The Entrepreneurial Doctor with Dr. Justin Baeder

Dr. Justin Baeder

Justin Baeder, PhD is Director of The Principal Center, where he helps senior leaders in K-12 organizations build capacity for instructional leadership. A former principal in Seattle Public Schools, he is creator of the Instructional Leadership Challenge, which has helped more than 10,000 school leaders in 50 countries around the world:

  • Confidently Get Into Classrooms Every Day
  • Have Feedback Conversations That Change Teacher Practice
  • Discover their best opportunities for school improvement

Dr. Baeder is the author of Now We’re Talking! 21 Days to High-Performance Instructional Leadership and host of Principal Center Radio, a podcast featuring education thought leaders.


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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Starting a new job and a doctoral degree program at the same time
  • The difference between traditional and unconventional doctoral students
  • The importance of milestones and accountability
  • The ROI of a doctoral degree
  • How to help others understand your value
  • How front-line workers are the key to excellent systems
  • The opportunity cost associated with spending an extra year on your dissertation

In this episode…

Dr. Justin Baeder applied to his doctoral program and for his first position as a school principal at the same time…and got them both! It’s difficult to add a new professional position to one’s life. It’s difficult to add a new educational pursuit to one’s life. When you try to do both simultaneously, at least one invariably suffers.

In this episode of An Unconventional Life, Dr. Justin Baeder shares the challenges he faced in his dissertation journey, the key to his eventual success, and the opportunities his doctoral degree has provided. Dr. Baeder has gone on to become a published author, podcast host, and successful business owner.

This is a can’t-miss episode for anyone who wants to leverage their doctoral degree as a trusted expert and authority figure!

Resources Mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode…

This episode is brought to you by Dissertation Done, America’s #1 authority in dissertation completion for working professionals.

Founded by Dr. Russell Strickland, Dissertation Done serves people in two ways:

  1. If you’re struggling with your dissertation, getting ready to start your dissertation, or just plain wanting to get your dissertation done as soon as possible, go to and Let’s Get Your Dissertation Done
  2. If you’re busy living your Unconventional Life and have a message that you want to share, maybe you should join our Expand Your Authority Program to become a published author. Go to and let me know that you’d like to talk about Expanding Your Authority.

Visit to learn more about our other services and leave a message or call them at 888-80-DR-NOW (888-803-7669) to schedule your free 30 to 45-minute phone consultation.

Episode Transcript

Disclaimer: This transcript is here for your reading convenience. It was created by machines and may (a-hem) contain some errors. If you email us about these errors, the machines will undoubtedly find out. I hope they won’t get angry.


Intro [00:00:03]

Welcome to An Unconventional Life, a podcast where we share stories about the crazy one percent out there who ends their doctoral degrees and then went on to use them in crazy, cool, unique and unconventional ways. Here’s your host, astrophysicist and teacher, author, dissertation Koch and more, Dr Russell Strickland.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:00:29]

Hello, this is Dr. Russell Strickland, and this is an Unconventional Life podcast I’d like to welcome to today my guest, Dr. Justin Baeder. Dr. Baeder has a very interesting story. He actually applied to become an elementary school principal and enrolled in a doctoral degree program at the same time and got both. He told me just a few minutes ago he was one of those. Be careful what you wish for, kind of things that can’t wait to talk to him about that and everything that he’s done since he is the director of The Principal Center. We’re going to talk a lot about that. So we have a great episode today. Before I welcome Dr. Baeder in, I’d like to tell you once more our episode. This episode is being sponsored by Dissertation Done. If you are a doctoral student struggling through the dissertation process and you’d like some guidance, accountability, and support to get you through this process years faster than you would on your own. Reach out to us a That’s forward slash D-O-N-E. And if you’ve graduated by chance and you want to get your message out there into the world, expand your authority platform, and let folks know what you can do for them, why don’t you consider writing your book? You can reach us at and find out how we can get you from from a blank page to published author to expand your authority platform. So I want to welcome again Doctor Baeder. Justin, welcome. How are you doing today. Thank you for being here.


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:01:54]

Doing great. Thanks so much for having me on.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:01:57]

Awesome. So let’s go back to just before we talk about you applying for both an elementary school principalship and your doctoral program at the same time. Walk me through what is going on at that time of your life. Why did you decide to apply to the doctoral program in particular? Because that’s what most of our listeners are are doing and not many people do that. So what gave you that impetus to make that decision?


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:02:25]

Yeah, well, I had had a great experience in my principal preparation program at the University of Washington and I knew a lot of the faculty in that program and had one year after I had finished the principal program where I was not taking classes, I kind of had enjoyed that environment and saw that as a pretty promising next step for my career, maybe to become an author, to become a researcher or something along those lines. And professionally, I wanted to become a principal as as my next step. And I figured I was kind of hedging my bets. Right. If I get I get the admission to the doctoral program, great. If I get the principalship great, I’m happy either way. And I ended up getting both. So that was a little bit of a of a time management challenge.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:03:10]

So, like you said, is one of those be careful what you wish for sort of things. How did you handle that? We we always tell our world students try not to do any of the major stressors in life, getting married, getting divorced, getting sick, of which you can’t really help but getting a new house, a new job. And here you are with a big new job and starting your doctoral degree program. How did that work out for you?


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:03:32]

Yeah, I really had to be careful about my course load and conscious of when I was scheduling my classes. So I would typically take one class per quarter. Where I really ran into some challenges was with a certain research methods class. I don’t remember which class it was exactly, but it was only offered during the day on Fridays and it’s difficult to get away day when you’re a school principal. Fortunately, I was able to do it. I just had the the coverage within the building and nothing ever went wrong. I think I got a little bit lucky on that front, but my my door would be closed. The secretary would say, oh, he’s not available right now, and I would come back as soon as class is over. So kind of kind of barely squeaked by with that one course, but worked out OK.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:04:17]

Well, I mean, it’s a it’s a good thing that they were able to that you were able to get through that, because it seems like most of these programs understand that their students are working adults. Was your program geared towards working adults or were they assuming that school was your full time occupation?


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:04:35]

Yeah, I thought it would be kind of a mix, as it turned out, I would say most of the students were full time graduate students or they had a job on campus. Maybe they were a graduate assistant of some sort. But, yeah, I think I was probably the only working school administrator in the program at the time, or one of just a few, because, yeah, it was very difficult to juggle both. So definitely the difference between the Ph.D. Program and the Ed.D. program, the latter of which was was much more accommodating to schedules like mine.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:05:06]

So what when you get to the dissertation and what does that do? Because if everybody else is kind of full time focused on that work, that’s a very, very different mentality than when you’re working full time. So how did that work out for you?


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:05:21]

Yeah, I mean, if I look at my my peers who maybe work full time graduate students didn’t have a traditional professional level career. I think the you know, the temptation is the same to to kind of put it off or to procrastinate, to not really focus on it. But I did notice a lot of my classmates were just more immersed in that world of research. They were getting involved in faculty led studies. I did not personally participate in any faculty research projects. There were a lot of grants. There are a lot of studies going on that I could have been a research on and just kind of missed out on that opportunity because I had a job that was a big, big difference.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:05:59]

Yeah, well, I, I always I look at the doctoral students as coming into one of two major camps. The first is the traditional doctoral student who is there right out right out of high school, college, graduate school and moving into academia. And those folks are on campus all the time. They’ve got offices on campus. They’ve got other students are doing their research. At the same time, there’s normative pressure to work on your dissertation and to get it done in the way that they do it. Then we have our unconventional students who have a full time job. You know, like you were starting a significant bump up in your career and still juggling that with school. And when you’re this unconventional student, oftentimes you don’t have other folks that that you know of who are doing the same thing and other folks who can kind of keep you on track. You feel like you’re kind of on your own. Did that strike you at all as you were going through your research for your dissertation, that feeling of being alone in the process?


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:07:03]

Yeah, absolutely. Because the other the other students in the program would know each other from being on campus, more from being on some of the same research projects. And the the alternative that I had that I could have done was to do the cohort Ed.D. Program, which my wife actually did at the same time. So I would have been in that with her if I go down that route. But yeah, there’s there’s definitely that sense in a you know, if you’re a working adult in a program that’s designed for full time students, that you’re kind of the you know, you’re kind of the super senior or the odd man out.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:07:34]

That’s right. That’s right. Now. And you mentioned that as you were going through this, you actually had lost an adviser along the way, is that right?


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:07:43]

Yeah. So I had a fabulous adviser, someone I got along really well with, but he was kind of headhunted by another employer and pulled away to work on what was a very interesting project. So I understand why he did it. It was kind of a unique opportunity. And I got matched up with another adviser who was was also fabulous and saw me through the process.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:08:02]

Now, did your first adviser, did he go into industry or get headhunted out by another university?


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:08:09]

It was by a foundation to lead a research project.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:08:14]

OK, so sometimes I’ve I’ve heard it in the past where professors will leave the university and they will bring some of their students, particularly their students, who are getting close to graduating. They might bring them with them or they might be able to remotely continue to work together. But either one of those options would be kind of difficult if you’re working full time as well. What about your your second advisor then? How did how did the process go once once you were matched up with advisor number two?


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:08:45]

Yeah, so we continue to work together remotely, and I think by that point I had moved out of state, so I spent four years in that job as a principal and then started my own business. And some I don’t remember exactly where I changed advisors, but it was at a time where I wasn’t really getting much done on the dissertation anyway. So I was just finishing up coursework. And I think he he took over advising me on how to finish out my coursework and how to structure some of the credits that go toward research, even if they don’t involve actual coursework. And by the time I had moved out of state, I’d finished all of my in-person coursework.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:09:20]

So, yeah, I, I had a kind of a unique background. I actually started graduate school in astronomy and astrophysics and I was going to be a research professor and my advisor died before I finished and I decided to of kind of starting over with new research with a new advisor. I was going to go work and make a little bit of money. And so that’s that’s what I, I ended up doing. But when you mentioned this. You know, the fact of being remote from your adviser, that was actually something that I noticed that was going to be an issue for me if I was going to continue working because I was going to have to like I said, I was going to have to get a job and start making some money. It was it had been too long as a poor, poor graduate student at that time. So that that’s a it’s a different a different situation when you’re not there and and still having to work through the process on your own. Now, you mentioned that that you had started your own business, but you were continuing to go through the the dissertation process. How did that work? How did it finally work itself out? What got you over the hump, so to speak, so that you were able graduate?


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:10:34]

Yeah, I mean, for many years, it was very easy to put off because it’s always more urgent to earn a living than to make some progress toward a deadline that maybe a couple of years out. So, you know, eventually that deadline that was looming years out in the future started looming, not so far out in the future. And I knew I was coming up on the ten-year deadline to finish the program. So I spent the first four years taking my courses and being a principal and then the next couple of years starting the business and doing the the program remotely. And my adviser said to me one day, you know, I’m going to retire at the end of 2018, the 2017-2018 school year you need to graduate. And I said, you’re right, I absolutely do. This is my deadline anyway. I’m not going to try to get any kind of extension. I really just needed that deadline or some other kind of kind of kick in the pants to get it done because I’ve just been on the back burner too long.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:11:26]

And we hear that so often, too, that there’s just no accountability, no structure in the dissertation process. When you’re going through your classes, at least there’s some structure. They tell you what to read, what to write, when to do it. But when you get to the dissertation, you’re just out there on your own, either getting things done because you are super disciplined or not getting things done because you don’t know what to do, have other priorities, et cetera. So that idea of some accountability is really important.


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:11:52]

Yeah, yeah, and I would say another big thing that I would say my adviser did that was very helpful is he focused me on milestones, getting the literature review done, getting the human subjects research approval done, getting the all the different phases. Pretty much that was that was all we did. Right. We just focused on this is the next milestone because what it needs to look like let’s let’s go for it. And since there’s no there’s no real other thing to do to kill time, you know, there are no more classes to take. There’s no more test to take or lectures to sit through. That’s it is focus on those goals.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:12:26]

Right. Yeah, when I was in grad school, after you take the classes, they universities keep track of you by the classes that you’re in. Right? So as I was a dissertation student, I was enrolled over and over and over again in the class called Advanced Residency, which I take it to mean that I was very good at being there. But but yeah, you’re right. There’s there’s nothing else to do. You have to either get it done or chip on or ship out. So. So tell me, how did how did things go after you, you finished and if you graduated, what was that experience like of defending and and finally realized that you were finished and that your doctor now?


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:13:09]

Yeah, well, I think one thing that I realized as I went through the final committee process and defending and everything is that, you know, I guess maybe a lot of people have kind of an adversarial experience there. But I felt like while I was being held to a very particular standard, my committee wanted me to graduate. They didn’t want me to fail. And I think that there’s I don’t know, maybe universities vary, but I think there’s this perception out there that the goal of your committee and the goal of your defense is to kind of poke holes in everything and make you fail. And I felt that that that attempt to try to poke holes and things happened constructively along the way. But it wasn’t they weren’t setting me up to kind of trick me and spring something on me at the very end. So it’s always a very positive experience, I would say.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:13:55]



Dr. Justin Baeder [00:13:55]

And then coming out of that, I would say just being able to to put the letters after my name, to be able to be kind of noted as an authority. I think that comes pretty, pretty automatically. I’ll never forget one time I had a pretty large contract with the school district that was questioned by the school board. And it was it was big enough that I was being hired to do some professional development for the school district. And the contract had to be approved by the school board. And one of the school board members said, who is this? Who is this guy? He seems to be just a blogger. And I like and it was a public meeting. And I saw the notes from and I thought, I don’t really want to be thought of as just a blogger. Like I mean, I do want to be recognized as an authority on this topic. And certainly I want to have earned that legitimately. And I think that was that was one of the things that that really pushed me to to seek to finish and and to prove to myself and to you to not be called the blogger anymore.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:15:01]

So you were up for this contract and you didn’t have the credential yet. You’re like, wow, I had that. Yeah. It reminds me of. So Shaquille O’Neal, you know, obviously a huge basketball star, right, and accomplished just about anything that you could accomplish on the court, but he knew that his time was going to end at some point with being able to be a basketball player. And he decided that he was going to be involved in a lot of business ventures. But he didn’t want to just be considered a dumb jock. He actually went out and got his doctoral degree so that he would be taken seriously when he’s sitting in these business meetings and he’s still been personality seems to like to joke around and have fun and all that kind of stuff. But if anybody ever wants to say, well, we’re going to get one over on him, not on Dr. Oneal, you’re not. So that idea of having that credibility and the credibility, the authorities, another thing, but the credibility of just when someone sees your name, they automatically give you the benefit of the doubt is is huge.


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:16:06]

Yeah, and I feel like I don’t want to need that. I want to I want my my work to be self evidently worthy of that credibility. But as you said, yeah, it is it is about getting the benefit of the doubt. It’s about not having people wonder upfront and allowing the work to have the opportunity to speak for itself.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:16:28]

Exactly right. Exactly right. Because a lot of people make snap judgments and yes, you want to be there for the long haul, but to make sure the snap judgments go down in your favor as many times as possible. So what kind of doors do you think opened for you after you earned the doctoral degree? You talk about the credibility and the fact that it’s you getting the benefit of the doubt. How did that manifest for you?


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:16:55]

Yeah, I think it, uh, you know, a lot of it shows up in in subtle ways, because certainly even in education, where education is valued very highly, it’s certainly not a requirement. There are plenty of people to do exactly what I do and don’t have a doctoral degree. And that’s that’s perfectly fine there. They’re known as wonderful experts and, you know, and they have certainly earned that through the quality of their work. I would say it has probably made it a little bit easier to reach a price point. That’s that’s more premium for my work. It has made it easier to to kind of get those contracts approved or get those those sales approved. So so for me, I mean, I have to be honest, it was very much a business decision to to do the degree to finish it. I did not have further professional goals in the sense of getting a job. That was not my goal. It really was a business decision.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:17:54]

And for a lot of folks who are kind of entrepreneurial or who want to hang out a shingle to do whatever type of work that becomes, it becomes a very good investment opportunity to to invest in yourself and to always have this. So the opportunities are out there if you do want a job teaching or anything along those lines, but also just being out there on your own two feet, it tends to open doors and it tends to get you noticed.


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:18:21]

Yeah, absolutely.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:18:22]

So can you think of any specific instance, incidences where you found out later on or you knew at the time that having your doctoral degree helped swing a hinge, that it might not you might not have been able to open that door otherwise?


Dr. Justin Baeder [00:18:36]

I have to think that it makes a little bit of a difference with getting approved to to speak at conferences or getting invited to speak at conferences. I mean I mean, it definitely is a filter for certain things, not a not a strict rule. Again, certainly people do all of the things that I do without that. But yeah, I just feel like it greases the wheels a little bit and and it makes people more, more open to looking at your work to then judge it on its own merits.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:19:03]

So tell me a little bit more about now The Principal Center. How what do you do there? What what are some of the things that you’ve accomplished through The Principal Center? And who are you helping?


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:19:16]

So The Principal Center is primarily an online business. I would describe it as kind of a membership site. And with online courses as well as a consulting business, most of what we do is is online. And I do some face to face consulting, but I try to do as little of that as possible and as much with the online side. And I found that to be quite a bit more scalable. And I also have kids and found that to be a a great business model compared to being on the road, doing a lot of on site client work. So The Principal Center obviously serves school administrators, people who want to become school administrators, people who supervise school administrators. So in in that world of principals, assistant principals, that kind of thing, and I help them get into classrooms, manage their time more effectively and have a greater impact on student learning also.

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Dr. Russell W. Strickland

RUSSELL STRICKLAND, Ph.D., has been referred to as a “rocket scientist turned management consultant.” In truth, he applies an eclectic body of work from astronomy and nuclear physics to dynamic inventory management to market research to each of his student engagements.