From Research to Extension: 5 Things I Learned When I Changed My Science Career Path
By David R. Coyle, Ph.D.
A couple of years ago, I changed careers. No, I didn’t leave science altogether; rather, I switched from a research career (the “tenure-track” path, if you will) to a 100 percent extension job.
Why the switch? Several reasons. For me personally, a biggie was family (as in, we started one). We also really liked where we lived, had relatives nearby, and desired some stability in life. Meanwhile, I decided I was sick of doing the tenure-track job hunt (I’d been doing it for four years). It was time to start my career, not keep looking for it.
So, at the end of my research postdoctoral position, I got in touch with the Regional Forester for the southeastern U.S. (my current boss), pitched the idea to him and some Forest Service folks about a regional forest health and invasive species program, and here we are. In a way, you could say I created my own job. Now I run a forest health and invasive species program for the southeastern United States.
In this role, I deal with insects, fungi, and plants—basically anything that impacts forest health. My primary audience is professional foresters and natural resource agents (e.g., state and federal employees, consulting foresters), university extension agents (especially at the county level), and, to an extent, the public. I work across the southeastern U.S., a 13-state area bordered by (and including) Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Virginia—otherwise known as the USDA Forest Service Southern Region.
I’d done plenty of extension activities during my Ph.D. and postdoc, so I felt like it’d be a pretty easy transition. In some respects, it was. In others, however, it was a major change for which I was totally unprepared. To say I learned some lessons on the job would be an understatement. I’ve been in some conversations with colleagues lately about this switch or about a career in extension. And, as I think about it, there are some things I’d love to tell younger me if I could go back in time.
The breadth of knowledge you need is huge.
I was trained as an applied forest entomologist. I also have quite a bit of experience with invasive species. tree physiology, and production. I’ve picked up a bit of forest pathology and soil science, southern pine silviculture, and climate change impacts along the way, too.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how much I’d need to know about everything else, including current prices and markets (How much is a load of pulpwood going for in South GA?), actual production (How many semi loads of logs can you get from a given forest stand?), regeneration details (How many trees per acre would you plant on a steep, sloped, eroded Piedmont site?), and pesticide information (What can I spray, when should I spray it, how should I apply it, and how much does it cost?), and probably more subjects I don’t even know of yet.
You have to learn how to deal with (sometimes difficult) people.
I’d wager most scientists don’t get a lot of formal training on how to deal with people—sociology, communication, conflict resolution, that sort of thing. If you’re like me, you learn a lot of that on the job.
In certain situations in extension work, information needs to be delivered delicately. For instance, let’s say you have to break the news that a tree is dying and can’t be saved. If it’s an important tree, or the centerpiece of the property, people don’t want to hear that. If they live in an urban or suburban area, they also don’t want to hear how much it costs to remove a tree (spoiler: more than you think).
You’ll also get challenged on your knowledge and ability. Some people believe their use of Google is more accurate than your 20-plus years of experience, and sometimes these people have rather strong opinions. Confrontation never works in these situations, and, as much as you might want to tell them they’re full of frass, you need to find a friendlier way to deliver the news.
Communication (like the audience) is much different than in graduate school.
As a grad student and postdoc on the tenure track, I wrote journal articles. Science writing was the currency. That has changed substantially. I still pick away at the lingering research article, but for the most part I’m a translator now. I have to keep up on all the latest research and what it means for the forester or land manager. Then I have to convey what it means to a non-Ph.D. audience.
— David R. Coyle (@drdavecoyle) July 24, 2017
I do this through using different language and images; I often annotate figures in scientific articles. I also write fact sheets. I’ll be honest: After writing a bunch of scientific journal articles, I figured I could throw a fact sheet together in no time. Not so much! It takes an enormous amount of work to make a good fact sheet—one that’s relevant and easily understandable and shares just the right amount of information. For this, in particular, the advice of senior colleagues has proven absolutely essential.
And there’s more than just fact sheets. Webinars are also a great way to reach a lot of people, and they’re a great way to help with continuing education if you offer CEUs (continuing education credits). Social media is an incredibly powerful tool to help spread information. It’s also one of those “you get out of it what you put into it” things. (See tweet above.)
The amount and logistics of travel can be challenging, especially with a family.
When I was a graduate student, I couldn’t wait until I was established enough that I got invited to give talks all over the place so I could travel the country/world “on business.” Turns out, once you have a family, travel is not so glamorous (at least to me, anyway).
Those that are already in extension jobs know how much travel is involved. I have a wife, a 4-year-old, and a 2-year-old (and we recently got a puppy, which is like a third child in many ways). Mornings and evenings are a flurry of activity, with every ounce of our energy dedicated to keeping things fed, content, and pooping/peeing in acceptable locations. And, let’s face it: It’s hard to leave, especially when the kids get sad because Daddy’s going away for work. So, anytime I’m going to be out of town I try to make sure I’m home for as many mornings and evenings as I can. Often that means leaving after the kids’ bedtime (around 8 p.m.) to catch a 10:30 p.m. flight or driving until (or after!) midnight. If I’m leaving during the day, it’s almost always after I drop them off in the morning.
On a related note: Since you travel a lot in extension, sign up for all the hotel, airline, and car-rental rewards plans. They’re free, you might as well get the points, and sometimes there’s even a complimentary room, car, or seat upgrade!
There are so many different daily activities.
As a graduate student or postdoc, I could usually focus on one thing at a time: a paper, my research, and so forth. All that changes when you become an extension agent (or principal investigator, for that matter). You’re constantly being pulled in a million directions: phone calls, emails (there are so many phone calls and emails), invitations to speak, requests to visit property and check out a problem—the list goes on and on. There’s only so much time, and too many things to do.
And you’re on the road a lot of the time; it’s not uncommon for me to have a week when I’m in the office one day and out the other four. Administrative stuff piles up, too. A lot of times I feel like all I’m doing is putting out proverbial fires and never getting ahead or doing anything creative I want or need to do (like write new fact sheets or update my web page with new information).
My journey into extension has had some ups and downs (like many others’ journeys, I’m guessing). But, no matter what career path you choose, this will be the case. Do I miss research? Sure I do; I spent almost two decades doing it! Do I regret my decision to leave research and do extension? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s the best decision I could have ever made. I have an “extension personality,” I’m told, and I get more satisfaction from my job than I could have ever imagined.
In extension, you can see the impact you have on other people. You see it in their faces and hear it in their voice. We need research to generate the knowledge needed to make informed management decisions. But we need extension just as much to get that information to people who can (and need to) use it.
So, to everyone wondering what to do with their life (like I did), don’t be afraid to give extension a strong consideration. The world needs strong researchers, but it needs strong communicators, too.
David R. Coyle, Ph.D., runs the Southern Regional Extension Forestry—Forest Health and Invasive Species Program. Twitter: @drdavecoyle. Facebook: www.facebook.com/southernforesthealth. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com