Inside the Life of One Extension Specialist

This is the third and final installment in the series about universities and how they operate.  Hopefully you have gained a little more understanding of how things work with Land-Grant schools and the Cooperative Extension Service.  This time around I’d like to make it more personal and shine the light on me.  Not because I think I deserve to be spotlighted, but just so I can serve as an example.  My job is not only to be a blueberry specialist, but a pecan specialist, peach specialist, blackberry specialist, kiwifruit specialist, pistachio specialist, grape specialist, citrus specialist, and on and on.  You get the idea.  No matter what common (or sometime very uncommon) fruit or nut crop someone wants to try in Mississippi, I’m expected to be the expert in that crop.  My job description says that I am supposed to focus my extension program on fruit crops, so I try to spread my extension responsibilities around to all crops as is possible.  In practice I have more flexibility than that.  I can direct my program where I perceive the greatest need as long as I can justify it.

Most of the growers I interact with don’t have any idea of what I do other than I answer their questions over the phone, email, or in a site visit.  I often show up in a late model pickup truck and they probably think right off how wealthy Mississippi State University must be if it can afford to give all of their employees a vehicle to drive around.

Well, not quite.

When it comes to the vehicle, I am charged per mile driven, upward of 55 cents per mile.  I also share that vehicle with other people.  I am also charged for anything else that costs money like computers, books, and even the publications that go out to the public.  So, nothing is free and it must be paid for by someone – usually me.  Okay, but how do I pay for it because I don’t want it coming out of my personal funds?  My job is 100% extension; therefore I receive some funding from the Mississippi State University Extension Service (MSU-ES).  That sounds pretty good, but, the amount I receive isn’t what you might expect.  I don’t want to give out exact figures, but my travels around the state eat up most of the  funds I am allotted from MSU-ES.  The funds I receive do a passable job for my in-state travel so far (but with rising fuel prices we will see about that in the future), but to fund a research program is more difficult and research is king at a research-driven university.

Wait.  Did I say research?

But, I don’t have a research appointment.

Ah, but the reality of not having a research appointment is juxtaposed against the reality that within the university system that does not matter.  One is expected to do research.  We usually term this “applied research”.  So, I need to find dollars to do that work outside of my allocation.  So, drumming up funds by any (legal) means necessary is a way of life for any professor let alone an assistant professor trying to achieve tenure.

Mississippi State University is a tenure-granting university, but I do not have a tenure-track position.  Tenure is just a form of granting intellectual freedom to the faculty member.  Once a faculty member is granted tenure, he or she can’t be dismissed (theoretically) because they have controversial or unconventional views and opinions that perhaps the university administration does not agree with.  However, it doesn’t mean that someone has a “lifetime” job.  Periodic reviews are required for all faculty members and some level of expected performance is necessary for continued employment.  In the first three years, a faculty member is evaluated for certain traits such as ability to set up a research (or extension or teaching) program, publish papers, and compete for grant funds.  If after three years the faculty member displays a propensity to accomplish these tasks he/she will be “re-appointed” and continue on toward the tenure process.  After six years the faculty member will then be scrutinized more carefully to ensure that the department and university are comfortable with establishing a long-term relationship with the individual.   If the decision is yes, then tenure is granted and the faculty member is promoted from assistant professor to associate professor.  If the decision is no, the faculty member has one year to find another position and leave the university.  I was tenured at Oklahoma State University before I came to Mississippi State University, but that opportunity does not currently exist in my new position.  In fact, faculty on campus who teach are those who are in the tenure system at Mississippi State University.  This is not an uncommon model for a university these days.  But, to continue…

Once promoted to associate professor, the faculty member will likely be given more responsibilities within the university (serve on committees and such) and also outside the university in professional societies (serve on more committees).  These committees take up a good deal of time and effort, but when it comes to being promoted all of that is just one part of the package.  Often the most important factors are being able to publish work in refereed, scientific journals and the ability to write successful grants to outside funding agencies.  The journal articles establish your credibility in being able to create an experiment, carry through on the work, and then publish it for the entire scientific community to evaluate.  These articles go through a rigorous process of review before they are accepted to be published.  Journal articles take up a lot of time and energy to produce.  The whole process can takes many years from designing the experiment to publishing the work.

Grant proposals are something different; they are a necessary evil in today’s academic climate.  Either one brings in money to fund a program or one must rely on the dwindling funds that come from the experiment station or extension service, and as I mentioned earlier, and those are just not enough anymore .  The cold, hard fact is if you can’t attract money with your program, what benefit are you providing the university and the people of the state?  At least some individuals hold that viewpoint, anyway.

For example, in 2011, I was involved in five grant proposals of which I wrote (or co-wrote) two.  I also wrote three abstracts and three refereed papers that were published in refereed journals.  On top of that I wrote 21 newsletter articles and 30 more papers for extension and public audiences.  I served as a reviewer for journal articles, served my home professional society (The American Society for Horticultural Science, on committees, also served on state organization committees, among other activities.  Frankly, I can’t recall how many calls and emails I fielded or how many site visits I made.  It all becomes a blur after awhile.  But these are the expectations of the university administration.  In fact, they will probably say I need to do more – write more grants, write more papers, do more presentations, and overall just do more of everything.  I’m sure if I received a grant for one million dollars they would say to bring in two million next year.  I understand how the game is played and I’m a willing participant.

I hope that I have outlined a few things in the last couple of articles that maybe has opened your eyes to what goes on at a university.  The more you understand about what we do, the better we can work together.  And remember that nothing is forever.  Just because Mississippi has a fruit crop specialist today doesn’t mean that position will always be there.  The voice of your industry plays an especially important role in the fate of our jobs, so let it be heard.  Serve as a cooperating site for an experiment; provide funding for research, extension, and teaching programs that pertain to your crop; contact the Department Head and Dean of the college in which your specialist works.  Let them know that you appreciate the work they are doing and what impact it has had on your operation.  As always, I look forward to any feedback you might have on these three articles I wrote and I hope they were beneficial to you.