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Sustainable food and drink PhDs in the UK and where they could take your career

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14 min read
AUTHOR: Fiona Holland
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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:

  • UK Food Systems Centre for Doctoral Training (UKFS-CDT) is managed by a consortium led by the National Research Institute of the University of Greenwich, together with UCL, Royal Veterinary College, IBERS at Aberystwyth University, Centre for Food Policy at City University, University of Sussex, Brunel University London, and the agricultural research institutes NIAB EMR and Rothamsted Research. From 2021 to 2027, the UKFS-CDT is offering studentships to 60 interdisciplinary doctoral researchers who are looking to find innovative ways to build a healthy and sustainable food system through their projects.
  • The University of East Anglia (UEA) EDESIA: Plants, Food and Health PhD is a cross-disciplinary four-year programme funded by health research charity The Wellcome Trust. The course aims to build high-impact research that enables greater adoption of plant-rich diets worldwide. Students will have access to a wealth of expertise at the Norwich Research Park (which is used by researchers from UEA, the John Innes Centre, the Quadram Institute and Earlham Institute.) As it is a rotation-based PhD, students can delve into research on a range of areas, from metabolic plant engineering and genome editing of crops, to analysing the impact of high plant food diets on public health through human intervention studies.
  • The Agriculture and Food Security PhD at University of Edinburgh looks at how food systems might tackle issues such as world population growth, food and environmental security, rapid urbanisation, and human nutrition and health. As it is an interdisciplinary degree, students have the chance to work with other schools across the university, as well as other partners based in and outside of Scotland.
  • City, University of London offers a PhD/MPhil degree at its Centre for Food Policy, which assesses how policymaking impacts the food we eat and have access to and how this can in turn affect health, social justice, the economy, and the environment. The degree is affiliated with the university’s Food Research Collaboration (FRC) initiative ­­– a collective of academics, non-profits, and food businesses who work together to produce research to help the UK build a more sustainable food environment. It’s important to note students are first registered for a Master of Philosophy degree. A transfer to a PhD is granted upon completion of a review which comes at the end of the first year, when students submit and present a report on their research proposal to an academic panel and at an annual research conference.
  • Cranfield University hosts PhD projects in the Environment and Agrifood research theme, which are updated on a rolling basis. One research opportunity currently on offer proposes to assess how surfactants could be used in different soil types and environments (such as drylands) to improve water efficiency of crops and allow farmers to produce higher yields and good quality crops. The university also offers PhD students the chance to work with one of its industry partners during their studies, with companies from previous years including sandwich makers Samworth Brothers and producer of improved fruit varieties, AMC Fresh.
  • University of Leeds offers PhD candidates the chance to delve into multiple themes that address sustainable food challenges. One of these includes the Businesses and Organisations for Sustainable Societies (BOSS) research area, where students engage in transdisciplinary study to assess how businesses and organisations can better adopt sustainable practices. The Environment and Development Research Group at the university’s Sustainability Research Institute also offers the opportunity to learn more about the environmental challenges the world faces and how to tackle them. While the research area is transdisciplinary – tackling issues such as biodiversity, environmental degradation, plus governance and policy around natural resources – one key theme students are also encouraged to consider is ‘Sustainable and Resilient Agriculture and Food Systems’. Within this research group, students can engage in cross-institutional partnerships with other research centres at the university such as the Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Studies, or the Priestly International Centre for Climate.
  • Research at the University of Reading’s School of Agriculture, Policy and Development strives to tackle some of the key sustainability challenges impacting global food and agriculture, making it another exciting space to study your PhD. The school offers programmes in Agricultural, Environmental and Food Economics; Animal, Dairy and Food Chain Sciences; Consumer Behaviour and Food Marketing; Crop Sciences; Ecology and Agri-Environmental Research, and International and Rural Development. The research staff work regularly with several interdisciplinary research centres, including the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health, Farm Management Unit, Agriculture and Food Investigation Team, the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research, the Walker Institute, which is dedicated to climate research, and Agrimetrics, which runs a Data Marketplace for the UK’s agri-food sector.
  • Harper Adam’s University also offers a selection of PhD projects focussed on agriculture and the rural sector which are typically updated throughout the year, and some are fully funded by the university. While at the time of publication relevant studentships have already closed with the academic year about to start, new projects will be added to the website in the coming months. Previous PhDs on offer have included a collaborative research project led by the university’s School of Sustainable Food and Farming and food retail giant Morrisons. The studentship allows students to work at a Morrisons supplier farm, helping them develop a tool for measuring biodiversity on site to help farms monitor how their Net Zero farming practices could impact biological diversity. Harper Adams also offers the opportunity to apply for a self-funded research degree, which could be a good option if you are already working and think your employer could see value in funding your project.
  • Harper Adams is also involved in the Midlands Integrative Biosciences Training Partnership (MIBTP), funded by UKRI Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which also involves the University of Warwick, University of Leicester, Aston University, and University of Birmingham. One of the key themes the MIBTP allows students to focus their research on is Sustainable Agriculture and Food, with sub-themes including animal health and welfare, microbial food safety, and plant and crop science. 
  • Global food and drink science and research company Campden BRI’s The Food Consortium Collaborative Training Partnership offers a variety of PhD studentships focussed on resilience in agriculture, resource utilisation, and boosting food quality. Some of the PhD project opportunities currently being advertised with a sustainable focus at the time of publication include investigating the development of sustainable chocolate emulsifiers. Based most of the time at the University of Birmingham’s School of Chemical Engineering, the project also involves working with the Lipid Group at the University of Nottingham’s School of Biosciences and spending some time at Nestlé’s Product Technology Centre for Confectionery in York. Another project available looks at developing a fat alternative for baked goods to create healthier, more sustainable pastry products. The project involves working collaboratively with University of Nottingham’s Division of Food, Nutrition and Dietetics and School of Biosciences, and the food manufacturing company Samworth Brothers.
  • University of Lincoln also offers a PhD degree in Agricultural Science and Technology. Studying this degree, students can benefit from being based at the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology (LIAT) – one of the country’s leading research spaces dedicated to agriculture and developments in agri-food tech. Here they will be able to develop their own research and collaborate with other academics and industry figures during their studies. Some of the possible research areas on this course could include crop phenotyping (a way of measuring plant traits and how they respond to their environment), integrating AI practices within food production, managing natural resources, sustainable agroforestry, governance, precision agriculture, and agri-robotics, to name a few.
  • University of Nottingham’s Biosciences PhD allows students to study across a range of areas depending on their research interests. Your research could delve into sustainable agriculture, nutrition and health, soil and environment, animal and livestock, plant and crop, microbiology, advanced technologies, and food and drink. Researchers will be able to make use of state-of-the-art laboratories at university’s Sutton Bonington Campus throughout their studies. The Biosciences department also offers funded scholarships with industry partners which are updated at different points throughout the year.

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.”

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