhD prerequisites before making an application.

Having a strong research proposal is also key if you’re applying to carry out your own research as opposed to working on an advertised PhD project. This is a summary of the topic you want to cover during your PhD and why you think it’s important and original. You should include some form of literature review to prove you know what is already being said about the subject, mention some research questions that you expect will guide your research, what you predict the outcomes might be, and explain how you plan to carry it out (e.g. you might want to do some field work or lab work).

How to fund a PhD

You can apply for PhD studentships to fund your research in the UK. These are typically partially or fully funded by grants from organisations like UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), but some universities also offer their own scholarships. Some professional bodies such as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) or the British Dietetic Association can also offer grants towards independent research if it could have a positive impact on their fields. When it comes to advertised PhD projects not all of them are funded, so it’s worth enquiring with the project supervisor whether a funding application can be made.

Where a PhD could take you in your sustainable food career

If you love academia, opting for postdoctoral research could be the perfect next step after a PhD. Many universities offer postdoctoral fellowships to early career researchers across the UK. These are not another type of degree, but a temporary position of employment at a university, designed to help people kickstart their academic career. You can usually apply to these positions once you have obtained your PhD or if you are nearing the end of the degree. With regards to how long you can wait between getting your PhD and applying, it varies between institutions, but typically you shouldn’t wait longer than five years. Again, depending on where you end up working, the postdoctoral could last anything from one to six years, though at universities it is likely the time will be less. For example, a postdoctoral Research Assistant post advertised earlier this year by the SALIENT (food System TriALs for Impact on Environment, Nutrition and HealTh) consortium lasts for a maximum of two years.

You could also become a Food Lecturer or a professor focussing on sustainability in a particular area of the industry such as nutrition, food science, food engineering, or culinary arts. The salary can range from an average of £33,000 to £49,000, depending on the university you work at and your experience. Salaries can go beyond £100,000 for head of department and some professor roles for instance. To follow this career path, you will have to first apply for a lectureship position, which typically involves a mixture of teaching, research, as well as more admin-related duties such as running induction days or assessing prospective students’ applications to the university. Several universities in the UK also offer postdoctoral Research Fellow or Research Assistant positions which focus on sustainable food systems, so it’s worth keeping an eye on job boards to see what’s available.

Taking on a PhD doesn’t mean you have to stay in the academic world once you finish. If your thesis or research project involved improving the sustainability of a particular ingredient or product for example, your achievements could land you a Research Scientist role in the R&D department of a major food company as more businesses look to reduce their environmental impact. Alternatively, if your PhD involved food policy, the academic knowledge you’ve developed could be used to support policy-making decisions where expert understanding is essential. If your employer has funded your research, your project will likely support your professional development and help you further advance your career.

Case study – Andrea Zick, Doctoral Researcher at the UK Food Systems Centre for Doctoral Training

Andrea Zick is completing her PhD with the UK Food Systems Centre for Doctoral Training. She studies full-time while also working at the OXO Tower Restaurant, Bar and Brasserie in London, where she has been for six years supporting its relationship with the Sustainable Restaurant Association. Her PhD research looks at what integrating sustainability into the foodservice sector means for chefs. “I am curious to understand how chefs perceive the debates around food waste and greenhouse gas emissions embedded in food, where they see opportunities and barriers and more importantly allow them to take an active role in creating solutions,” she explains. “There are quite a few organisations and campaigns which target chefs as change makers and I would agree that chefs are in a good position to influence what food is going on menus and maybe also what people choose to eat, so bringing their views and needs into this conversation seems of value to me.”

Zick sees a huge benefit in working on the PhD alongside her part-time job at OXO, and the course also offers her the chance to learn from other industry professionals from different sectors. “I am working on a participatory project as part of my PhD, this also means I interact with people in the industry regularly and I believe that every interaction and dialogue can bring about new ideas.”

You may not know where a food and drink PhD may take you in your career, but it should provide you with an opportunity to make a positive difference through research. Zick says she can’t predict how her studies may influence her future career for the moment, but she does admit the degree is helping her build discussions around how best to improve sustainable practices in hospitality spaces. “I very much ask myself: how can I have the greatest positive impact on the people in the hospitality industry?” she says. “If anything, the PhD [allows me to connect with] new [colleagues] and reconnect with old colleagues in a dialogue of what the future of hospitality should look like through a sustainability lens.”

To anyone interested in taking on a PhD, Zick says:[It’s] a serious commitment. It comes with the luxury to be curious, explore, learn, fail, and grow as a person.” Such dedication to your work however could give you the opportunity to contribute new research that could have a positive impact on the future of the food industry, and if you’re fascinated by a particular area, the programme could be perfect for you. Zick concludes: “It is a very intense personal development programme which, if successful, adds to research and helps us to understand the world better. Given that, I would recommend it to someone who wants that challenge and enjoys being geeky or obsessed with a particular topic and has the tenacity to work on this subject self-directed.”