Professor of Agronomy and Extension Specialist, Purdue University

Gary Steinhardt

Career Sector



BS in Agricultural Science from Michigan State University, MS in Soil Science from Michigan State University, PhD in Agronomy from Purdue University

Briefly describe your career path from college to today.

Well, it’s interesting how I got into soil. It was sort of by accident. I did not start out in college thinking that I wanted to study soils. I was majoring in food science at Michigan State University, and one summer there weren’t any summer jobs in the food industry. I got a wonderful letter from the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station, because I had pretty good grades, asking if I would like to map soils. I didn’t know if I wanted to map soils, but I knew I wanted a job. And that’s how I initially got into soils, kind of by the back door.

I completed my undergraduate and master’s degrees at Michigan State, spent a few years in the army, and returned to academia to get my PhD at Purdue. Then after graduate school, I decided I wanted to be more involved in the National Cooperative Soil Survey, a project to map and inventory the nation’s soils. As it turned out, Purdue had a job in soils and land use as an extension specialist. Well, a job is better than no job. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted (or thought that I wanted), but I’ve had the greatest time with this career and it was really all by accident.

What is academic life like?

Well, there’s lots of juggling. In order to get tenure now you really have to demonstrate your ability in research and writing and managing grants. It’s very difficult to get tenure. You’ve got to be like Mary Poppins—nearly perfect in every way.

As you go along, you get arguably better at juggling several balls in the air at the same time. When you have a three-way appointment in the land grant system—research, teaching, and extension—you’re trying to get all those balls juggled. Everyone that you encounter thinks that the only thing you’re doing is whatever they’re interested in. Your students think all you do is teach. Your colleagues think all you do is research. And the public thinks that all you do is extension. It’s a challenge, but if you love it, it can be very satisfying. Also, it’s an exciting job; no day is ever the same. Today I’m going to teach my class, then I’m going to teach my lab, then I’m going to run down to Indianapolis for an extension meeting.

When going into academia, what things should you consider when applying to different institutions?

You have to find a place where you can feel comfortable. I’ve been very fortunate here at Purdue because the Agronomy Department values extension and values what we do for the public. If you’re intensely interested in research and they’ve hired you as an extension specialist, you’re going to be frustrated. I find great personal satisfaction in dealing with the public, answering their questions, and helping to solve their problems, so extension was a good place for me.

How has SWCS impacted your career or contributed to your continued education and/or personal development?

Well, it’s been very, very important. At a personal level it’s provided great family vacations all over the country! In my daughter’s fifth grade geography class, she was asked to measure the distance between two towns. She picked Regina and Saskatoon in Saskatchewan, because we had taken a family trip there for the SWCS Annual Meeting.

The Hoosier Chapter of SWCS has been an exceptional group. It’s been valuable in providing an opportunity for networking and a model for partnership. In Indiana we have developed a conservation partnership between the land grant university and the extension service, and the Hoosier Chapter has been a real factor in that. The international meetings are just exceptional because you have a chance to talk to the researchers and the program leaders. If you’re a conservation practitioner, this is an invaluable opportunity.

What changes in required skill sets do you anticipate in your current position?

If you go into extension, there’s a lot that they don’t teach you in graduate school in terms of interacting with people, planning things, and planning educational programs. You’re not always prepared for the complexities of putting together an extension program and coordinating with people. The people part of it is the most important.

The way to hone those people skills is just through doing. Joining a service club, like your local SWCS chapter, is a great way to get people skills. You’re interacting on projects, and the pressure isn’t as great as it will be later. If you’re thoughtful, you can learn an awful lot. It doesn’t matter what that experience is—designing the homecoming float, raising money for breast cancer, arranging a trip for the ski club—it can all help you understand what the real world is all about.

The mission of SWCS is to “foster the science and art of natural resource conservation.” Describe what impacts you have on fostering this in your current job.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate because I’ve worked with 4-H and the Future Farmers of America (FFA) soil judging program. So I’m very aware of how much impact I’ve had in changing the opinions of youngsters about the land. I’ve also coached the Purdue soil judging team for 31 years, and through that, I’ve started a lot of people on careers in soils. I’ve worked with students that eventually became successful soil conservationists, county agents, and soil scientists. What’s really been great is seeing them take what I’ve taught them and turn it into a career where they help people. I find that very personally satisfying.