Psychological Scientists in the Public Sector
Putting Psychology Out to Pasture
Lucille Woolis Andersen, Wildcat Creek Farms
Here's some advice for a psychological scientist contemplating a move to the world of business: Training in scientific methods will gain you the respect of scientific-minded colleagues and support personnel, and training in human relations and behavior will enable you to better communicate and work with them. Training in psychology will also give you skills to reinvent yourself as circumstances change in your life.
I have a BS in English, MS and Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology, and a BS in Agronomy (the study of agricultural crops such as corn, hay, and pasture). As I now see it, the hallmark of my life has been flexibility in the face of changing conditions and the ability to reinvent myself as needed. I still don't know what I'm going to do when I grow up.
I am 59 and in the midst of a bout with breast cancer (the diagnosis was early, the prognosis is good, and if I can persuade you and your loved ones to have mammograms and PSA tests and colonoscopies, the pain will have been worth it). I'm eager to get past this interruption. The reason for the rush is that I have plans for the diversified family farms that I own and manage in southern Iowa. The farms are 100 miles from my home in Ames, Iowa, where I live with my husband, Art, a veterinary microbiologist engaged in animal disease research.
In 1994, I enrolled in an agricultural crop marketing class at Iowa State University in Ames to address one of my most urgent management deficits, and soon found myself being an enthusiastic full-time agronomy and animal science student. I graduated in 1997; meanwhile, Art and I cleared brush, fixed fences, built a new barn and patched the old ones, had ponds built, and renovated neglected pastures on our weekends. We also built a herd of registered Angus cattle and have begun to market beef for the restaurant trade-cuts that are tender, lean, and flavorful!
Farm managers must work with renters, laborers, suppliers, and contractors. In this primarily non-academic setting, you interact with people of widely varying educational levels, who have expert knowledge and skills that you do not have. Whether its getting seed varieties in short supply, arranging for timely construction of an erosion control pond, or achieving conservation board approval of a new production method, whether you get the service you need when you need it often depends more on your reputation in the farm business community than on your raw ability to pay. In turn, your reputation depends on your ability to manage, demonstrate commitment to farming, produce results, and communicate.
How did my training in psychology help me build a reputation in the community? Academic psychology equipped me with a scientific approach to solving problems, to analyzing data and research reports, and to learning itself. Farm managers must adapt and apply "book learning" to their soil, climate, and resources: Today's farmers must understand building construction, equipment maintenance, meteorology, water flow and erosion control, geology, soil chemistry, crop fertilization, animal and human behavior, animal nutrition, manure management, disease processes, prevention and treatment of disease in plants and animals, pesticide management and safety, and reproduction in crop plants, weeds, and animals.
Farming is rapidly changing as markets become global and products must compete for customers world-wide. Farmers who are able to "add value" to their products through higher quality or unique characteristics will survive. Think reliably tender steaks, or organic produce. Much of this information and these markets are now being carried on the Internet. Much of my management time is spent on the 'Net, using search skills and insights originally developed for snail library searches. I also keep farm production and financial records and cattle breeding records on the computer, and each of these is tied to Internet resources. My research training left me open to the use of new these new technologies.
Psychological scientists also can play a role on the technological edge of farm business: Farm inputs and services are a fast-growing area of business-to-business e-commerce, promising savings on feed, seed and fertilizer costs for the over-50 percent of farmers who are on the 'Net. Frankly, some of the e-businesses would benefit from a psychologist's insight into web-page design. Others have already realized that their success may depend on maintaining the relationship between the farmer and the local supplier.
Another opening for psychologists in agriculture is in the design and analysis of animal-handling facilities, to reduce stress and injury to the animals during vaccinations and treatments. Other psychologists are addressing the need to change human behavior to increase conservation of agricultural and wildlife resources.