Tomi graduated from the Master’s programme specialising in plant pathology, and is currently working as a specialist at the Finnish Association of Fruit and Berry Growers (Hedelmän- ja Marjanviljelijäin liitto). Vappu graduated from the Master’s programme specialising in animal nutrition. She works as an animal nutritionist in Hankkija Oy, which is a nationwide store and service chain for agriculture-related products and the biggest animal feed producer in Finland.
Who is this Master’s programme for? Is there something unique about it that you can’t find elsewhere?
Tomi: Plant pathology is a very important topic of the future, shaped by questions about the global climate crisis, instability in the world, food security and sustainability, as new crops and, sadly, new plant pathogens evolve. The themes students cover during this master’s are becoming more and more relevant locally and globally.
During my bachelor’s degree, I was mostly focused on plants and plant production and wanted to carry on deepening my understanding of threats to plants. With that in mind, for my Master’s programme I chose plant pathology, which looks at the key threats to plant health, plant pests and diseases and their biology, cycle and epidemiology, how plants get infected and how they pass the pests on to other plants, as well as prevention of pests and diseases. While you can come to the programme from different academic or professional backgrounds, I would say that it’s useful to have some prior knowledge or studies of agriculture or plant growing.
Vappu: I came to this programme straight from my undergraduate degree in Agricultural sciences, during which I focused mostly on animal physiology. Unlike some might think, it wasn’t necessary to have previous experience in working on a farm for either the Master’s or the Bachelor’s programme. I grew up in the countryside, but my family didn’t have a farm. My fellow students were from very varied backgrounds and ages; some came directly from their undergraduate programme, others were mature students who wanted to add to their professional experiences, and some came from other countries specifically for this degree.
In Finland, this is the only programme of its kind, and the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry at the University of Helsinki is comparatively highly regarded internationally. I don’t think it’s a programme you can find easily in that many places in Europe, especially in English. Also, Viikki Campus has excellent facilities for practical research.
What was it like to study in the programme?
Vappu: The group sizes were relatively small, so you really got to know the other students well. The professors and lecturers are very approachable and open to questions and are very keen to support students. The university and student groups and societies organise a lot of field trips and visits to different organisations which I would highly recommend as they provide inspiration for post-graduation life and give that extra motivational boost during studies. The collaboration between faculties is good too so it’s easy to find both academic and leisure and activities outside of your own programme too.
Our programme consisted of lectures and lab work, and we did a lot of group projects and collaborations. Some of the courses were delivered in partnership with external organisations and companies, which involved us undertaking small research projects for them. This gave us the opportunity to start building our future professional networks. The University offered opportunities for students to work as research assistants in their projects. In my thesis, I was looking at faba beans as a supplementary protein feed for cows.
Tomi: First of all, all courses were delivered in English and there was a good mix of Finnish and international students in the programme. There are of course some core studies that all students take, for the basic overview of agricultural sciences. Students can then choose courses that they want to focus on, and these consist of lectures and often lab courses. Also, the engagement and collaboration with other organisations and institutions in the sector is good, so students get to know about interesting projects, work placement and career opportunities through the university networks.
What kind of work tasks and careers have you had relating to the programme?
Vappu: Before I started in my current role, I worked in different research-related roles during and after my studies, and over the summer. I did a work placement in an organisation specialising in animal feed which led to more work the following year, and I’ve also worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Helsinki while studying.
I’m pretty content with my professional life at this stage. My current responsibilities as a development manager/animal nutritionist are special target feeds for ruminants, such as minerals, vitamins, energy feeds and milk replacers. I’m also overseeing the feed sales in Hankkija stores and I am part of Hankkija R&D group which involves me in various research projects, and collaborate with our international research partners. I’m also training and supporting our sales staff. One of the current international master’s students is actually working in my office at Hankkija, so there are definitely professional opportunities and work practice on offer both during and, obviously, after completing the programme.
Tomi: I’ve been in my current role as a specialist in fruit and berry growing for three years now and I’m really enjoying it. During my undergraduate studies, I did an internship at the Finnish Potato Research Institute, working on some data collection and a literature review over a few months while studying.
In my final year, I started working at a company that develops biological solutions for disease control in forestry and horticulture. I worked there as a technical support/agronomist. My role also involved research and development, how to use the products smarter and more effectively with new crops and new production environments. I worked closely with colleagues in Canada and France in particular.
Did you have a clear career path in mind when you started your degree, and what kind of professional experiences or work practice did you do during studies?
Vappu: I didn’t really think of any careers when I started my undergraduate degree in Agricultural sciences, but during the last two years of the master’s programme I began to develop an interest in animal feed and nutrition. I did my first masters-related work placement in a company specialising in animal feed, and while working there, got involved with product development of cow feed which I found interesting. I managed to get some more work from the same company the following year. While I was working on my thesis I worked as part of a feeding trial which was organised in the university’s research farm. As part of this project, I was looking after and feeding the animals, taking samples of, for example, milk, blood and faeces, and handling the samples in the laboratory. These practical experiences played a big part in me wanting to pursue a professional life in feed and nutrition.
Tomi: In my first job I got to do quite a lot of research but was left with the feeling that I would like to try something different, working more closely and directly with farmers and growers. I had attended the events of my current employer and spoken to some of their previous specialists and felt like it was the right step for me. My current employer is at the forefront of berry and fruit growing in Finland, which makes my work meaningful for me. I’ll get to work with a wide range of organisations and stakeholders from farmers to policy makers and authorities. Every now and then I’ve considered PhD studies at some stage but right now I feel my work is varied enough to keep things interesting.
What kinds of career options can students have after graduating?
Tomi: There are many options for future careers and the course choices you make during the master’s programme shouldn’t exclude any professional paths. You can obviously work as an agronomist, which can relate to a wide range of institutions, organisations and companies. I know former students who work as researchers, advisors and independent consultants, and officials and civil servants. Some have gone to work for the private sector as product specialists or advisors. Some students, especially those who had grown up in a farm or had some previous practical experience have gone to set up their own farming business.
Vappu: Many former students work for different food/agriculture authorities, as officials and in governmental roles. Some have gone to develop their own agricultural businesses or farms, others work as advisors and consultants. Some students took a different study track during this programme and have gone into animal breeding-related roles and organisations.
Animal sciences is an interesting discipline because the sector is currently under quite a lot of criticism globally and locally: big questions are being asked about the justification of the whole industry and its impact on climate crisis. It’s important for the future students to be aware of these questions, and to develop their understanding on how to make the industry more transparent, how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions resulting from animal production, and how to improve animal welfare while ensuring food production and security.
What other parts of your studies/student life have helped you in your current career?
Vappu: I lived in the campus which really helped me getting into the student life. I’m originally from a small town and I consider myself a bit shy but living amongst other students made it easy for me to feel part of the student community. Helsinki is an international city, and the university attracts international students, which makes the agricultural sector feel open, progressive and accepting.
When I started working, I was positively surprised at how some of the individual courses and study topics that seemed quite abstract or irrelevant while in the programme, suddenly made more sense in the professional setting. While I’ve of course learned a lot from my professional life, I felt this programme gave me a very strong foundation to start in a professional specialist role. Thanks to my solid academic background, I’ve been approached and trusted as a specialist by both local and international colleagues. The way University of Helsinki approaches animal sciences is shared and recognised internationally, so I would say it’s very easy to work in a sector anywhere in the world after graduating from the programme!