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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Michael Ryan Hunsaker

How he went from a PhD in neuroscience to working with autistic elementary school children.


Michael Ryan Hunsaker earned his PhD in 2012 from University of California, Davis in neuroscience. His research was to develop behavioral methods to evaluate neurodevelopmental disease in rodent models as well as to evaluate neuropathological consequences of genetic disease. He’s now a 2nd-5th grade special education life skills teacher in Utah. Find him online at Why Haven’t They Done That Yet? and follow him on Twitter @MrHunsaker. His research papers can be found on Github.

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

To be honest, I did not truly know what I expected. Early on in my research career (I was in academic science either as an undergraduate student, graduate student, or postdoctoral scholar from 1999-2014) my assumption was that I would be able to have a university position similar to that of my first scientific mentor at the University of Utah psychology department. By that I mean a position wherein I can do as much cool science as possible, teach either an undergraduate or graduate course every semester, have summers free, and mentor two to three graduate students at a time in a small laboratory.

As my career moved forward, I started to have my doubts when I saw how research was done at larger universities (e.g., UC Davis where I did my graduate work) and within larger research consortia of which I was a part. As I have written about fairly extensively on my blog, it was at this point I started to feel that reality and my dreams were in conflict. I started to become somewhat uncomfortable with the direction academic science was headed and I became somewhat insecure about whether I had a place in this system or not.

When I moved on to a postdoctoral position (first at UC Davis and subsequently returning to the University of Utah), I decided to not only apply to large universities with renowned scientific reputations, but I also applied to smaller schools that put the focus on teaching-with opportunities to mentor undergraduate students directly in the summers. This was important to me since I have always considered mentoring undergraduate students the highest calling in academics.

After a long string of thanks but no thanks responses to my applications (at least on those rare occasions when I received an answer at all), I made a very hard decision. I would leave academics and pursue K-12 teaching. Specifically, I would focus my efforts on finding a special education teaching position. Preferably one that allowed me to focus on teaching students on the autism spectrum.

What was your first post-PhD job?

My first job after I left my postdoctoral position was as a para-educator at an elementary school. This job allowed me to work directly with students with autism as both an aide supporting a section 504 plan as well as in a specialized life skills classroom catering to the needs of students with autism.

Interestingly, actually getting the job was fortunate. The principal read the information in my application and was incredulous that someone with a PhD was going to be willing to take a part time (27.5 hours.week) job for $9.01 an hour. Further, there was no way this type of person would stick around for any amount of time.

When I arrived for the interview, the principal asked me outright why I was there. He had literally only given me the interview so he could see if I was for real. The position I had applied for was only half working with students with autism and half doing random administrative tasks around the school. I told him I wanted to get into teaching special education and the best way to make myself known in the district was to take a job as an aide, work hard, and apply for teaching positions. I also needed to know if the life of a special education teacher was something I could do forever, and being an aide was a great way to test drive this life. I also recounted a bit of information regarding my late autistic twin brother and the role of education in his life.

At this point, the principal actually threw away the form he was filling in to evaluate my answers and took me to the two classrooms I would be working in to introduce me to the teachers. He also told me, if I was willing, he would restructure the jobs so that I would be able to work all day with students with autism, rather than half the day.

He hired me as soon as the paperwork went through. My new life had started.

What do you do now?

I am currently a special education teacher with a life skills classroom. I teach 2nd-5th grade students, most of whom are on the autism spectrum but also those that have similar needs but do not fall on the spectrum (e.g., ADHD, ODD, anxiety disorders, sensory processing disorders, etc.).

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

Every day I have to design curriculum to teach not only academic skills, but also social and daily living adaptive skills to my students. I collect IEP (Individual Education Plans) data regarding academic and social skills goals for each of my students. I also design intervention and collect data regarding progress for each student based upon their pattern of social/adaptive function deficits.

I read literature regarding novel strategies for teaching my student population. I also closely follow the diagnostic literature and the treatment studies regarding autism and ADHD. This is important to me because I keep medication compliance data to correlate with my behavioral data to elucidate any effects of medications on behavioral outcomes in my classroom.

Finally, I administer cognitive and academic assessments to students (e.g., Brigance, Woodcock-Johnson, etc.). I also fill out structures questionnaires regarding my students’ daily function and adaptive skills (e.g., Vineland, BASC-2, etc.).

What most surprises you about your job?

What surprises me is the amount that my PhD work prepared me for the position. I always had a focus on human outcome, even thought I worked in animals models and neuropathology. During my PhD work I developed a way to think about neurologic disease that is very conducive to teaching.

Secondly, I took to teaching like a duck to water. I love it, and it feels right. I thought for sure I would be floundering by now. But it feels right.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I most love seeing students connect. I love seeing a student on the autism spectrum engage in play with peers rather than their previous pattern of obliviousness or at best parallel play.

I love seeing students understand a concept that had been elusive to them, either academically or socially. Especially if it has taken months to help them understand.

It is also a beautiful thing to see a student stop, evaluate their options, and make the right decision. Seeing the spark of independent control emerge in students is almost describable as a spiritual experience.

Last, but not least, I “science” hard all day, every day. I develop and test hypotheses regarding my kids. I design data sheets and collect data. I analyze and interpret data. I write short narrative reports for parents and service providers for my students. So I get to help my students…WITH SCIENCE!!

What’s next for you, career-wise?

Career-wise I plan to keep on trucking. I would love to continue in my current position for the nest 30 years. I have no ambition for administration or promotion. I hope to keep learning everything I can to be the best teacher possible.

The only real change I foresee in my career is a subtle shift into a bit more curriculum development, but I always hope to do so from the position of classroom teacher, rather than moving away from directly instructing students.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?

My advice is to be bold. I was scared to move forward for a long time. Once I did it felt like a tidal wave pushing me toward the trajectory I wanted. The first step was a doozie, but it led where I wanted to be.

I also think a very important step is to be honest with yourself regarding what you can and cannot do. This also means being humble to one’s weaknesses and deficiencies. If it means having to take a few online classes to be qualified for a position, do it. I still have to take classes to get my teaching licensure. I could be angry about having to do more school after 15 years of it, but I see it as an opportunity to learn. And as a former scientist with a PhD, learning is easy, so long as I humble myself to it.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. Camille W / January 28, 2015 at 14:19

    As a PhD student in the sciences, it’s great to read a Transition Q&A about someone with a science background. Loved his advice to be bold. Sometimes we talk ourselves out of ideas or options before giving them a chance because we decide it CAN’T or SHOULDN’T be done. Great read. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Rads / March 14, 2015 at 03:06

    Deeply touched by it.. its really hard to actually know what you can, and what you can’t , because life sometimes impose limitations on us.. and it really derails you from your passion.. But i think its about personal satisfaction.. i somehow feel like convincing myself in whatever i choose. But certainly if you are easily satisfied .. then its like biggest achievement in your life…it brought tears in my eyes to read all that.. Here from India, thanking you for knowing my exact feelings…

  3. Rose / April 27, 2017 at 20:16

    Those kids deserve a good teacher. And they have one in Dr. Hunsaker. I am a former special ed teacher….but I sense his abilities mostly because he is the type of teacher I would have wanted my “2e” son to have had. (“2e” means twice exceptional. He was/is gifted AND received special ed services, too.) I’m sure he gets the best out of them…just from reading his blog.