A Policy and Advocacy Pathway Into Sustainable Agriculture

April 20, 2021

A six-month internship during my PhD studies broadened my view of how research skills can be applied to other areas of work.

Continuing our Career Pathways Campaign, we are pleased to have a blog from Dr Jana Phan, who has pursued her interests in policy and advocacy and developed a career pathway where she can combine these interests with her experience in ag development. The Fund has supported Jana for her internship at United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and with a conference scholarship. Her experiences have taught her that not having a clear vision or a linear pathway is not always a drawback when it comes to your career in agriculture for development – her advice is to ‘embrace opportunities’ as they arise.

Our education system leads us to think that we have to ‘choose’ a career path – this usually starts with choosing subjects for years 11 and 12. And if we change our minds, we end up choosing another path. I’ve never known what my next step will be. I’ve never planned out my ‘career path’ and have never been able to finish the sentence “when I grow up, I want to be a…”. But I have had the privilege of growing up in Australia where opportunities seem endless, and I’ve been able to embrace them as they arise.

I was unenthusiastic about choosing subjects in year 11 and 12, I felt the same about choosing university subjects. I wanted to learn about everything. When I entered university, I chose to study at Bachelor of Science because it was a general and un-named degree. I didn’t know if I liked biomedical science, agriculture science, food science… I wanted to study them all! I ended up majoring in genetics and biochemistry, not because I liked them more than the others but simply because they were my two highest scoring subjects.

Despite ‘the system’ narrowing down my study preferences, I still had no idea what I wanted to do post-study…

Still feeling undecided but having thoroughly enjoyed my research experiences during lab placements, I chose to undertake an honours degree. I took what I thought was a leap of faith and moved from the university’s main city campus to their agriculture and wine research campus – I was eager to learn how my research interests could be applied into the world of agriculture.

The University of Adelaide’s Waite Campus was a hive of activity. I met many different scientists who were investigating all things agriculture. Their research topics ranged from asking fundamental questions through to figuring out ‘real world’ applications – the research options seemed to go on and on. The Waite Research Institute was the place for me and I went on to study for my PhD there.

My PhD supervisors were acutely aware of my varied interests and supported and encouraged me to pursue opportunities additional to my immediate PhD activities. One of which was a six-month internship, supported by the Crawford Fund*, at the FAO, Rome, Italy. During this time, I learnt how the skills I have developed as a researcher could be applied to other areas of work – I became interested in policy development and analysis. To me, policy provided a mechanism to implement positive change, evidence-informed policy was not so universal, and I wanted to change that.

Following my internship, I returned to Adelaide and completed my PhD in 2018. I wanted to find a way into evidence-informed policy development and analysis, in the context of sustainable agriculture development, but I had no idea how to do this. Whilst I was on the lookout for post-PhD opportunities, I worked casually in the lab to try and wrap up some of my PhD research and also in retail to help pay rent. I applied for jobs that interested me, this included opportunities in research or policy, opportunities located locally and internationally, and all the while enjoying my well-earned break from study.

Several applications, interviews and rejections later, I was offered a position at the Australian Academy of Science in their Science Policy team! What an incredible opportunity it has been: I started out supporting policy submissions for early- and mid-career researchers and was soon given opportunities to dive deeper into the world of evidence-informed policy development and analysis. In addition to policy submissions, I attended round tables, high-level meetings and supported the production of Academy reports such as the 2019 report on the mass fish kills in the Darling River. The highlight so far has been my deep involvement in the Chief Scientist of Australia’s Rapid Research Information Forum to support Australia’s COVID-19 response.

I thought I had hit the jackpot with possible jobs – evidence-informed policy enabled me to feed my thirst for ‘learning everything’ – but I kept thinking about how I could bring my new skills in policy development and analysis back into agriculture, specifically sustainable agriculture for development.

Still with no idea how to combine my two areas of interests, in 2019 I applied to attend the Crawford Fund conference. I was hoping to meet people, someone, anyone, who had a shared interest in policy, in learning everything, hoping to meet someone to help me figure out how to do what I am passionate about and work in areas that I am interested in. Although I did not walk away with a clear path forward, I met many people who encouraged me to keep pursuing my interests. The Conference reinvigorated my passion for sustainable agriculture for development.

“We all have ambitions to work in the research for agriculture in international development sector, we all come from diverse disciplines and backgrounds, and we all had no idea what we were doing about this thing people call a “career”. This was refreshing, I wasn’t alone.” From Jana’s reflection of her conference scholar experience.

I wholeheartedly embraced my position at the Academy of Science. My role challenged me, the work was incredibly engaging and rewarding and enabled me to extend my skills in science policy and extend my professional network. However, with my ambitions of returning to agriculture in mind, every now and again I would put my feelers out to probe what opportunities I could one day apply for. I also used this as an exercise to figure out what skills I should strengthen or develop to prepare and propel me into future opportunities.

Whilst on a recent holiday in Adelaide, a friend sent me a job advertisement, an opportunity that would bring me back to my grassroots in agriculture and plant science and unite that with my experience in policy. What a surprise… I am thrilled and incredibly excited to join the team at CropLife Australia!!!

As I reflect on my career so far, there has never been a single point where I have been able to predict where I would be in five years’ time… not even in two years’ time… in fact, I don’t even try to do so. What I have done, and will continue to do, is seek out opportunities that interest me and be open to new experiences. I will also do my best to prepare myself for these occasions.

I was once worried that I didn’t have a clear vision of where I wanted to be, worried that I didn’t have a clear career path… I have now learnt to embrace this. There are many opportunities to choose from when you’re open to them all.

* I would also like to extend my thanks to the other supports of my internship: the Yitpi Foundation and the Waite Research Institute