A Year Older, A Year Wiser: 5 More Things I’ve Learned About a Career in Extension
By David R. Coyle, Ph.D.
It’s funny how life works sometimes.
When I last wrote about switching from research to extension, I lamented a little about the difficulties in obtaining a tenure-track job. (This is a well-documented and often-covered issue in academia; see essays by Dr. Jeremy Yoder and by fellow Entomological Society of America member Dr. Christie Bahlai). I talked about eschewing the traditional tenure-track job hunt to focus on an extension program I created. Well, fast-forward a year, and here I am in a tenure-track job. Was it my plan all along? I’d be lying if I said yes. I had made peace with the notion of not getting a tenure-track position, and that wasn’t easy. But, I loved working in extension and had a good personal situation, so it made sense. Then, by chance, a position became available at Clemson University, just up the road from where I live, and the description was nearly a perfect match for my skill set. I didn’t blow the interview, and now I’m an assistant professor in Clemson’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation. So, as I said, it’s funny how life works.
The job I’m doing now is very similar to the one I did before: forest health and invasive species extension. That said, after another year of extension experience under my belt, I’ve learned some additional things that would have been nice for younger me to know and that may help other young extension professionals. Consider this list a sequel to my earlier article, as I think most of these topics are relevant to anyone in extension, be their position academic tenure-track, working for a state agency, or making a go of it on grant funding. In the end, those of us who work in extension are all translating research for the public and helping people make better management decisions. We just wear different hats and shirts.
You’re always learning new things.
Previously, I wrote about the need for a large breadth of knowledge in extension. That hasn’t changed; it’s the one constant in this job. I mean, I’m always learning new things. New invasive species, like the spotted lanternfly? Yep, better know about that one, even though it’s just recently made its way to the southern region. How about the ins and outs of pine straw production? Turns out, it’s important to know that too, because doing it incorrectly can stress the trees and lead to pine bark beetle issues.
I was trained in natural forest systems, but insects like ambrosia beetles don’t always see that distinction. If a tree is stressed, in the woods or a neighborhood, pests will get in there, and now I’m learning about arboriculture and street tree care and maintenance. Not to mention all the pesticide information, and, hoo-boy, is there a lot to know and remember when it comes to different pesticide formulations, application methods, and rates. Did I mention “forest health and invasive species” includes invasive plants, too? So, yeah, there’s a whole lot to learn—it’s definitely making me a much better naturalist, though.
Be efficient with your time.
As with life in general, one of the most valuable professional (and personal!) commodities I have is time. You have to be efficient in extension: It’s the old “work smarter, not harder” thing. I’ve developed a few strategies for maximizing my time over the last few years, and without those there’s no way I would be able to get everything done that needs doing.
Being in extension, I spend a lot of time in a vehicle, often alone, and I also get a lot of phone calls from stakeholders, other extension agents, and other colleagues. So, rather than just idly drive, I use that time to make phone calls. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I can’t even imagine how behind I’d get if I didn’t use my car time to catch up on messages. Now, don’t get me wrong—sometimes it’s nice to just drive in silence or with some tunes playing. But, more often than not, I’m on the phone (hands-free is a must, by the way, plus it’s the law in several states).
Keeping up with email is harder, but I almost always check it when I stop for gas or to eat. I’m not a big fan of answering emails on my phone, but I will often answer an email with a phone call once I get back on the road. And, on the topic of email: Not every email needs a response. When I was younger I was overly polite with email. It’s important not to be rude of course, but there also doesn’t need to be a long back and forth of thank yous and you’re welcomes. Acknowledge you got the email and understand the message, and move on.
Expect the unexpected.
We’ve all been there. You have a day completely blocked out to work on that important talk or paper or bioassay, and you’re way excited to actually do something scholarly. Then the phone rings, and there goes your day. In extension, schedules change on the way to work sometimes, and you have to be comfortable and flexible enough to roll with it.
Meetings always come and go, and some meetings are much more important than others—especially as a new faculty or extension agent. Now, every stakeholder deserves time and attention, but let’s be honest: Certain stakeholder calls are a much higher priority than others. It’s just a fact. I do what I can to accommodate everyone, and if I tell someone I’ll be there on a certain day, it usually takes a sick child (or something on that level) to make me reschedule. But, if I’ve got a couple out of town visits scheduled and the Clemson President’s office calls and asks me to come look at something on campus, well, I’m pretty much bumping that to top priority. That’s what we call a “business decision.”
To some extent, it’s still a numbers game.
My job is to serve my stakeholders. These can be individuals, companies, government entities, nonprofits, or anyone else. And, technically, if I’m helping them solve their problems, I’m doing my job. But, I am on the tenure-track, and measurables matter. So, I’ve had to get really good at remembering to document what I do.
A big difference between my former job and my current one is that I created my previous job, and was therefore my own boss (for the most part), whereas now I have an actual boss (our department chair) and an “unofficial” boss (the Dean of Clemson Cooperative Extension). My P&T (promotion and tenure) document highlights the measurables by which I’m judged. Since my appointment is 100 percent extension, it’s a little different than most others. While many in academia, especially those in the teaching or research realms, are judged by grant dollars brought in or peer-reviewed publications or course evaluations, I’m judged by number and quality of programs I do, how many fact sheets I author, and how many media requests I handle. Another factor is how many “contacts” I have, which can include diagnoses of issues via email or social media, phone calls, or in-person visits.
Peer-reviewed publications and teaching? Those are considered “value added.” I am expected to get some grant money though, but extension grants are a whole different ballgame. (At least, I think so, and yes I’ve done the research grants thing before).
You have to be trusted to be effective.
You know how when someone does something good it seems to go nowhere, but when someone does something bad it tends to spread like wildfire? I feel like an extension job is the same way. If I do something good, it likely won’t travel extensively. But if, God forbid, I screw up, I feel like that’ll be all over.
In extension, your job is to help people. I’ve quickly learned that if you don’t know an answer, don’t make one up. Instead, simply tell the person you’ll get back with them after you do a little research on the topic (then, for the love of all that’s good and holy, do not forget to follow up with them!). If people don’t trust you, your career is toast. If you develop a reputation for not returning calls or emails, your career isn’t necessarily toast, but you better have some other redeeming quality.
Extension folks are the public face of a university. How many agriculture-minded people (i.e., the stakeholders) living in a state do you think can name the most well-respected scientist in their local land grant university’s college of agriculture? I’m willing to bet not many at all. But how many people, in that same situation, can name the extension agent? A lot of people can do that. Why? Because extension people regularly visit with clients. They talk to them on the phone. They’re on TV and on the radio and doing podcasts. And word travels. Good extension agents make good impressions and help people. And those people usually share their experiences (good or bad) with their neighbors, friends, or peers. And that’s why it is so important to be honest, trustworthy, and good as your word.
My last couple years in extension have been a wild, unpredictable ride. But, I made it into a tenure-track job, doing what I love to do. And after 14 years of wearing red (through a Ph.D. at Wisconsin and postdoc and job at Georgia) I’m now wearing orange. So, I’ll be easy to spot at the next meeting, and happy to answer any questions you may have about a career in extension.
David R. Coyle, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of forest health and invasive species in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation at Clemson University. Twitter: @drdavecoyle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.