Bec Cotton

Bec Cotton

Friday, 12 October 2018 09:31

6 months as an ACIAR grad

By Rebecca Cotton

When thinking about a career in agriculture, most people envisage acres of cattle and miles of fencing. Having myself grown up in a farming community, that’s exactly what I thought.

I am now a Graduate Research Officer at ACIAR, and have been for the past 6 months. Before you ask, although an impressive title, what does this role entail and where will it leave me and the end of my time here?

Shall we start with the fundamentals? What is “research for development” and how does a young, university graduate make a career in it? Well I see “R4D” as the research that goes on behind the scenes; to advise, aid, and build developmental pathways which in ACIAR’s case, occurs in agriculture in over 36 developing nations.

This role allows you to discover R4D in your own way over a 12 month period; to create your own journey, and, as I was told when I began, “You get out of the program what you put in.” I can’t speak for others, but for me it was the chance to discover some of the many different aspects of R4D. Like a foreigner in a new land, I have tried and tasted anything and everything that ACAIR has served up.

I’ll begin with (the most exciting part on the surface,) the travel.  As I mentioned ACIAR works in 36 developing countries. As part of my work I have been to Fiji, the West New Britain in Papua New Guinea and Baguio in the Philippines - and this is just in the first 6 months. In these countries I have seen projects kick off in inception meetings, acted as a mid-term reviewer for a project and seen the summation of a project at the final project review. I have often described myself as a shadow RPM (Research Program Manager- I really need to find the reference manual of all the acronyms used at ACIAR).

20180618 170517The crazy things we see and experience in the field. "Galip nut men" in West New Britain PNG emerging from the jungle dressed in traditional costume. 

Whilst in these amazing places, Project Leaders often take us on field visits where we get to see the research in action and meet the people at the grass roots; the farmers, the families and the communities that the R4D is aimed at connecting with. These are the faces and places I will never forget. The people that make this work so valuable, inspiring me to pursue a career somewhere in this space where research for development can make a difference.

In my first week, ACIAR had me at Parliament House twice! Even getting up-close and personal with J. J. Bish our former Foreign minister. The conferences, seminars and presentations didn’t stop there. I don’t think there has been a week pass that hasn’t seen me scribbling copious notes from speakers on topics as diverse as “Reshaping agriculture for better nutrition”, “Multispecies medicine”, and “When and how research has impact”,  just to name a few.

Working as part of a team is always listed as a valuable skill on job applications right? Not only do the fundamental principles of the role require us to work in several teams concomitantly, but I have also had the pleasure of working on and being a leader of two different committees. The first, Researchers in Agriculture for International Development (RAID), is a network for early to mid-career researchers to connect with others sharing a passion for agriculture and international development. The second saw me being a co-founder of the ACIAR sustainability committee, Let’s Get Sus, which aims to influence the institutional sustainability at ACIAR House in Canberra.

Another invaluable part of being a grad is the technical skills we gain: writing, proposal reviewing and editing, administration tasks like travel bookings and acquittals. All of this has helped (or forced me) to really work on my time management. We are constantly juggling multiple tasks, with different frameworks, all for different countries and all due ASAP. I’ll admit we do get under the pump, but the satisfaction you get out of it, makes it absolutely worth it in the end.

All of this aside, for me, the most valuable aspect of being an ACIAR ‘Grad’ is the mentorship. Not only do we get an RPM to guide, build and support our development, but we also are encouraged to network, meet, and learn from all those we are meeting. I get introduced to people from all walks of life and it’s a fascinating, fantastic opportunity.

If it feels like I have tossed an overwhelming amount of information at you, well that’s what the role is. It’s not for the faint-of-heart. So the answer to my question: how will I make a career in this space? I still have no idea! But having spent 12 months working with ACIAR, I now have a network of connections to draw upon, self-confidence, international experience and an undeniable breadth of skills under my belt that will leave me 10 steps closer to finding that answer.

00284A15 E3AE 480C 9032 2E6D2A2226DF 002Exploring the local La Trinadad Strawberry fields two weeks post Typhoon as part of an ACIAR project review in the Philippines. The project is investigating how the use of different forms of risk managment and climate information can influence decision makers from the farmers on the ground through to the government extension workers.



By Rebecca Cotton

Who Me?

When I left school, I was determined to follow in my father’s footsteps and started studying medicine. However, this wasn’t the life for me and, after a break from university, I enrolled in a Science degree at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC). One of my best ever decisions! Post-graduation I enrolled in an honours year, which brings me to where I am now.

My Research

Making information practically applicable is the role of 'extension'. However, transferring knowledge in an effective and efficient manner is highly dependent on cultural context. This is where my research comes in! There is often a disconnect between what 'we' think is best practice, and what the farmers actually do. So, my honours project has become a blend of agricultural and extension research aimed at improving outcomes for farmers in the Pacific Island region.

Cotton 1 1412Driaba Village visit and organic certification. Entering one of the most rural and pristine parts of central Fiji, and surveying the land for certification. I labeled it ‘The garden of Eden.’ Also holding workshops with the women of the village on PGOS and certification.

The Wonderful World of Field Work

I set off, bright eyed and eager, ready to immerse myself in real world research for three months! Although I've had plenty of experience travelling, I had never been in charge of my own fieldwork. Who knew it involved coordinating contacts, budgeting, time management and, oh my gosh, the paperwork! Man, I finished up with more than just data to analyse, I gained a whole world of additional skills.

My field work included working in Fiji with the Pacific Organic and Ethical Trade Community and in Ratoranga with the Ministry of Agriculture and attending the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) 'Capacity Building for Resilient Agriculture' conference. All of this gave me so many amazing opportunities. For example, I learnt that the Cook Islands culture and traditions are based on an oral history, with stories conveyed through dance and song. Other lessons are passed down from generation to generation through working together. So, I spent my days scooting around (literally on my scooter, for which I had to get my Cook Islands motorbike license; very cool!) visiting farmers, working with them in their fields, understanding their experiences and their learning preferences. Farmers tought me things like:

“If you know how to grow, you will survive”

(Rarotongan Farmer; field work interview)

Cotton 2 1413Rarotongan Newspaper. Due to the small size of Raro, you quickly attract attention. I was interviewed on the radio, on the tv for the evening news, and even made it to the local newspaper!


I am only new to the agricultural development field. It has been an intense yet satisfying journey so far. My advice to those who follow, is that hoping to make a difference in the world isn't enough without determination, motivation and a big heart. A passion for travel and an ability to cope with bad weather, poor sanitation and inevitable delays and frustrations wouldn't hurt either! Never shy away from an opportunity, take on all you can manage but don’t forget to have fun along the way. In my opinion, it is also important to make the time to enjoy and appreciate the country you're visiting - research can take you to some pretty unique environments!

The other, non-sexy part of research is the writing. Don’t forget that all the amazing work you do on the ground, can only be of use, if you rigorously document your work. As I sit here at my desk (slight case of post-island blues), struggling to motivate myself to write, I remember all the people I met and the energy others gave to help me get to this stage of my research. Sometimes I think this part of field work isn’t spoken about as much, when perhaps it's the hardest part. So again, my advice is to analyse a project in all its aspects, remembering that the 'fun' field work is only one part of the whole. With the travel comes the paperwork; and with the data collection comes the analysis. It's only with all the writing completed that we can finally change the world for the better.

Cotton 3 1414View from the highest point in Rarotonga. Enjoying some time off hiking the trails across (literally North shore to South shore) the Pacific Islands.

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