Thursday, December 12, 2013

Higher Education Abroad - For Agriculture Graduates

I have been faced with questions regarding higher education prospects for agriculture graduates abroad far too many times last year. Having completed my master’s degree from The University of Nottingham, UK following B.Sc. (Hons.) in Agriculture from Kerala Agriculture University, India, I am uniquely qualified to talk about this (It seems). I write this post hoping it will be useful for my fellow graduates and junior batches.

First and foremost thing is, to know what you want. At the age of 21-22, at which we come out of college this is a heavy demand. However that may be, making your way overseas for the sole purpose of education is very demanding and you will be faced with many difficulties on the way. Most importantly, it’s going to cost you a good amount of money before you can actually board the flight from registering for exams to meet university requirements to booking the tickets. So it is of utmost importance to firmly decide whether this is what you want for your future and once you have done that stay motivated and focussed.

In this regard, in my personal opinion the education quality of SAUs under ICAR are commendable, what courses abroad can offer above this is facilities and a novel life experience, I personally found our home curriculum deeper and wholesome in comparison to that offered by universities outside India. Never the less someone with a specific research or career interest should certainly look at the top universities offering that particular field of specialisation and also the state of art research organisations in the field entitled to offer such courses.

Deciding the university
Higher education abroad mainly means MSc/ MRes/ PhD. Even for MSc you can have taught or Research options. A taught masters will have a number of semesters with credit courses taught in class where as a masters by research will focus mainly on lab or field work.

An agriculture graduate have many subject options for higher studies such as Genetics, Plant developmental biology, Agricultural extension, Agriculture Economics, Agronomy, Horticulture, Biotechnology, Management, and Plant protection. It would not be wrong to say nothing is far from reach for us.

The courses especially at the master’s level offered by foreign universities may not be as discrete as this on the area of specialisation and their terminologies may be confusing. For instance my university offered two courses in the field of genetics and plant breeding namely MSc Crop Improvement and MSc Plant Genetic Manipulation which focussed on field and molecular level crop improvement strategies and molecular genetics and biotechnology respectively but differed only in a few modules. University of Queensland offer two masters degrees in Agriculture Sciences which vary only in the number of credits required for completion.

So the logical first step in the admission process is to identify the field and faculty with whom you wish to study.

Looking at the rankings
I have found QS World University Ranking dependable for the selection of universities ( Over all rankings and subject specific rankings are available in the website.

Have a number of choice universities and also some fall back options. It’s always better to have your pick from a number of options. Once you have a list of universities you are interested in applying to, visit their websites. In the university websites details of courses will be available for prospective students such as you. Choose the courses that best fit your interest after thoroughly considering the modules included and understand the requirements for it.

For PhD/Research masters you should look at the research groups and open positions or studentships published on the websites. If there is a project opening suitable for you fine if not you can still contact the faculty members with a prospective research proposal you are interested in and comes under their field of expertise for consideration.
Registering at websites such as, or will also provide you with a number of options.

Applying for Passport (REVISION)
As you are looking at the universities and course options apply for your passport. For all next steps this is required (I cant believe I missed this out the first time). Getting your passport is not that difficult provided you have all the required documents and all of them have your exact same name. You will need two documents each as
  • Proof of Date of Birth
  • Identity proof with photograph
  • Proof of residence 
  • Proof of nationality 
So first register at Now you can make an online application. Once you have submitted your online application you can schedule an appointment at the Passport Seva Kendra (PSK), this will involve an online fee payment. In accordance to your application there will be police verification at your residence. The local police station may contact you to assure you are home when they schedule their visit. 

At the PSK you will be asked to produce the original documents and their photocopies. You should also have with you a fee amounting to Rs.1500-2000 (for 36 or 60 page passports respectively) for normal applications or Rs.3500-4000 for tatkaal applications. For tatkaal applications you will also need an affidavit attested by a Notary Public to accompany your documents. The Passport Issuing Authority will obtain your photographs, biometrics and come to a decision on issuing your passport after verifying all documents in your presence.

Further details could be found on under FAQs and Quick guides

Meeting the requirements
The university websites will tell you their course requirements. Something like
Entry requirements: At least a 2nd class honours degree
IELTS: 6.0 (with no less than 5.5 in any element)
TOEFL IBT: "79 (with no less than 17 in writing and listening, 18 in reading and 20 in speaking)".

English language tests and GRE
English language tests (IELTS/ TOEFL) results are usually requested by universities for international recruitments. The registration for the examination can be done online via The website also has all the official information regarding these exams.

These tests involve 4 segments: Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening.
  • Reading will involve you reading passages and answering questions that follow.
  • Listening will involve audio passages or conversations or lectures being played to you and answering some questions.  
  • Writing will be going through passages like in the previous sections and writing a short essay based on that.
  • For Listening you will be asked to talk about a familiar topic or a new topic introduced to you as a passage or an audio. 
Start preparing at least a month before your exam date. Schedule in the beginning 2-3 hours daily and towards the last few weeks’ longer periods as you see suitable, for preparation. Time management is crucial in these tests and hence trying out at least two 
sample tests in full is advisable.

I would suggest that you may give special attention to your speaking skills. For someone who has completed their undergraduate course with English as the teaching medium , reading, listening and writing will not cause much trouble (Still practice your skills). The accent is not a problem as long as you are fluent and don’t make too many grammatical errors. Familiarise yourself talking about general topics such as ‘a festival at your native place’. See if you are able to put your ideas into speech without too many awkward pauses. You can also practice having telephone conversations in English with someone fluent in the language.

Barron’s textbooks and CDs are quite useful for self-preparation. If you are worried that you may not be able to take an initiative by yourself, then it’s sensible to join a coaching at centres such as Edwise.

Remember you can make the applications before actually taking the test and that has its own perks. For instance while registering for the tests you will be asked to give details of the universities you want the results to be send to. This is important because to have the official certificates send to universities afterwards will cost you.

Your test fee includes four free official TOEFL® score reports to be sent to the TOEFL Destinations that you select before you test. Score report recipients can be added or deleted through the TOEFL iBT® online registration system until 10 p.m. (local test center time) on the day prior to the test date. For selections made after the 10 p.m. deadline, there is a fee of US$18 for each score report requested. Score recipients cannot be changed or deleted after the 10 p.m. deadline.

I had taken TOEFL iBT and this section was written on the basis of my personal experience. Most universities accept either TOEFL or IELTS. However, in some cases the IELTS is requested for visa purposes to Canadian or Australian immigration. You can read about the difference between the two tests at before deciding which one suite you.

Graduate Record Examinations/GRE
I personally didn’t take GRE, for most UK universities it is not a requirement. So before registering for the exam please check whether it is required for you. Also GRE requirements vary by field. Please check application requirements for your proposed field for details on which tests are required.

There are two different types of GRE tests: General test and Subject tests. Different universities may ask for either or both. As a case in point Cornell University require both general and subject specific test scores for PhD admissions.

The GRE general test features three question types that closely reflect the kind of thinking you'll do in graduate school:

  •  Verbal Reasoning: ENGLISH! This requires you to master an array of vocabulary available in the text books.
  • Quantitative Reasoning: MATHS! Prepare using the questions in model tests. For someone who studies maths last in higher secondary school refreshing the basic concepts of arithmetic, algebra, geometry and data analysis WILL take time.
  • Analytical Writing: COMPOSITION! Again you will have to use your vocabulary.

GRE will require a much longer period for preparation, advisably 3 to 6 months. Kaplan or Barrens text books are very good for preparing for GRE general test.

Be aware that there is a validity period for these tests, which may be as short as an year. If your scores have expired before you are able to finish your university application process you may have to take the tests again paying the registration fee AGAIN. Also the universities will require all official test scores to be reported directly by Educational Testing Service (ETS). The provision to send your test scores on or after registration will be available at ets website, the university codes for the university (institutional code and/or department codes) may be found on corresponding university websites. Be sure to spell your name exactly the same, on both your application and test score report.

Thank you Kwasi and Avin for the information.

Recommendations, Personal Statements and Essays
Generally all the universities will require 2-3 letters of recommendations (LORs) and one personal statement or statement of purpose (SoP). Some applications may require your essays on particular topics such as “Importance of higher education” or “Global food security”.

Letters of recommendations may be from your project supervisor or faculty course coordinator, who are acquainted with your academic performance. If you have been employed it is good to have a professional recommendation from your previous employer or superior. Be aware that some institutions will require LORs in their specific formats. Most applications will require the recommendations to be sent to them directly by your references as an email from their official institutional email address or as a hard copy in a sealed envelope. Usually you will be asked to submit the names and contact information for your references directly on the application. These faculties will then receive an email with a link to an online form to complete the reference.

The personal statement should be one or two pages. It should have your academic objectives. But the statement is more than just a recap of your educational profile, it should reflect on your passion for higher education and also your field. You must bear in mind that the person who makes the initial judgement and grades the application form won't necessarily know much about your area. Do not forget to mention how a higher degree (in this field and from this institution) shall benefit you and how it fits within your overall career plan.

Once you have written one, it is best to modify it according to the institution you are applying to each time. Going through their websites will give you an idea of their current research and charitable focuses, involvement in global initiatives and the general vibe. The university admissions office will be trying to determine if you are a good match for the passions and aspirations of the university and the field to which you are applying.
General format for LORs and SOP may be found online.

Online Application Process
The completion of an application form is usually the first stage of the recruitment and selection process. Most universities offering international recruitments shall have online application processes usually through application portals. Filling in online forms is no child play, preparation and attention to detail count. You should attend to each application as if it’s your first and only option. 

The application forms are used to assess the skills and abilities of the applicant, their motivations and whether they will fit into the institution/organisation.
  • Read questions completely.
  • Complete every section of the form.
  • Use specific examples and don’t generalise.
  • Keep to the word limit ─ be clear and concise at the same time make sure your answer is not too short. If the word limit is 500 make sure your answer is between 450-500 words.
  • Don’t make grammatical and more importantly spelling mistakes. It’s better to type out the answers in the word processor and copying them to the online form. Check and re-check your spelling and grammar.
  • Don’t cut and paste from other applications. If you do so, then read it over and make sure its rephrased to suit that particular application. has many useful resources you may refer to.

Sending certified copies of transcripts and certificates
Transcripts from each previously attended college or university may be required for the application process. Scanned copies of the same may be uploaded with the online application and originals may be presented while registering with the university in person. However for international recruitments the university may require you to send original documents and if not, notarized full-sized photocopies. Copies of original transcripts may be issued by the university on your request (with a fee), in which case the transcripts in the original sealed envelope with university seal may be send by post. Using the services of consultancy agencies such as Edwise to certify the photocopies can help you save time and money on this.

Also note all transcripts or academic records must be official documents issued by the college or university and provided in the original language. A certified English translation must accompany the transcript if the original language is not English.

NB Don’t panic if you haven’t met the requirements exactly, since Universities tend to waive their demands if they are convinced that you are good enough. For example for someone who has had 6-7years of schooling in English IELTS or TOEFL scores may not be required.

Since it has extended past what I expected I will write about the financial options, what happens when your application goes through and visa formalities in the next segment.