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A Day in the Life of Extension

Often, graduate students and early career professionals are interested in Extension and applied research careers. They may base those interests on a past childhood experience or observance of Extension professionals within their universities. Unfortunately, many of those students lack an understanding of Extension, and they may hesitate to inquire whether such positions may apply to them. They observe from afar and often are reluctant to ask questions. These interviews give an overview of, but do not limit, potential careers in Extension. The authors/contributors hope that they help students initiate career conversations with advisors, mentors, and colleagues.

We appreciate the generosity of Paul Vincelli, Professor of Extension, University of Kentucky, for his review of this article. Many thanks to the contributors who shared their experiences for this overview.

What do Extension folks do all day? And why aren’t they ever in their offices?

Extension careers are as diverse as the people who fill them. They range from doctorate to master’s degree levels, and appointments can range from 100% Extension assignments to Extension-Research splits. Likewise, some systems continue the tradition of education-focused efforts, while others require greater emphasis on applied research, research publications, and grant funding. Each university and each individual department has its own set of parameters for evaluation.

Perhaps the most visible Extension positions are those of university faculty who are located on university campuses. These positions may or may not be tenure track. Campus-based specialists often work closely with county agents, crop consultants, and grower groups. They may advise students, as well. Some specialists, on the other hand, may be positioned at research stations that are central to their commodities; they usually have closer relationships with growers. Diagnosticians may be located at campus-based labs or at strategically placed research stations within a state. County agents or crop advisors, in contrast, are usually county-based; they work directly with campus and off-campus faculty and specialists and are directly in contact with growers and homeowners alike. Extension associates are often supervised by an Extension specialist, although they may have their own unique programs. There are also variations of these Extension positions that combine one or more of the traditional roles listed above. Not all Extension personnel work with commercial growers; they may focus on non-commercial stakeholders such as Master Gardeners and urban community gardeners. A little creativity can help develop a particular role to solve specific problems. After all, that is the mission of Extension.

Daily or seasonal tasks also vary greatly. Many Extension professionals travel extensively; each day is different and equally stimulating. Planned activities occasionally give way to unexpected developments in the field or diagnostic lab, assuring an interesting professional life. Educational activities include county or regional meetings, social media, online trainings, and field visits. Training sessions may include growers, gardeners, crop consultants, or county agents. Days in the office can range from writing stakeholder-focused publications to analyzing research data to mentoring students. There are no “cookie cutter” molds for Extension professionals. Productive individuals succeed in part by attending to specific needs of their assignment, and in part by taking advantage of their own, professional strengths. Again, each position includes an individualized program, each with its own set of objectives and desired impacts.

Extension’s Mission

Extension careers are directly aligned with the mission of the land-grant system and its Cooperative Extension component. The Cooperative Extension Service, formalized by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, was created to “extend” research and university information to agricultural communities. Today, Extension education also includes urban agriculture, food science, family studies, youth leadership, and more. The Cooperative Extension Service works to1:

  • Translate science for practical application
  • Identify emerging issues, find answers, and encourage application of scientific findings
  • Work to eliminate poverty, encourage healthy lifestyles, and mentor youth
  • Provide response to disasters and emergencies
  • Connect people to credible, science-based information

Positions in Extension

Plant pathologists can fit into this broad educational network by exploring a variety of specialties and experiences. From education to applied research, there are endless possibilities.

Following are short profiles of ten Extension plant pathologists. They are presented in no particular order and range in commodity assignments, project foci, and expertise. This format is intended to help those interested in Extension to understand that possibilities can range from fungicide trials to lab-based research to videography to social media to grower education. The next step is up to the individual, to discover a career path that “extends” the university to the people, and to fulfill the mission of the land-grant university.

Note: USDA-ARS, the national agency that collaborates with state-based university Extension programs also includes Extension career opportunities. This article does not include government careers, but interested students are encouraged to explore those possibilities, as well.

1 The description of Extension’s mission was adapted from the description from NIFA’s website