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I Never Thought I Would Be a Researcher

Growing up, my top requirement for a future career was that it wouldn't be behind a desk.

Today, I mainly work behind a desk, albeit a standing one.

Growing up, I avoided reading and found it boring.

Today, I read research daily and have a 2021 goal of 75 books.

Growing up, I would have gagged at the idea of being a full-time researcher.

Today, my title is National Director of Quality and Research.

I love my job and I am grateful I said yes to opportunities more often than no early in my career (this shifts as your career progresses).

Stories are powerful and they can help us relate to personal situations. My goal in sharing this story is to help you embrace the opportunities you may have once been resistant to.

Saying yes to a career I never pursued is one of the best decisions of my life.

Here is how I became a researcher.

The Vision of a CEO

The final oral examination for my residency program was a 1-on-3 affair. I had to impress the program director and CEO of the practice, the compliance officer (who put the fear of God in you that a single misstep on your patient documentation would result in a lifetime in prison), and the senior faculty member (one of the smartest clinicians I have ever met).

Intimidation level 10 without breaking a sweat.

All three were prepared to drill me. They questioned every decision I made for a presented case. I had to defend all of my decisions with research by citing the paper, the author, the year, and the academic journal it was published in.

The exam could not have been better.

I navigated the case smoothly, answered all the questions to their satisfaction, and recalled the needed research in sufficient detail. Breathing easy, it was time for my residency debriefing. At the end of the oral exam, provided we passed, all residents had a debrief with the director/CEO to discuss our careers and “next steps.” Mine took an unexpected route.

At the time of the oral exam and debriefing, my residency case series was in the minor revision stage for the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy. Unless I royally screwed up, it would be published shortly. This was the practice’s first peer-reviewed publication.

I had no background in research and never thought of myself as a researcher, but when the project was presented to us at the beginning of the residency program, I decided to go all in. I liked the idea of publication and I wanted to separate myself from the other residents.

I did not expect it to turn into a new career path.

After briefly discussing my performance in residency and the clinic, Dale surprised me with his next statement. “Zach”, he started, “I want you to be our National Director of Research.”


“I am not entirely sure what that will entail,” he continued, “but I know we need you in that role. We will send you to conferences and get you more involved in education and future residency classes. We need more research projects and more publications. This practice is evidence-based and we need the world to know it.”

Being offered a “national” role and a new opportunity from the CEO, I immediately accepted. Now, I just needed to figure out the whole research thing.

Designing My Role

Over the next two years, I was a hybrid manager-researcher. I dove into our quality metrics and quality improvement initiatives. I sought mentors and self-taught the craft of reading and writing research. I filled my ‘CV of Failure’ with a series of publication and conference proposal rejections but learned from each one.

After two years of the hybrid role, I was promoted to the National Director of Quality and Research and the Coordinator of the Orthopedic Residency Program. Teaching, research, and quality program design were my primary focus now. This led to much reflection on what I was giving up.

I didn’t go to school to become a researcher; I went to become a clinician. I accrued six-figures of debt to treat patients. I invested time, money, and effort to become an orthopedic certified specialist. If I was to become a researcher, did I need to make all those investments?


All Experiences Shape Who We Are

On one hand, if I had pursued a Ph.D., I would have needed to invest additional time and money. But a Ph.D. is not required to conduct research, and it was my experiences that allowed me to obtain the position I did.

My experiences allowed me to discover which roles I enjoy and shape my career. That does not mean there were not experiences that are easily viewed as a waste of time and money.

For example, I obtained my strength and conditioning specialist certification after graduating from physical therapy school.

It was useless.

Without experience as a strength coach, the certification didn’t provide any value. It wasn’t required for my job. I can learn about strength and conditioning and read relevant research without letters behind my name.

I let the certification lapse.

Students regularly ask me about the value of obtaining certifications, expecting them to provide a salary boost and impress both clinicians and patients. Often, they do neither.

Certifications and degrees often serve as gatekeepers. Without them, you are not eligible for a certain role.

If I desire to run research for a Univerity or government department, I will need my Ph.D. I lack the training, experience, and credentials for writing and receiving grants. Perhaps that will be my future, although I doubt it.

I prefer the flexibility of careers that can be developed through field training, mentorship, and self-study. I understand the need for formal education, but after 25 years of it, I’m through.

As you evaluate your career, keep the door open to opportunities. We are taught that our education shapes a narrow path.

It doesn’t have to be.


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