Reap the rewards from a degree in agriculture, says Jeremy Barnes

Only a handful of universities offer degree programmes in agriculture and related subjects, but don't be tempted to think they are reserved for farmers' sons and daughters. In reality, there is a huge array of interesting and diverse careers on offer in subjects related to agriculture, biological sciences and the environment. Some students even use their degrees to pursue careers in medicine, dentistry and veterinary practice by specialising in animal science.

Agriculture students come from all types of background and locations - urban as well as rural - and tend to share a love of the outdoors. Many agriculture students elect to escape office life and city congestion in favour of careers that enable them to travel widely and enjoy the riches of the countryside.

Some graduates go into farm management or use their experience in a variety of service and supply industries. Typical agriculture-related careers include technical management for commercial companies in the agri-food sector; consultancy advice to farmers, landowners and charitable trusts; research at a leading academic institution or agricultural research institute; legal, banking or accountancy specialists - for example, evaluating farm business plans for investment or preparing agriculture-related patents; and technical sales for agricultural products - fertilizers, pesticides, storage treatments.

Major players in the food supply chain are actively recruiting agricultural graduates, with candidates becoming managers in companies that supply agricultural produce to wholesalers or retailers. Many students choose to specialise in environmental subjects. Organisations such as the Environment Agency and English Nature have traditionally provided graduate-level jobs and will certainly continue to do so. Now, there is increasing interest from the private sector, as companies accept that they have to be environmentally accountable and seek qualified managers and site assessors to help them achieve this.

All agriculture students gain an in-depth understanding of agriculture at farm and industrial levels, based on agricultural sciences, production studies and business management. Students generally gain practical farming experience before starting their course or during university vacations, and will also be introduced to a range of farming practices on farms, including those owned by the university.

After the first year, honours options are available in agronomy, animal production science, farm business management, organic food production and rural resource management. Degree programmes are also available in animal science, environmental science, agri-business management, food and human nutrition and biology. Many courses allow students to specialise in their chosen subject area: plants, animals, ecology or molecular biology.

The diversity of agriculture and related subjects attracts many types of student, but they often have some common traits. Candidates tend to like being out of doors, as well as being highly motivated and energetic. Students should be happy to get their hands dirty. There is great camaraderie among agriculture students, who are renowned for their zest for life. Why not join them?

Professor Jeremy Barnes works in the environmental biology department at Newcastle University