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FROM PHD TO LIFE

Transition Q & A: Peter Larson

By JENNIFER POLK | October 23, 2013

Peter Larson earned his PhD in biological sciences from Ohio University in 2003. He taught for 10 years at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he earned both tenure and a promotion to associate professor. For the past two academic years he served as chair of the biology department. He resigned from his academic position in May. He now writes and edits Runblogger.com, and works part-time at Performance Health Spine and Sport Therapy in Concord, NH. You can find him on LinkedIn and on Twitter (@Oblinkin, @Runblogger).

You recently resigned from a tenured faculty position. What happened?

First I breathed a huge sigh of relief!

Then, a few weeks later, I was invited to submit a journal article that probably would have sealed the deal on my promotion to full professor . . . apparently you can’t easily escape the academic life.

Can you tell us why you decided to resign from a tenured faculty position?

Honestly, I had struggled with the decision of whether or not to resign for a few years. It was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make — giving up a tenured job is not easy. Tenure offers safety and security, but it can also stifle a willingness to follow one’s passions. I was torn: keep the stability or follow my gut into a new career that I was really excited about? I ultimately realized that I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t take a chance and make the leap.

I initially planned to just take a one-year leave of absence to see if this was the right choice (my request for a leave was approved), but ultimately I realized that a leave would simply delay the inevitable. I needed to make a clean break if I was going to be able to move forward.

What was the hardest part about giving up tenure?

The hardest part for me was that I didn’t hate my academic job, but there were parts of it that I didn’t enjoy. If I’d been miserable, the decision would have been a lot easier!

I love teaching. Working with students in the classroom and lab is what kept me going each day. While I published enough for tenure and promotion, I didn’t particularly enjoy writing scholarly journal articles — popular writing is more my style. I hated committee work. I despised being a department chair even though I had an exceptionally good department filled with colleagues who got along really well with one another. Dealing with academic and administrative politics drove me crazy. I think the latter combined with enduring several arduous years of curriculum change planning as a faculty senator did me in. I just wanted to teach my classes, but even there I saw it likely that I’d be teaching the same class every fall for the next 25 years if I stayed. I needed a change.

You mentioned that tenure can stifle a willingness to follow one’s passions. Can you elaborate?

Tenure is both a blessing and a bit of a curse. It offers stability and security, which is great. I think earning tenure ultimately gave me the freedom to explore and develop the skills that allowed me to leave academia, but the security it provides also makes it very hard to leave tenure behind to pursue other opportunities when they arise.

Did you talk to colleagues about your decision before submitting your resignation?

I actually was very open with my closest colleagues about my decision to leave before formally submitting my letter to the dean. Most were extremely supportive, and I left on very good terms with my department.

Somewhat surprisingly, more than one colleague confided that they had also contemplated leaving academia at some point in their career. The reason most often cited for not following through was that they didn’t know what they could do outside of academia. In other words, they perceived a lack of marketable skills and were stuck.

What made you feel like you could make a living outside of academia? What are you doing now?

I alluded to this earlier, but one of the benefits of receiving tenure for me was that it afforded me the ability to develop some new skills. For example, my doctoral work focused on comparative anatomy, development, and evolution of frogs, and all of my research efforts through tenure were focused in that area. I enjoyed this research, but it was so esoteric that it was hard to conceive of using it as a springboard for a non-academic career. I’d never even entertained the thought of leaving academia, but tenure changed things.

I started running to get fit and blow off stress in 2007, and got really interested in the science of running. Shifting my research direction prior to tenure would have been exceptionally risky. However, with tenure in the bag I could start to branch out a bit. I started digging into the existing literature on running science, and I was energized in a way that I hadn’t been for a long time. I saw a niche I could fill, and decided to take on a group of students to do a project looking at foot strike patterns in marathon runners. We were able to publish it, and it opened a whole new world of opportunity for me.

Around the same time that I shifted research direction I also started a blog. In early 2009 I attended a meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB). I never much enjoyed academic conferences, but at this one I attended a day-long series of talks on presenting science to the public. I watched talks by well-known fellow scientists like Carl Zimmer, Sean Carroll, and Ken Miller. I’d never thought much about blogging as a way of communicating science, but shortly after the meeting I decided to start one. I did a ton of research on best blogging practices, read several books on the topic, learned a bit about web design, and started writing.

At first I wrote mostly personal posts, and the occasional post about running. I also entered the world of social media — I joined Facebook, Twitter, and a site called Dailymile.com which is like Facebook for athletes. I noticed that people were reading my running-oriented posts, particularly posts about gear and shoes. I started writing more about the science of running, covering topics like Harvard anthropologist Daniel Lieberman’s work on the evolution of human running capabilities. I wrote a lot about the science behind running shoe design and running form, and things really started to take off.

I eventually started getting contacted by magazines for interviews and to serve as an expert source. I was contacted by a book agent who eventually became my co-author on a popular-science book about running shoes, form, and injuries. It turns out people were far more interested in running than they were in frog evolution, and opportunities were popping up all over. I still value the work I did on frogs, but the decision to continue to integrate my personal passion for running with my professional life was a no-brainer.

How do you earn a living now that you’ve left academia?

I didn’t start my blog thinking that it would ever make me any money (I didn’t really know that it was even possible!), but I had read somewhere that it was best to include ads from the start if you were open to the possibility of earning an income from your website. Incorporating advertising after a site gets popular can ruffle readers a bit. So, I included ads from the beginning. I didn’t really make more than a few dollars during the first year, but I slowly started to see my earnings go up as my traffic increased. Successful blogging requires a lot of hard work, perseverance, and patience.

By late 2012 it was clear that income from the blog was on a trajectory to eclipse my annual income as a college professor the following year. It was also clear that managing a popular website and being a full-time college professor was a tough combination to juggle. One of the two had to either go or be scaled back, and I enjoy writing my blog so much it was clear which way I was going to go.

It also turns out that shifting my research to the study of running form gave me a marketable skill that I could port into a new career. I started doing running gait analyses from time to time for a friend who runs a local injury clinic. I’d spent 10 years teaching anatomy to future nurses and doctors, and it felt great to be able to use my knowledge in a more applied way to help people in a clinical setting.

My friend and I started talking about having me take on a more regular role at the clinic should I decide to leave my academic job. I’m now working out of the clinic three days per week, and working on blog-related activities during the time I’m not seeing clients. I get paid by the clinic on a per-client basis so I can use my free time however I want, and this works out great since my blog is my primary source of income.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

Blogging involves a lot of research, a lot of writing, and a huge amount of email correspondence — the latter probably occupies the biggest chunk of my time. I also do a lot of work on site design (I’ve even built a few websites for others — another marketable skill), and am very active in social media.

At the clinic, I do individual gait analyses and some coaching. This is a small part of my income for now, but could grow considerably going forward. I’m intentionally starting slowly with this part of my new life so as not to overwhelm myself, and we’ll see where it takes me.

What most surprises you about your new job?

The fact that I’ve had to develop a business-oriented mindset in a very short period of time. I’ve become more judicious about how I spend my time, and this can be a tough transition for an academic. As a professor you teach your classes, fulfill your service duties, and do research without thinking about how much you get paid for each individual lecture or meeting. Furthermore, academics are typically conditioned to write for free — we write scholarly journal articles for no pay (and sometimes we actually have to pay the journal fees to get something published).

I now need to write to earn an income, so spending two solid weeks working on a scholarly paper is tough (I did this last month). I now need to constantly hustle to ensure that income keeps flowing. In a lot of ways it’s fun and rewarding to be my own boss, but there is a bit more uncertainty and some stress involved with being self-employed.

I’ve also had to become knowledgeable about how to work with marketers and advertisers. I need to very quickly assess whether a given opportunity is worthwhile or a waste of time, and often need to make very quick decisions about whether an email response regarding a business proposition is warranted or not.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I love the freedom of being my own boss and not having to worry about decisions made by those in positions above me. As a blogger, I can write about whatever I want, whenever I want.

What would you change about it if you could?

The hardest part about being a full-time blogger is managing email. I love interacting with readers, and try my best to answer questions when they arrive. Unfortunately, as the blog has grown the volume of email has increased as well, and it’s been very hard to keep up with it all.

So, I think the thing I’d most like to change is that I’d love to be able to keep up with my email!

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I plan to keep plugging away at what I’m doing now. I have a strong desire to write more often on topics besides running, and I’ve contracted a firm to redesign my site so that I can do this without changing the focus of my blog too much. For example, I’ve gained so much from becoming a blogger, and I’d love to write more about the process of becoming a blogger and the business side of being a blogger.

I’ve also considered teaching a class or two on the side as an adjunct. It’s kind of crazy that after seven years on the tenure track and three as a tenured professor I’ve determined that being an adjunct is probably my ideal academic job!

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs (at any stage in their careers!) in transition now?

Nurture skills that can breed success outside of academia. Writing is a perfect example — as academics we spend a great deal of time writing, but oftentimes it’s a style of writing geared toward colleagues and not the general public.

Starting a blog is a great way to practice your writing, and the public can benefit greatly from an academic who can explain complex material in an understandable way. As teachers we do that all the time for our students, so why not apply it more broadly? One of the most rewarding aspects of doing what I do is being able to translate a scientific study to a non-specialist audience, and I get emails from people all the time who have benefited from posts that I have written.

Perhaps most importantly, recognize that there is life outside of academia. I’m now six months out from the end of my last academic contract, the world hasn’t come to an end, and I’m having a blast!

ABOUT JENNIFER POLK
Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and writer. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website: FromPhDtoLife.com.
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  1. Peter Larson / October 23, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts Jennifer!

    • Jennifer Polk / October 23, 2013 at 3:19 pm

      You’re welcome… but really: thank you!

  2. oscar / October 23, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    Good luck Pete! Love your blog, keep up the good work.

  3. Lisa Hensley / March 24, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    Dr. Larsen, I could have written many of your answers. Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

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