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Profile: Nuffield Graduate

Tim Stephens, 2017 Nuffield Scholar

Tim started the IBERS ‘Nuffield Graduates’ module in June 2021. He kindly agreed to an interview to help give other Nuffield Scholars an idea of what it was like to revisit his report with the aim of rewriting it to gain gaining postgraduate credits. Here’s what he had to say:

Tell us a bit about yourself and your Nuffield topic

I am a catchment advisor working for Wessex Water on diffuse pollution reduction projects across Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset. My main focus is working with intensive livestock and arable businesses to reduce losses of nitrate and phosphate to watercourses. I am BASIS qualified, so I am also involved with pesticide runoff prevention.

I am a 2017 Nuffield Scholar, and the title of my study was “How can farmers keep nutrients out of water?”. Over a 15-month period I travelled for 15 weeks across 10 countries visiting farmers, advisors, researchers and policy makers to find out how they maximise nutrient use efficiency and minimise diffuse water pollution. My report was published in 2019 and I have given around 50 talks to varied audiences on my findings.

What made you decide to take our online Nuffield module?

It is 20 years since I graduated from Edinburgh University with a degree in agriculture. Although I have done plenty of CPD since then, I had always harboured a desire to study at master’s level. When the opportunity to undertake a Nuffield module came up I was keen to sign up as it was taught online so I could fit it in around my life and work. I knew Aberystwyth University had an excellent reputation for teaching and research in the agricultural sciences and I liked the modular nature of the offer. I initially signed up for the Nuffield module and a Grassland Systems module, but I hope to complete further modules over the next couple of years.

What did you think it would be like to be a distance learner?

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect but knew I would need to organise my time carefully to keep up. My employer is very supportive which helps but I have done nearly all of the study in evenings and weekends so that I don’t fall behind in my day job.

What was it like? Highs and lows

The highlights of the programme to date have been learning new skills and information. The main challenge to date has been learning to write in an academic style which I hadn’t really had to do much before. The tutors have been very helpful in coaching me on this and giving regular feedback on my assignments. I have also become more proficient in finding relevant published evidence to support my statements. These are skills I think will benefit me in my work through helping make my approach to delivering catchment management programmes evidence-based.

Challenges have mainly been around time management. Although the module is flexible, I have found that I need to keep up with the weekly timetable as it is easy to fall behind with the lectures and assessments if I don’t make enough time each week. After the first few weeks of adjustment, I now feel that I am in more of a routine with it.

What have you enjoyed most?

Although it took quite a bit of time, I enjoyed writing a literature review on my Nuffield topic. I did a lot of research when planning my travels and writing my Nuffield report, but I didn’t really go too far into the academic evidence. Writing the literature review opened my eyes to how much scientific research has been done on my topic around the world and I now plan to share my review with catchment stakeholders in the areas that I work.

How do you feel the module has helped with you Nuffield studies?

Having completed my Nuffield Scholarship two years before I started the module, I was ready to revisit what I had learnt and written to apply it to the catchments I am currently working in. For example, I am currently working in the catchments of the Somerset Levels where elevated phosphate concentrations from agriculture and sewage treatment are causing algal blooms in summer. I am focussing my Nuffield report rewrite on ways that water companies and farmers can work together to tackle this particular issue.

How well do you think the format works for working people?

I think that Aberystwyth University have tried really hard to make this format accessible for working people. I feel there is a high standard of academic rigour, but they have made it flexible enough that you can pick and choose when to do the work. They recognise that many of the learners may have been out of education for some time so new concepts are introduced in a step-by-step way. At the end of the day, it is master’s level so you need to make the required time and effort, but I think that the course has been structured and delivered well.

What’s next for you?

My short-term focus is to complete the Nuffield module over the next few months by rewriting my Nuffield report in an academic style and focussing it on ways of reducing phosphate runoff from farms in southwest England. I am also halfway through a Grassland Systems module, so I have more study to do and some assignments to produce for that. Once I have finished these modules I should gain a Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable & Efficient Food Production. I will then decide whether to undertake more online modules and write a thesis to gain the full MSc. 

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