The Doctor of Plant Medicine Program at the University of Florida: Growers, Agricultural Agencies, and Industries Need Plant Doctors
I have been a plant pathologist for 41 years (PhD: 1960). During these years, I have taught plant pathology to undergraduate and graduate students, supervised the research of 25 graduate students, substituted for the Extension Pathologist of the state for two years, and served as chairman of a plant pathology department for a dozen years. I even wrote several research papers, book chapters, and a book. I have also been entrusted by our professional society with several assignments, which I carried out. Most people who know me or know my professional past would consider me a pretty good plant pathologist. Let’s assume that I am that. What does that signify? It signifies that I can diagnose diseases of plants caused by fungi, bacteria, and viruses, and maybe nematodes, and that I can provide recommendations for their management or control. Actually, in some plant pathology departments, such as ours, plant nematology is taught in another department, so few of our graduate students take plant nematology. The same is true for forest pathology. Besides, so many of the young plant pathologists today study molecular plant pathology that they may be excellent for in-depth research but know precious little about practical plant pathology. Even the practically oriented plant pathologists, however, are limited by their training in the areas mentioned above: fungal, bacterial, viral and, maybe, nematode diseases.
Plants, however, are affected by numerous abiotic ailments, such as nutritional deficiencies; nutrient and other mineral toxicities; meteorological extremes in temperature, moisture, and light; adverse soil pH and salinity; toxic soil and air pollutants; soil compaction; improper cultural practices; and so on. Plants, in addition to being attacked by fungi, bacteria, viruses and nematodes, are also attacked by many other biotic causes of injury and disease, such as insects, mites, slugs, rodents and field mice, birds, deer, and other plants and parasitic algae; they also constantly compete with numerous weeds for space, water, nutrients, and light. How many plant pathologists, or other specialists, such as entomologists, agronomists, horticulturists, weed scientists, etc., are qualified by their training to solve problems caused by any of the factors other than those they specialized in? In my opinion, hardly any! Oh yes, some extension specialists, once on the job, learn on their own or from colleagues how to deal with these problems, if they have to. But so do the farmers. That is not the training one should expect from an “expert” on whose diagnosis and recommendation one entrusts one’s crop and livelihood.
It was this lack of generalist plant doctors that led some of us at the University of Florida to propose and to establish the “Doctor of Plant Medicine” professional doctorate degree program. We used as models the human medicine MD program that produces doctors for humans and the veterinary (animal) medicine DVM program that produces animal doctors. Neither the MD nor the DVM program gives a PhD, nor expects the students to do research or to write a dissertation. Instead, both MD and DVM students learn how to diagnose as many as possible of the abiotic and biotic ailments that affect their hosts (humans and animals, respectively), and to provide recommendations for their treatment and management. And, upon graduation, these students receive the professional doctorate degrees Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), respectively.
The Doctor Of Plant Medicine Program
Consider now the education and training needed to produce general practitioner plant doctors, that is, scientists who can diagnose and provide control or management recommendations about as many as possible of the biotic and abiotic diseases and injuries affecting plants. It is this kind of education and training that we offer to those studying for the professional doctorate degree in Plant Medicine in the “Doctor of Plant Medicine” (DPM) program of the University of Florida.
Admission Standards. Admission standards for entering the Doctor of Plant Medicine (DPM) program are the same as those for all graduate students and include: A BS degree with a grade point average in upper division courses of 3.0 or better; A Graduate Record Examination combined score of at least 1,000 in the Verbal plus Quantitative exams; Three letters of reference from faculty and/or employer; and, for international students, a TOEFL score of 550 (written) or 213 (computer).
Undergraduate Preparation. As undergraduates, future students planning to enroll in the PM program will be expected to take (or make up any deficiencies once in the DPM program): biology, botany, and plant physiology, chemistry through biochemistry, genetics, statistics, and the basic courses in soils, plant science, horticulture, entomology, plant pathology, and weed science. They are also expected to take agricultural economics and, at some point, agribusiness management, agricultural marketing, and agricultural law.
Graduate Education and Training. Once in the DPM program, students take 90 credits of graduate courses, about 65 of them required and the rest electives in areas of their interest. They also take 30 credits of practical training (internships), 14 of them in prescribed diagnostic labs and the rest in elective areas of their interest.
The Courses. Among the required graduate courses, in addition to the general courses in entomology, plant pathology, weed science, etc., they must take:
1. Plant science courses in soil fertility and fertilizers, in crop and/or horticultural plant nutrition, in crop production and management, plant/crop physiology, agricultural meteorology, and weed science. Many of the abiotic ailments of plants are covered in these courses.
2. Entomology courses in adult insect identification and classification, immature insect identification and biology, insect ecology, insect toxicology, agricultural acarology, and biological control of insects.
3. Plant pathology courses in fungal plant pathogens, bacterial plant pathogens, plant virology, epidemiology of disease, and plant disease control.
4. Nematology courses in plant nematology.
5. Pest management fundamentals course and/or a capstone course, in preparation, on integrated plant medicine, and a course on pesticide application [spraying] equipment and techniques.
6. A course on wildlife damage to plants.
7. Courses in agricultural economics, agribusiness management, agricultural marketing, and agricultural law.
8. Elective courses in the area of interest of the student; for example, emphasis on agronomic crops, horticultural crops, turf and ornamental crops, forestry, tropical crops, university teaching, etc.
The Internships. DPM students, in addition to the courses and their lab experiences, also receive 30 credits worth of practical training in all important areas of the program. They accomplish that through 2-3 credit internships they spend in each of the diagnostic labs including the soil analysis lab, plant disease diagnosis lab, plant disease clinic operation, insect identification lab, nematode assay lab, and field techniques in IPM, for a total of 14 credits. In addition, there is a choice of numerous 2-3 credit elective internships for working alongside Extension or other specialists in plant pathology, entomology, nematology, weed science, agronomy, and specialists in fruit trees, vegetables, ornamentals, turf, forestry, etc. Finally, DPM students may elect to do an internship of up to 15 credits off campus, such as at a University of Florida Agricultural Research Center, an agrichemical or food producing company, a practicing crop consultant, etc.
The knowledge acquired and the performance of the students in courses and internships is tested and evaluated both during the courses and internships and also by a comprehensive examination in each of the three main areas of the DPM program, that is, plant sciences, entomology/nematology, and plant pathology. At the end of the comprehensive examinations, DPM graduates will be given the opportunity to take a voluntary State Professional License examination for their professional accreditation and security.
Employment Opportunities for DPM Graduates
During the last decade, with the exception of a brief interlude of about 2 years, Land Grant universities, and colleges of agriculture in particular, have seen the number of their non-teaching positions shrink significantly. This happened as a result of reduced budgets that resulted in non-replacement of retiring faculty who had research and extension duties. The freezing and loss of vacant positions is actually becoming more common in the last year or two. As a result, the majority of PhDs in most agricultural disciplines, after spending 4 1/2 to 6 years working for the PhD, spend an additional 2 to 4 years as postdoctorates, during which they receive additional research training at subsistence salaries. At the end of their postdoctorate training, a few of them find appropriate research positions at a research university or an USDA agency. After searching for several years, most of them give up looking for a faculty position, and either accept a position as technicians somewhere, accept a position teaching biology at a 2- or 4-year college or university, or give up on their discipline completely and get a job in an unrelated area.
What are the employment opportunities for graduates with a doctorate in plant medicine? To be sure, the program is so new that it has no track record, but the prospects are exciting. To begin with, there are unlimited positions as independent crop consultants for those DPM graduates who want to open their own business. They have unique, excellent training for the job, and now they will also have the prestige of the doctorate degree. At their last annual meeting, more than 300 members of the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants (NAICC) gave a standing ovation to the speaker who spoke to them about the Doctor of Plant Medicine Program. Several of the crop consultants indicated that there are unlimited opportunities for many more crop consultants throughout the country and that the good ones can expect to make excellent incomes in just a few years after they start. DPM graduates can also work directly, for a salary, for large agribusinesses as their resident plant doctor, or they can work for cooperatives or for groups of independent smaller growers. And of course, they can work for agrichemical companies, either testing their new products or as sales representatives of all types of pesticides, biologicals, etc., about all of which they are more knowledgeable than any other professional. They can also work for seed companies, as well as for large food companies like Dell Monte, Heinz, etc., taking care of all abiotic and biotic disease and pest problems of their crops.
DPM graduates are further perfectly qualified to work for the state and federal extension service as regional county agents for plant protection, or in other capacities. Some states already have or are in the process of changing the pay scale to provide for the doctorate level of education and training of DPM graduates. Such graduates are also ideally trained for employment by the state and federal regulatory agencies such as state plant inspectors of nursery stock, work for APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), PPQ (Plant Protection and Quarantine), and for international organizations and agencies such as OICD (Office of International Cooperation and Development), FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), etc.
DPM graduates will not only be extremely well trained in biology in general but also very extensively in each of microbiology, entomology, plant science, plant pathology, etc. Having a doctorate degree and an unmatched variety of knowledge in theoretical and practical biology, DPM graduates who prefer to teach are expected to become the faculty of choice for many 2- and 4-year colleges and universities for teaching a variety of biological courses.
Finally, we think that before too long, most large municipalities will realize that they need to have a plant doctor in residence or on a retainer who will advise them on the nature, cause, and management of the various diseases and pests affecting turf, flower beds, shrubs and trees in city parks, city building grounds, and along streets.
For many international students of developing countries who intend to return to their country, a doctorate in plant medicine would be much more useful than a specialized PhD degree because the DPM provides practical knowledge and training in plant pest and disease diagnosis and control that can be used without sophisticated and expensive equipment.
In general, employment opportunities for DPM graduates are numerous and diverse and appear to be excellent. The DPM training provides opportunities for many different, challenging and well-paying jobs that generally, with a few exceptions, appear to be much better than are job opportunities available for PhDs in most agricultural professions.
The Doctor of Plant Medicine program is a new graduate doctorate program that ushers in a new discipline, Plant Medicine, and a new profession, the Plant Doctor. Like anything else that is new, it has its share of skeptics. Plant medicine does not compete with or supplant any of the existing disciplines. It fills a central void left by the specialization of each discipline. Plant medicine does not do either basic or applied research but it depends for it and it borrows from the research done by PhDs of all the related disciplines including soils, agronomy, horticulture, entomology, nematology, plant pathology, etc. Plant medicine is an applied, problem-solving discipline and plant doctors learn to solve health problems of plants by learning to identify the biotic or abiotic cause of any such problem and by providing recommendations for its management or control. At the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences of the University of Florida, plant medicine and plant doctors are no longer abstract concepts but are living entities with people, buildings and budgets. In less than a year, 27 young men and women have staked their future on the success of the idea and of the program. Actually, 88 prospective DPM students requested application materials for the DPM program for this year but about half of them declined to apply when they were informed that the program had limited funds for financial aid and for the first year only. Considering that the DPM is a new program whose structure and function had to be built from the bottom up, remarkably few problems have been encountered and only minor adjustments were needed. Extremely strong support from the College and University administrators, and gratifying comments of support from prospective employers like the Crop Consultants, commodity industries, administrators of state and federal extension services and regulatory agencies, and of agrichemical and food industries, etc., suggest that the DPM program and its graduates are definitely needed, are on the right path, and the future for them looks quite bright.
Resources for Further Information
Agrios, G. N. 1992. Frontiers and challenges in plant pathology communications: presidential address at 83rd APS annual meeting, St. Louis, MO. Phytopathology 82:32-34.
Bradshaw, D. E., and Marquart, D. J. 1990. America Needs Doctors of Plant Health: A Proposal to Establish and Educate A New Profession. Special Report to the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants.
Capinera, J. L. 2000. A new interdisciplinary professional degree program: The Doctor of Plant Medicine. American Entomologist 46: 225-227
Kendrick, J. B. 1984. The Doctor of Plant Health. California Agriculture 38:3.
Tammen, J. F., and Wood, F. A. 1977. Education for the practitioner. Pages 393-410 in: Plant Disease: An Advanced Treatise, Vol.1. J.G. Horsefall and E. B. Cowling, eds. Academic Press, New York.