Online learning to switch careers

Published on
June 22, 2017

In 2014, Jos Smallegange (1991) graduated from the MSc programme Aquaculture and Marine Resource Management at Wageningen University & Research, with a specialisation in Aquaculture. In this article he describes his ambition to contribute to the global food supply and how this led to a career switch from marine biologist to production assistant in plant breeding, and the role played by the distance learning modules in this process.

Why did you decide to specialise in Aquaculture at Wageningen?

“I grew up on a farm in the Dutch province of Zeeland. I was always very interested in anything that had to do with water and plants. My childhood dream was to become a marine biologist and do research about the Great Barrier Reef: I liked everything that involved water and fish. Studying at Wageningen University & Research was therefore a logical step. During the minor in Marine Living Resources of the Wageningen MSc programme, I realised that aquaculture appealed to me the most. I thought the cultivation of algae and seaweed would be interesting and challenging. During my internship at Hortimare (a company that breeds seaweed and in this way aims to grow food in the sea to help supply the growing demand for food) I became particularly enthusiastic about growing seaweed. But certainly in the big picture, I wanted to become an entrepreneur someday. During my study my ‘dream’ took on new dimension: making a good product that helps to feed the world.”

Can you briefly describe you career?

“After completing my studies, I travelled for some time in Australia and Asia. To pay for the travel expenses, I worked at a small horticulture operation. I had the idea to establish a subsidiary of Hortimare in Australia, and during my travels I visited a number of institutes and companies that were active in seaweed cultivation. This is how I started working for the Australian company MBD Energy, where I grew seaweed in the wastewater from a large shrimp farm to prevent eutrophication of the Great Barrier Reef. After working there for several months, I was asked to become the manager at a new location. As a result, my childhood dream had become reality and I achieved something that many backpackers dream about. However in the same week I received an attractive offer from Smit & Smit (a sustainable, land-based oyster farm in the province of Zeeland). Based on my intuition, I decided to accept the position at Smit & Smit. The trust they showed in me, the responsibility they gave me and the pleasant company atmosphere were my main considerations. It was a wonderful adventure with an innovative company. Unfortunately, they went bankrupt soon thereafter. But I learned a great deal and I am very grateful to the Smit family for giving me this opportunity. It also opened my eyes, in the sense that it made it very clear how difficult it is to start a successful business in the algae sector.”

What was the decisive factor in your decision to switch careers?

“As I gained more work experience and learned more about the financial aspects of business, I began to doubt whether the production of seaweed and algae had a future. During my travels in Vietnam, I became fascinated by the horticulture that I saw; all the technology and expertise came from the Netherlands. After my time at Smit & Smit, I therefore started working for a bell pepper grower to learn more about Dutch horticulture. The cultivation system was very interesting, but the operational management and growth potential were less appealing. Since I still wanted to contribute to the world food supply and ultimately wanted to start my own business, it became clear that I should work in a different sector: plant breeding.”

Why did you switch to plant breeding?

“One way to improve and increase food production is through plant breeding and selection. Especially the role that a plant breeding company takes in society – they are at the base of the food chain and are involved in the entire process, from breeding to cultivating a beautiful product – made me very enthusiastic about working in this sector. This is a good example of how your perspective changes as you gain more expertise: during my BSc programme in Biology, I was not interested in the genetics course, it was much too deep for me. The fact that I now have this opportunity is of course because plant breeding companies are currently very successful. They are growing rapidly and need new, well-educated personnel.”

How did you find your new job?

“After a number of rejections due to lack of plant breeding expertise, Enza Zaden offered me a position as a junior production specialist for onion seeds, among other products. As part of this position, I would go to Africa for two months each year to visit the production locations. This entire application procedure took place with excellent support from the Royal Netherlands Society for Agricultural Sciences (KLV, the alumni network of Wageningen University). During this process, we ascertained very quickly that a position such as production specialist would entail too much office work and would not be sufficiently entrepreneurial for me. So Enza proposed that I contact the manager of the seed production company in Tanzania, who was looking for an assistant. After a Skype meeting with the manager, I worked there for two months on a trial basis. The company and the work were very appealing, so now I'm going to immigrate to Tanzania!”

How did the distance learning modules in plant breeding help you to make a career switch?

“After a number of rejections from plant breeding companies because I lacked the right qualifications, I started taking all five distance learning modules on plant breeding from Wageningen Academy. This enabled me to demonstrate that I had the necessary expertise. In addition, this knowledge is essential to my work because it helps me to understand the breeding process.”

Do you have any tips for others who might be interested in the distance learning modules?

“If you want to acquire more theoretical knowledge about plant breeding, I can certainly recommend these modules. The modules are extensive and they clarify the various aspects of plant breeding. The explanations are clear, and the modules also have questions, so you really have to think about the subject matter. Distance learning is not cheap – especially if you have to pay the fees out of your own pocket – but the quality is good. The costly investment also motivated me to complete the course. For me it was ideal that I could study the breeding modules at my own pace, in addition to working at my regular job.”

How do you see the future of your career?

“I hope that I can work for Enza Zaden in Tanzania for a long time. The role of Enza Africa, as a subsidiary of a large breeding company, is very appealing to me. I also have the idea that I can now have more impact than if I owned a production company myself. In addition, new varieties are continuously being developed; with each new variety it is a challenge to produce as much high-quality seed as possible. So I am constantly faced with new challenges. Ultimately, I hope to become the manager of the production location in Tanzania, where I envision a wonderful future participating in the development of the horticulture sector in that country.”

Would you like more information about the possibilities of distance learning? Visit the Distance learning page, or contact Monique Tulp, she will be happy to advise you.