Plant breeding research and cultivar development are integral components of improving food production, particularly as the global food network seeks to become more sustainable. Plant breeding, an iterative process of sampling or creating genetic diversity and selecting and fixing desirable plants for propagation and cultivation, is necessary for enhancing crop improvement worldwide. Plant breeders must have an in-depth understanding of multiple disciplines to be successful. Both the public and private sectors substantially contribute to breeding efforts worldwide; however, as industrialization increases, there has been correspondingly more investment in breeding by the private sector. Interestingly, the rate of change, extent of governmental involvement, and size of companies vary considerably depending on specific crops, regulatory and legal frameworks, intellectual property protection, and numerous social, economic, and market factors.
Distinct information about employment levels and plant breeder positions in industrialized countries is available from studies conducted in the United States. Two separate surveys found that there were at least twice as many jobs in the private sector as compared with the public, and there is a major focus on breeding of large-acreage field crops compared with smaller-acreage specialty crops including fruits, vegetables, and ornamentals (Frey, 1996; Traxler et al., 2005). Other industrialized countries with substantial plant breeding, such as Australia, Canada, Germany, and England also have the majority of their breeding activity in the private sector, with the public-to-private involvement varying depending on crop type (Heisey et al., 2001). In developing countries and emerging markets, the preponderance of plant breeding occurs in the public sector, but that, too, is shifting as local seed companies gain competence and capital, and multi-national companies seek global market share (Bliss, 2007; Guimaraes et al., 2006).
Regrettably, there is a current critical shortage of plant breeders throughout the world (Morris et al., 2006). Too few students are being prepared for careers in plant breeding to meet current demands of either universities and research centers, to maintain and replenish faculty, or private sector businesses (Bliss, 2007; Gepts and Hancock, 2006; Miller et al., 2010; Traxler et al., 2005). Plant breeding faculty in colleges and universities are responsible for educating and mentoring the next generation of plant breeders. The capacity for developing new breeders is linked directly to the number and quality of faculty and the resources at their disposal. Attracting the brightest students and preparing them for successful careers requires curricula that are dynamic and offer new concepts and technologies that are being employed and used throughout the industry.
Reviews of graduate education outcomes have pointed to the value of broader approaches to graduate preparation (Association of American Universities, 1998; McGeary, 1995; Tigerstedt et al., 1998). Specifically, a recent report highlighted the urgency for higher education programs to address societal needs and challenges (Wegner, 2008), favoring external stakeholder involvement in the curriculum development process. Although in most industrialized countries the preponderance of plant breeding jobs are located in the private sector, there have been only limited opportunities for those employers to convey to universities their ideas about the knowledge, skills, and type of preparation new breeders need to be successful in private sector breeding (Baenziger, 2006; Bliss, 2006; Ransom et al., 2006).
Frequently, employers comment that new graduates are too specialized and often have difficulty adapting to the range of tasks required in non-academic work (McGeary, 1995). New hires generally require considerable mentoring before being able to successfully lead a commercial plant breeding program. Further, in plant breeding graduate program descriptions there is little indication of whether preparation will provide important experiences and skills that are frequently expected by hiring managers in the private sector. It is unclear from most program catalogues how or what curricula content would be presented within an academic training program that would align with the expectations in a private sector position description. In recent years, there have been renewed efforts to enhance coordinated education and research programs for students to help meet the private sector's need in today's competitive market (Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, 2009). Companies need intelligent, skilled employees who are adequately prepared for teamwork approaches and integrated research and development projects (Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, 2009). Technological changes, along with requirements and challenges facing plant breeders, continue to evolve (Gewin, 2010; Tester and Langridge, 2010), and the educational programs must also change. Programs and curricula should strive to balance time-tested knowledge and procedures provided through classroom and research activities, while integrating new suggestions from vested stakeholders.
It has been suggested that, rather than relying wholly on faculty ideas about perceived skills and competencies of future plant breeders, broad-based information should be gathered from diverse stakeholders with first-hand experience (Bliss, 2007). With this in mind, the present study sought suggestions of private sector plant breeders to enhance the preparation programs of graduate students new to this field. The Delphi method was utilized to garner information from a group of private sector experts and to build consensus among the key ideas presented. This iterative process identified the most important items within the areas of knowledge, skills, and experiences for plant breeding graduate students seeking careers as private sector breeders. The study was designed to articulate the needs of plant breeders moving into the private sector and provide faculty and plant breeding graduate programs with content ideas from the perspective of employers and professionals in the industry. By utilizing stakeholder recommendations, it is possible to envision an educational experience building on the vision and strengths of universities while successfully preparing students for careers outside academia.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Delphi Method. The Delphi method survey technique was utilized to learn about the perspective of private sector professionals (known herein as private breeders) regarding graduate-level curriculum planning priorities in the field of plant breeding. The Delphi method is commonly used to garner expert opinion and experience regarding a particular issue, allowing for input of geographically dispersed individuals with no opportunity for face-to-face exchange (Rayens and Hahn, 2000). The study process builds consensus among such experts using a web-based anonymous survey technique, avoiding issues of dominance within the participant group, and has been shown to be effective through previous work (Green et al., 2007; Trexler and Parr, 2006).
Participant Selection. As opposed to a random sample, study participants were purposely selected based on their expertise in plant breeding to ensure representation from a breadth of specialties, crops, and companies. Groups including the Global Partnership Initiative for Plant Breeding Capacity Building (GIPB), Plant Breeding Coordinating Committee (PBCC), and National Council of Commercial Plant Breeders (NCCPB), and academic and industry experts submitted suggestions for individual participants. Additionally, the invitation letter stated that “if there are others who you believe would be similarly qualified to contribute positively to this important study, please forward this invitation to them.” In total, 107 private sector breeders were invited to participate in this study. The data reported here is part of a larger study that also included diverse experts from the public sector and working in emerging nations. This article contains the results of professionals who have associated with the private sector for the majority of their careers.
Data Collection and Analysis. An open source web application framework, Drupal (version 6), customized to the Delphi format, was utilized to collect all data. In Round I of this study, each participant was asked to respond in short answer form with up to 10 unique responses to the following questions:
What knowledge (topics or subject matter) is essential to have obtained at the completion of a graduate degree in plant breeding?
What experiences should a student have while pursuing a graduate-level plant breeding degree that will contribute to his/her future success?
What skills and competencies should a student obtain by the completion of a plant breeding graduate program?
What specialties within plant breeding (or to complement plant breeding) should be developed during the next 10 years?
Forty-six participants provided responses to the open-ended questions. The research team then used the constant comparative method to distill and group Round I suggestions from participants into logical categories (Glaser, 1965). To ensure validity of the data, at least two team members reviewed all raw results and categorization.
In Round II, participants were presented with the distilled suggestions and were asked to rate the importance of each on a Likert-type scale with 1 = unimportant, 2 = somewhat important, 3 = neither important nor somewhat important, 4 = important, and 5 = very important.
Based on the results of the second round, the research team elected to eliminate statements with a mean rating of less than 3.75 in an effort to elicit consensus on items rated as important in Round II. Statements with a standard deviation greater than 1.0 were eliminated unless the distribution of scores for that given item held 51% or more of 4 and/or 5 rated values.
For Round III, participants were provided both group mean ratings and their previous personal ratings from Round II and were asked if they still agreed with their initial ratings, and if not, to adjust their ratings. Data were collected and analyzed in Microsoft Excel. Results from the final round have been represented as mean scores, and standard deviations (SD) are noted.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Of the 46 stakeholders from 31 different companies who participated in this study, 59% completed all three rounds of this iterative process. Participants were asked to identify crop areas in which they worked (more than one could be indicated; Fig. 1a), as well as how many years they had been involved with plant breeding (Fig. 1b). As shown in the bar graphs, there was a good representation of breeders from diverse crops. In addition, more than 80% of the participants through each round of this survey have been active in plant breeding for at least 20 years. Of the 27 final round participants, 24 had Ph.D. degrees and 26 were male. Given the diversity of the stakeholders engaged in this study, no one group was overly represented. Representation from different practitioner groups was achieved to provide a cross-section of private breeder opinions.
More than 330 individual suggestions were provided by private breeders as being important knowledge components for educating a plant breeder. These were each categorized, and at the completion of the study there remained 40 unique suggestions rated higher than 3.75 and deemed important in 13 categories (Table 1). In addition to plant breeding and genetics, disciplinary knowledge had the largest number of suggestions and included statistics, biotechnology, and computer proficiency. To grasp the suggestions with the highest level of stakeholder agreement, only suggestions where at least 23 of the 27 stakeholders (85%) provided ratings of 4 or greater were plotted in Fig. 2. These ratings show basic, advanced, and classical plant breeding knowledge, along with several genetics and experimental design topics were rated very important. Stakeholders also emphasized knowledge of database management and ethics, areas that traditionally received less attention. Mean scores for each of the important knowledge suggestions is shown in Supplementary Table S1.
|Knowledge categories||Mean†||No. of suggestions|
|Plant reproductive biology||4.2||1|
|Policy and law||3.7||3|
Private breeders strongly agreed on a variety of experiences critical for plant breeding graduate students to encounter in their preparation (Table 2). Experience designing experiments, as well as field and laboratory data analysis, were rated as very important by stakeholders. Other important ideas included actively participating in practical field experiences related to plant breeding and collection of field and laboratory data.
|Experience categories||Experience suggestion||Mean†|
|Experimental design||Designing an experiment||4.6|
|Formulating and conducting an experimental approach to address a question||4.4|
|Data management||Experience in field and laboratory data analysis||4.6|
|Experience in field and laboratory data collection||4.6|
|Plant breeding||Actively participating in all aspects of a practical breeding program||4.5|
|Experience with small plot testing||4.4|
|Experience with a genetic marker program||4.3|
|Pollination and hybridization of crop plants||4.3|
|Practice of selection methods with experienced breeders||4.3|
|Visual assessment of some traits||4.3|
|Management||Breeding program management||4.3|
|Networking||Interact with commercial plant breeders||4.1|
|Practical aspects||Practical field experience related to plant breeding||4.6|
|Hands on participation in a complete cycle of breeding||4.4|
|Practical lab experience related to plant breeding||4.1|
|Practical greenhouse/nursery experience related to plant breeding||4.1|
|Experience of drilling and harvesting trials||3.9|
|Collecting and handling seed||3.9|
|Hands-on experience with molecular breeding techniques||3.9|
|Computer proficiency||Computer database experience||4.1|
|Scientific communication||Ability to present and respond to questions||4.4|
|Reading and comprehension of research articles||4.4|
|Presentation of breeding program organization, structure and timeline||4.2|
|Writing a M.S. or Ph.D. thesis||4.1|
|Technical writing (e.g., reports, general article)||4.1|
|Creating and defending a project proposal||3.9|
|Presentation of research plan, progress report and results||3.8|
|Make a scientific presentation to lay audience||3.8|
|Participate in seminars||3.7|
|Leadership and teamwork||Work with researchers from other disciplines||3.9|
|Work with researchers from related disciplines||3.8|
|Teaching/mentorship||Mentorship from a plant breeder||3.8|
Many experiences suggested by stakeholders focused on communication, teamwork, and management. These suggestions rated between 3.7 and 4.4. Scientific communication had the largest number of specific suggestions deemed important by private stakeholders, which included technical writing, presenting and responding to questions and presentation of a breeding program's organization, structure, and timeline. Working with researchers from related and unrelated disciplines was also believed important.
Given the high ratings within the topic of scientific communication, it is worth noting that much lower stakeholder ratings were given for participation in journal clubs, grant writing and submission, and participation in a national/international meeting which were rated between 2.8 and 3.2. Internships in private or public programs rated 3.6 and 3.1, respectively.
Thirty-four skill suggestions were rated important or very important by at least 85% of the participants (Fig. 3). These represent skills a student acquires through a variety of experiences and which focus primarily on a person's judgment and ideas, time and efficiency in completing tasks, and decision making abilities. Preparation in the area of intrapersonal skills and professional effectiveness or “soft” skills, which included cooperation, judgment, networking, hard work, and efficiency, were identified as important by these stakeholders. The experimental design category also had a number of suggestions rated as very important. Specific examples included designing experiments or programs with clear goals and objectives and using the scientific method. This aligns well with suggestions within the areas of knowledge and experience.
Similar to what was found in experiences, writing grant proposals was not deemed important (2.7) by this group of stakeholders. Interestingly, neither were business skills including understanding business finance (2.6), employing business management principles (2.9), or formulating budgets (3.3). Supplementary Table S2 includes the full list of 61 skill suggestions by private breeders. While the total number of skill suggestions deemed important is much higher than either knowledge or experience, this may be due to the fact that multiple skills can be gained through a single experience. Additionally, these skill suggestions are much more specific than those in other competency areas, where an entire year of coursework may need to be devoted to understanding basic or advanced plant breeding knowledge.
Specialties in the Area of Plant Breeding
Participants were asked to identify specialties, or focus areas that would be useful to enhance over the next decade. Thirty-eight unique suggestions were proposed; however, only the six listed in Table 3 were rated higher than 3.75 following Round II of this study. These include breeding for abiotic and biotic stress tolerance, molecular breeding, and transgenics. While each of these specialties may already be incorporated into some individual breeding programs, these areas of specific emphasis, or added minors to degree programs, may offer additional opportunities for plant breeding graduate students to gain a more comprehensive preparation in highly valued topics supporting plant breeding careers.
|Specialty suggestions within plant breeding||Mean†|
|Breeding for abiotic stress tolerance (e.g., drought, salt)||4.5|
|Plant molecular breeding||4.3|
|Breeding for biotic stress tolerance (e.g., pests, pathogens, nematodes)||4.3|
|Transgenics and transformation (e.g., GMO)||3.9|
|Data/Database management and analysis||3.7|
|Germplasm management and utilization||3.7|
Practical Example of Plant Breeder Education
Companies are looking for well-rounded plant breeders with diverse knowledge, experiences, and skills that will prepare them for work in the private sector. This is evident in a recent job description for a carrot breeder to work at a major seed company (Table 4), which serves as an example of the competencies sought at the conclusion of a plant breeding student's graduate degree. Most of the duties and desired experiences within the job description were identified in the survey as important components in educating new plant breeders, as might be expected since the respondents for this study have spent the majority of their careers working in private sector plant breeding. The skills a candidate should have before being considered for this position can be acquired either through knowledge or experiences during preparation of a breeder. A notable focus in this description, besides the technical aspects of the position, is the emphasis on the applicant's managerial capabilities. This concurs with a recent study that reported that agri-business companies ranked critical thinking and interpersonal skills twice as highly as production experience in terms of necessary components for career success (Boteler, 2006). Responsibilities, including evaluating trials in various markets and enhancing the breeding program effectiveness through engaging in collaborative interactions, would generally be gained by a student through a variety of experiences, not simply classroom knowledge.
|Job description||Manage a breeding program in collaboration with a multidisciplinary, global research team to obtain successful new products. Responsible for the development of new improved carrot hybrids and management of the pre-commercial product pipeline for targeted market segments.|
|The qualified candidate will manage design, development, and implementation of breeding research projects in collaboration with scientists in fields such as pathology and breeding technology. You will have direct management responsibility of your breeding staff and budget management.|
|Duties/ responsibilities||Creation and evaluation of breeding populations; utilization of breeding technology tools to incorporate genes for disease resistance and quality traits; coordinate, place and evaluate trials in major market segments.|
|Make line and hybrid advancement decisions; fulfill requirements for variety advancement through documentation of performance; completion of required breeder's seed.|
|Utilize all relevant breeding technologies with appropriate allocation of resources directed at the successful development of commercial products for key market segments.|
|Through engagement and collaborative interaction with breeding technology communities, identify, research, and eventually apply those to your breeding program that enhance breeding program effectiveness and efficiency.|
|Achieve pre-commercial hybrid advancement targets and make recommendations to appropriate regional crop teams.|
|Experience desired||Strong background in plant breeding, genetics, field plot technique and statistical analysis, molecular biology, and molecular marker application to plant breeding.|
|Demonstrated success in technical proficiency, scientific creativity, and collaboration with others.|
|Excellent managerial and organizational skills; ability to balance multiple tasks and achieve milestones.|
|Ability to work in a team based environment with multidisciplinary teams; effective verbal communication skills.|
|Leadership capabilities within the technology community that can extend into other functional areas, including key customer groups.|
|Knowledge of quantitative genetics, functional genomics, genetic statistical theory, and experimental design as it is applied to plant breeding.|
|Vegetable crop research experience preferred.|
|Spanish language fluency helpful but not required.|
|Educational qualifications||Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics; 3+ years experience working in breeding/genetics preferred.|
Not all of the desired qualifications listed for this position were rated highly by private breeders. Specifically, budget management was rated at just 3.1, while it was listed as a key responsibility in this description. There are widely varying competencies and experiences listed in job descriptions by major employers of graduates in the plant breeding field. However, all descriptions specify that plant breeding is an integral part of the position, showing the value of taking many factors into account when developing curriculum and educational programs for graduate students in this field. Instructors and mentors need to be aware of these competency requirements and provide efficient delivery of this information to students (Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, 2009).
Employment opportunities for plant breeders in the private sector continue to increase, especially in industrialized countries, and at a slower rate in developing countries and emerging economies. This trend has evolved during the last several decades and globalization has intensified the need for breeders who are well prepared for multiple challenges and opportunities. However, at no point has the industry had more simultaneous change than it does today. Technological enhancements are rapidly advancing the scientific knowledge and specialized tools available to plant breeders. In the past, technical limitations restricted breeders to modifying one or a few traits within a limited genetic pool for many agricultural crops (Fernie and Schauer, 2009). Today breeders can utilize genetic and genomic tools to enhance crop performance, allowing for selection of multiple traits simultaneously (Varshney et al., 2005), greatly facilitating commercialization of new, improved varieties.
These changes have resulted in an increasingly interdisciplinary and global industry, which needs breeders and support scientists who are adaptable and flexible. As was strongly suggested by private sector stakeholders in this study and well documented by the integrated job description, graduate education programs should offer students a wide array of experiences, enabling them to be well prepared for a dynamic future career path. A comparative study exploring the future of the agricultural sciences suggested that graduates should be knowledgeable about globalization, the value of diversity in the workplace, and how their research will affect environmental sustainability (Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, 2009). This includes opportunities for students to practice supporting their ideas with evidence (Krajcik and Sutherland, 2010), a critical component of the scientific method and experimental design. Educators should be aware of the competencies industry employers seek and provide curriculum, courses, and experiences that will best prepare students to meet these diverse and evolving training and educational needs. Further, providing incoming students with an understanding of industry professional's expectations at the conclusion of a graduate program will allow sufficient time for an individual to become adequately qualified, regardless of whether curriculum has been designed with this focus.
This study specifically asked participants to suggest components of high importance to graduate education; however, this information can also be used to design short courses focused on specific topics important to defined clientele groups, as well as additional forms of training for actively engaged private sector employees. These proposals are modes of comprehensive professional development, a framework that greatly assists an individual's success within a field (Needelman and Ruppert, 2006). The findings of this study offer universities and institutes with extended education programs the tools for enhancing knowledge and skills for both students and practicing plant breeders. As international agricultural research centers offer short- and long-term training courses for many practicing breeders and also collaborate with universities for degree programs and post doctoral education for students (Khush, 2006), they should benefit from information collected in this study, and from the consensus opinion of participants.
A novel program that has developed to offer training for plant breeders currently employed in the private sector is the University of California–Davis Plant Breeding Academy (http://pba.ucdavis.edu; verified 20 Apr. 2011). The goal of this professional development course is to increase the supply of professional plant breeders within industry by training assistant-level breeders during six 1-week sessions, supplemented with distance learning, over 2 years. The information and experiences provided by the Academy offers students a means of enhancing their education at a graduate level without leaving their jobs. The results from this Delphi-based survey can be used to aid in designing programs such as this to enhance competence and opportunities of currently employed private sector plant scientists.
Initiatives are being developed to enhance expertise in important new areas of need and opportunity. One example is a course offered at Colorado State University, titled “Plant Breeding for Drought Tolerance.” This intensive 2-week integrated program targets both graduate students in the plant sciences and professionals in the private and public sectors, and is focused on the topic of the highest rated specialty identified by private stakeholders—breeding for abiotic stress tolerance. By offering transferable graduate-level credits for students, as well as incorporating a symposium at the conclusion of the program to discuss leading issues, participants have many opportunities to interact with experts in the field while simultaneously making progress on their degree. A notable feature of this course is the inclusion of seven different research facilities—including laboratories, greenhouses, and field stations—and eight faculty members from different institutions who are involved in the curriculum design and teaching (http://www.droughtadaptation.org; verified 20 Apr. 2011). In a similar, shorter program, the importance of experimental design that surfaced in this study makes it easy to imagine development of a 1- or 2-day course to enhance current assistant breeder's understanding of experimental design, and analysis and interpretation of practical problems. Another example of a program initiative that combines focus on areas of specialization mentioned by private sector stakeholders is the “Partnership for Research and Education in Plant Breeding and Genetics” at Purdue University. This program focuses specifically on breeding for biotic stress resistance and abiotic stress tolerance through a partnership involving both the public and private sectors, key topics that were rated as very important by participants in this study.
Reform of plant breeding education programs must be ongoing in order to incorporate new scientific knowledge and emerging technologies from the life sciences into applied plant breeding, while concurrently retaining core knowledge, essential practices, and necessary skills. The importance of communication and working in global teams is underscored in this study. Educators and mentors must be vigilant in considering the career paths of their students. The needs of both the public and private sectors, domestic and global, should be recognized and appropriately integrated into course curriculum, thereby providing students with diverse training opportunities and skills to support their employment and ongoing professional development in any sector.