Graduate training program: Communicating beyond science to scientist

Communication has been identified as a key 21st century skill important for post-secondary graduates.

November 18, 2021

6 Min Read

By Crystal L Levesque, Lee Johnston, Phil Miller, Kasey Maddock-Carlin

Students graduating from graduate or professional programs related to livestock production are frequently less prepared than employers might desire for success in allied industry careers. Specifically, they often lack well-honed interpersonal communications skills and practical experience in livestock production systems. Communication was identified as a key 21st century skill important for post-secondary graduates. The importance of communication within the agriculture industry, and more importantly, with the non-agriculture community (e.g. consumers, policy makers, media) is not a new concept. Acknowledgement of this deficiency played an important role in development of agricultural communication majors at post-secondary institutions. While concerted efforts are spent incorporating communication training into undergraduate curricula, the same is often not true for graduate students, especially with regard to their ability to effectively communicate scientific concepts to non-academic audiences. Yet, these audiences are often the most vocal and express the greatest concerns regarding modern food production methods. Interaction with livestock producers, food purchasers, and policy makers requires a different communication style than is typically emphasized in graduate training (i.e. communicating science to scientists). Meat animal production is often at the forefront of highly charged debates and public policies related to animal welfare, environmental issues, and social justice. Consequently, the need for strong communication skills in graduates with advanced animal science degrees is paramount.

Another area of concern relates to the number of students completing agriculture-focused degrees that have little to no exposure to the daily business of meat animal and food production and is a trend not likely to change anytime soon. This lack of exposure is important because graduates will be asked to find practical solutions to problems that arise in livestock production settings. This creates challenges for graduates to communicate with livestock producers due to a lack of understanding of the complexities and challenges of day-to-day livestock production, yet communication with these individuals is expected for many animal science graduates.

To begin to address these concerns, the Departments of Animal Science at South Dakota State University, North Dakota State University, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and University of Minnesota with contributions from companies in the allied livestock industry have developed a communication training program for animal science graduate students named “Communicating Beyond Science to Scientist.”  This program focuses on: 1) expanding student communication skills with audiences outside academia (eg. consumers, producers, media, policy makers) and 2) increasing direct experience with commercial livestock production. The first 3 years of this program are supported in part by a Higher Education Challenge Grant from USDA-NIFA (#2020-70003-30933).

Key skills that are the focus of student training include: interpersonal communication, conflict resolution, and communicating effectively with a wide range of non-academic audiences. Students complete 5 unique activities including 1-h seminars from industry experts on communicating with specific target audiences, training in conflict resolution and working effectively in groups, a communication conference, short-term industry internships and job shadowing, courses in communicating across cultures, written communication with non-ag audiences, and classroom style communication.

To date, 25 graduate students have enrolled in the complete program, 9 have completed all requirements. Sixteen students participated in a written communication and round table discussion together with 107 undergraduate students majoring in communication and human nutrition. Graduate students wrote short articles on a hot topic in meat animal production; undergraduates read and reviewed the articles, gave written feedback, then met with the graduate student writer to discuss the issue in a virtual round table discussion. As a result of this activity, undergraduates indicated an increase in overall knowledge, and confidence in, meat animal production (score 3.7 ± 1.0 on a 5-point Likert scale). Three students have completed 2-wk job shadowing/internships with allied industry. Feedback from industry partners included a definite willingness to participate again noting the importance of communication skills and the value of the experience to their organization.

A highlight of the program for all participants (students, university faculty, and industry personnel) is the communication conference held each fall. The first day of the conference focuses on leaders of the livestock industry sharing their perspectives on a variety of issues with students.  Keynote speakers have included: Todd Wilkinson (National Cattlemans Beef Association), Lucas Lentsch (Dairy Management Inc), Bill Even (National Pork Board), Collette Schultz-Kaster (American Meat Science Association), and Scott Vanderwal (American Farm Bureau Federation). Then students participate in a series of round table discussions where industry leaders walk students through real-life case studies on a range of topics (eg. Species specific livestock production/nutrition, manure management, product development, global trade). Students are asked to use their critical thinking skills to develop potential solutions. Industry leaders invariably demonstrate the vast interconnectedness of a particular challenges with numerous aspects of livestock production.  On day 2, students come prepared with oral presentations that share their science with a staged non-academic audience (eg. consumers/media, CEO/grocers, producers) in a manner suitable for the audience. A panel of relevant industry representatives assume the role of the intended audience then provide direct feedback to the students on how well they communicated with that audience. This activity allows students to practice skills learned from the series of seminars they attended earlier in the year where industry experts provide instruction/advice on how to appropriately communicate with these different audiences. Two Communication conferences have been held to date (October 2020 and 2021) with an average of 27 graduate students and 24 industry leaders participating in each conference. Feedback from industry guests and participating students on the value of the program in relation to developing communication skills specific to non-academic audiences, strengthening problem solving skills, and value of the conference to the time spent was 4.6 ± 0.6 on a 5-point scale. Students indicated a greater confidence in their ability to communicate scientific concepts to a non-scientific audience as a result of their participation and noted a 4.7 ± 0.7 satisfaction related to networking experience at the conference.

This program has been very successful and made a real difference in the abilities of our future animal scientists.  These students are an important part of the future livestock industry.  Industry support for this program has been very gratifying.  The future of this program will depend on continued and increasing support from industry as USDA funding will expire on April 30, 2023. If your organization is committed to help train the next generation of animal scientists and wants to help support continuation of this program, please contact any of the program leaders. List our contact details.

Program Leaders


Contact information

Crystal Levesque

South Dakota State University

[email protected]

Lee Johnston

University of Minnesota

[email protected]

Phil Miller

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

[email protected]

Kasey Maddock-Carlin

North Dakota State University

[email protected]



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