A True Scholar-Practitioner Bridges the Urban-Rural Divide with Dr. Teresa Spaeth

Teresa Spaeth, Ph.D. currently serves as the Veden Chair of Rural Engagement and Director of Strategic Initiatives at the University of Minnesota – Crookston.  Dr. Spaeth catalyzes engaged scholarship campus-wide and off-campus, developing robust relationships with business and community partners.  Previously, Dr. Spaeth has held executive director positions at the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute and the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa and has served as interim dean at White Earth Tribal and Community College. She has over 20 years of experience catalyzing rural economic development, spearheading communities of practice in value-added agriculture, renewable energy, conservation and experiential learning.

Dr. Spaeth also serves on the advisory board of Lead for Minnesota, an AmeriCorps program focusing on rural opportunity development as well as the Charities Review Council program committee.  Dr. Spaeth’s areas of interest include transformation in rural higher education, rural community development and catalyzing rural prosperity.


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

  • How Dr. Spaeth’s call to serve led to her Ph.D.
  • The trade-offs Dr. Spaeth made to balance school, career, and family, and get her dissertation done
  • Yes, that’s a wall full of Post-it notes, and, no, I’m not crazy
  • How to leverage your doctoral classes to get a jumpstart on your dissertation
  • Did you know people will wander in off the street for your dissertation defense?
  • Opportunities abound when you have your Ph.D.
  • How Dr. Spaeth has been able to help rural workers bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic

In this episode…

Dr. Teresa Spaeth rose to the rank of executive director quite early in her career. As executive director of a large research institute, Future Dr. Spaeth found herself to be a stranger in the strange of Ph.D.s. In order to continue to fully connect with researchers on the teams that she led, she had to become one of them.

In this episode of An Unconventional Life, Dr. Theresa Spaeth will reveal how, as a self-avowed MBA, she accidentally became a Ph.D. Her journey was fraught when the usual challenges of family, career, confusion, and frustration. But time, a few hundred square feet of Post-It Notes, and enough frequent-flyer miles to circle the globe became the irresistible forces to overcome those immovable obstacles. When Dr. Spaeth emerged from her dissertation journey, she was elated that she was able to make the transition from corporate director to academic administrator faster than she had imagined possible, so that she could help more people in her rural community and rural communities throughout the country to bridge the urban-rural divide.

Don’t miss this fantastic story of the incredible opportunities a doctoral degree almost magically summons.

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 www.dissertationdone.com/done 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 www.dissertationdone.com/book and let me know that you’d like to talk about Expanding Your Authority.

Visit www.dissertationdone.com 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 earned 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 coach and more, Dr Russell Strickland.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:00:29]

Welcome to An Unconventional Life, this is your host, Dr. Russell Strickland, and today I had with me Dr. Teresa Spaeth. Dr. Spaeth. It currently serves as the Veden Chair of Rural Engagement and Director of Strategic Initiatives at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. And she’s had a very interesting path to get there. She’s worked for years with small rural businesses, loves to work with people on crossing the urban rural divide. And I can’t wait for you guys to to to meet Dr. Spaeth and to have this conversation, have her share her journey with you. Dr. Spaeth, welcome. Thanks for being here.


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:01:10]

Thank you so much, Dr. Strickland. I appreciate your invitation. I feel honored that you would want me to share my story and hopefully help a few other people get through this journey.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:01:19]

I’m sure it will. And speaking of the journey this episode today is brought to you by Dissertation Done. At Dissertation Done we help adult doctoral students get through the dissertation journey. And so if you are about to start on your dissertation, if you’re struggling with it currently, if you’ve all but given up that you’ll ever finish it, reach out to us at DissertationDone.com/done. That’s DissertationDone.com/done and we can talk to you about maybe joining our Fast-Track Your Dissertation coaching program where we help students save usually a year or two off their time to graduation and we get folks to graduation because as we’ve talked about in a previous episode, there’s about a 50/50 chance going in us whether you’ll be successful or not. Dr. Spaeth was just sharing with me that her experience was a little bit worse than that with the folks that she knew and her cohort. So we’ll get to that in a few minutes. But DissertationDone.com/done. And if by any chance you graduated or you’re out there trying to share your expertise and you want to get to a wider audience, want to expand your authority platform, join me DissertationDone.com/book and writing a book is the way to do that. Becoming a published author is the way to do that. And we’ll take you from a blank page. Even if you don’t have an idea what your book will be about, will help you get it out there written and published so that you can expand that authority platform and help those people that you were called to serve. Again, this DissertationDone.com/book. But enough of that. Dr. Spaeth, thank you so much for joining me here today. I want to welcome you. And I’ve we talked a little bit about your story, and I can’t wait to share it with everybody in the audience.


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:02:58]

Thank you. Thank you.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:03:00]

So starting off, we you had mentioned that you, like a lot of our students, you had a career before you decided to to pursue your doctoral degree. You fit into that camp that I called the unconventional doctoral student. So you weren’t twenty seven year old kid right out of college, going to be a research professor. You spent time in the trenches. You’ve worked with with with people and you had a career. Tell folks about that, your background. And then what got you thinking about a doctoral degree?


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:03:29]

Well, I actually grew up in a suburb of Indianapolis and relatively well populated and fell in love with the farmer. It was actually a commodity broker that decided to go home and save the family farm. So in one fell swoop, we went from a relatively affluent suburb of Indianapolis to the poorest county in Weinerman, an extremely rural area. And I found myself needing to create opportunity. And I noticed right away that people there, people wherever you’re at, it’s not necessarily one person more intelligent than another, but maybe people have more access or have more encouragement and things like that. So I became extremely interested in crossing the urban rural divide. And I think you just said something that strikes me is I felt the call to serve to use the gifts and the opportunities that I have had to kind of bring that to new people and in a way that they may have not had opportunities in the past. So I started working. I had several different positions, but I worked primarily for a research institute that specialized and using innovation and technology and helping small rural businesses either to expand or go into entrepreneurship. I started as the accountant, so I was in a different position at that time, but became very passionate about this concept of connecting urban and rural. I live in Minnesota and we have a lot of Fortune 500 companies and a lot of innovation like 3M and Medtronic and a lot to share. And I and my journey I’m going I started as a as a financial officer and I eventually ended up as the executive director. In my journey, I learned that there was a lot of people willing to share that felt the call to serve too. But as a research institute, eventually I became the executive director at a relatively young age. And then I realized a few years into it’s like, wow, where’s my career going to go? Where’s my next thing and where are my opportunities? And if you’re a research institute, I do it. You kind of need to have a background in research to be credible. And and I was fortunate because of the organization I worked for to meet many university presidents provosts, deans, and create a lot of projects with them, but they all kept saying, you know, you really need to get that dissertation you need you need to go back. You need to get a Ph.D.. I had an MBA and I’m a it. I have a an MBA. What you’re saying and they know right in the world,.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:05:46]

When you’re meeting a lot of people whose first name is doctor… Yeah, it helps.


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:05:50]

And I can say at first I’m like, oh, come on. But, you know, it does make a difference. It really does. And so I made that choice. I felt the call to serve. I made the choice.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:05:59]

Tell us a little about that call to serve. Because you’re right, that’s I talked to a lot of doctoral students and a lot of former doctoral students who graduated of new doctors. And that’s a common thread. There’s two things I hear a lot about. It’s that someone that they want to serve. There was some passion that they’re trying to to enact so that they can. Really make the world a better place, quite honestly. And then the other thing that we hear is that they ultimately end up identifying as a doctor. And I don’t know if you ever had felt that at any point because you said you thought the MBA was good enough and all that. But a lot of our folks, when they decide to go into a doctoral degree program, it’s almost an after the fact decision because they already identify themselves in that way and they just have to make it real.


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:06:45]

So maybe I should say I accidentally fell into the PhD program. I was working on a particular program in Minnesota for renewable energy, and I was working with two different university systems, the state system and the land grant institution and many deans. And I was frustrated and I was talking to the provost about it one day and she said, you know, I think you should take a class or two in educational leadership because you really need to understand the differences in these universities and maybe understand a little more about why they’re fighting. And so I took I took like three classes over a summer and educational leadership. And by gosh, that that program grew by leaps and bounds and actually ended up becoming a national program. But I was out of the program for about a year and I I got a call from the dean and you said, you know, we’ve been talking about what you were adding to that cohort because each and the particular program I was in, it was cohort’s to go through at a time.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:07:42]

How many people were in your cohort?


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:07:43]

At that particular cohort I had there were 14 or 15 and the first one that I went through. But then I didn’t I didn’t go. I ended I did not end up with that cohort. So they had said, we have a new cohort starting up and we’re going to we would like to have 50 percent of that cohort instead of being from the School of Education to have MBAs. And so if we would be able to work that out with you, we would be able to accept your credits. Would you be willing to do that? And so I said, sure, why not? If you’re willing to work with me, I’m willing to do that, because to me, I thought that was prohibitive, that I would have had to go back and start from the very beginning. And so, really, I had the opportunity. I was still setting up several programs for this urban rural divide. And every single class I took, I took one or two classes at a time. I took my time and I got to solve a problem and a really unique way and call attention to the value of rural. So when you talk about that call to serve some of the. People at higher levels were just surprised about stories that came out from rural that they had never considered before. And so I felt like the more that happened, the more the more interesting things got and the more excited I became to do that. I got to that point. I will say it took me many long, probably twice as long as most people to get through the coursework. But my entire cohort was like that from the beginning. All already had a full job, a career, and we were doing nights and weekends. So by the time I got to the point that I needed to propose, we still had five people left in that cohort and by the total. By the time I got through comp exams, I was the only one left. And so it was it was a very difficult time for college.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:09:26]

So, no one else in the cohort, even made it to the dissertation then?


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:09:30]



Dr. Russell Strickland [00:09:31]

Wow. That’s brutal.


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:09:32]

Now, two more went back. And I think I think two more have finished now. But at the time that I was ready to propose, I was the only one left. So I felt kind of alone, honestly, because you have to be paced and you have to be disciplined and you have to have people working with you. And I had lost all of that in the journey of going through what I did.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:09:53]

That’s one of the beauties of the cohort, is that there’s so in general in life, we’re social creatures. And there’s this this idea of normative pressure. Right. Whatever other people are doing around you, you’re more likely to do if, you know, there’s there’s this old quote that your income is likely to be the average of the income of the five people that you spend the most time with. But that that translates to all social things. So if everyone, you know, is going out to the high school football game on Friday night and, you know, watching Netflix every other night or something like that, then that’s what you’re more likely to do as opposed to working on your dissertation, which is just an insanely out there kind of thing to do. But when you know people who are doing that, you’re more likely to to do it sort of correctly yourself, to actually put in the time and make it a habit which is so difficult.


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:10:49]

And by the time I finally got done, like I said, I I took the journey. We made a decision as a family that I needed to finish. I came to the point, as you know, graduate credits are only good for so long. And if I didn’t get it done and I didn’t at least propose, I was going to have to start recertifying classes. And so we made a decision that I needed to dedicate full time to that in order to have career opportunities and to expand where I needed to be. I wanted to be in life. So I made that decision and I started down the path of getting the proposal done and all of that got the proposal done, got it through committee. And then I got a call, a panicked call from a headhunter from a really awesome organization that had their executive director had been asked to leave and they had some turmoil and they needed somebody. There was only so many people that had the unique background that could help. And so they begged me. So then for a year, I went back and I did that and got that. I’m happy to say they’re on a great path. I hope I helped. But then, of course, that’s a year passed. Another year goes past. And the the proposals getting old. The methodology that I wanted to use was not working in my dissertation. I wanted to interview rural university presidents about the future of rural campuses like how are they going to survive? What what’s that going to look like and what skills are needed for a president. And so I had hoped that a Skype was the big thing for the world of Zoom. And I tried to do that. It just didn’t work. I mean, presidents, I was I I wasn’t getting any rich stories. And I will say part of part of the choices we made because I was an MBA, had an economics background and a finance background, they really wanted me to do a qualitative dissertation to give me a to balance, to expand past quality quantitative. And I and I fought it and fought it and fought it. And I am so happy that I did it.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:12:41]

I wish you would have fought harder. That quantitative study done so much more quickly and then you’d been out there giving to the world so much.


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:12:51]

But the qualitative I’m glad I did it because it changed me in ways I didn’t realize what changed me. But it does take it takes a heck of a lot longer, I think, to do a qualitative study. But I did do that. Eventually, I bit the bullet in my previous job. I told you before I had a whole bunch of frequent flier points and a whole bunch of hotel points and just I decided I’m just going to fly and I’m going to go to campuses and I’m going to meet these presidents one on one. And that’s exactly what I did as I went to interview them twice, each one twice in person. And I got amazing stories, but it took it was a long journey. And I have to say, had I known about Dissertation Done, I probably would have hopped on that earlier because I had I felt although I have an advisor, I didn’t want to tell them you there on your committee to kind of get it.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:13:44]

I hate this word, but it is having a kind of a coaching relationship like that is a safe space where you can say stuff and we’re not going to hold you accountable and say you have to do it.


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:13:55]

Are you going to have to refile that with the IRB?


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:13:59]

Yeah, you do a little flier with your with your dissertation chair, and all of a sudden he’s like, yes. And like fifteen other things too.


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:14:08]

And so, yeah. So I, I, I was lucky enough toward the end that I had a provost that retired that kind of adopted me. And said, you’re going to get the dissertation. Obviously, you’re going to get your dissertation done. So she kind of helped me a little accountable every month. So where are you at today? How did you get this done? What’s your goal? Because you kind of do need to set goals because you’re all on your own and nobody cares if you don’t turn it in. It’s not like when you go to class and you have to turn it in and it’s easy to get distracted. So I did have I was fortunate and I was fortunate to meet so many amazing presidents that had an interesting perspective. Right. I think one thing that’s unusual when you are older and you go back to get your dissertation, and maybe it was because I interviewed university presidents, but I had already been an executive director and my Ph.D. is in educational leadership. And it was a little awkward at times because my committee, in many cases, they were younger. Right. And in many cases, they themselves may have never talked to a university president, but they had an idea of what something should be. The literature says or this is the model and the world should play out perfectly. And so there were a few, you know, a few rough spots about opinions of what that meant or didn’t mean or whether or not, you know, presidents were true leaders or it was just an interesting it was interesting commentary, I should say, on how somebody who has a Ph.D. in educational leadership might do something in student success or something versus how a university president might view it. I found I found it very different, let’s say that way.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:15:55]

And it’s and it’s one of those things that you have to learn and accept over time is that. The dissertation in many ways is it’s not your dissertation, it’s your committee’s dissertation.


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:16:07]

Exactly, exactly.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:16:08]

And if you come to that conclusion early enough on in the process, you’ll graduate relatively quickly and relatively unscathed, and I say relatively because all of this is difficult and no one gets out clean. But it’s it’s a process for everyone. But a lot of students have this problem of researching something they’re kind of passionate about. Universities will tell you to do that. And for adult doctoral students, I think it’s madness; it’s just crazy. You need to do something that you can stay clinically detach, professionally detached from so you can get the work done, get it approved, and then go out and do what you’re passionate about. And maybe your dissertation will be close to what you’re passionate about. Or maybe it will be completely 100 percent different. Doesn’t matter. Getting the degree is what matters.


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:16:57]

You know, it’s funny that you say that because I was told by my friend, the provost said, do not do research in your own backyard. It’s kind of the same thing, right? Because she said if you and I actually changed my I changed my proposal after I had almost completed one proposal for that very reason, because my advisor was like, you are way too passionate to be objective. And you you’re trying to you’re trying to be the you because this is your field. You’re trying to be perfect. And the only the best dissertation is a done dissertation. And you don’t want to you don’t want to whip the world. And I, I can say that I probably struggled for two years to get the proposal done just because I wanted it to be the best, most prolific thing that it could possibly be, because this was going to be my published baby. Right. And. I agree.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:17:47]

Two things about that. Number one is, perfectionism never happens, pragmatism is prolific. So if you get 80 to 90 percent, what you think is perfect. Get that out there in the world over and over and over again. And and the people that do the best in life or those that aren’t perfect but are are pragmatic. They get good work done and get a lot of it done. And the second thing that I would say about that is. Know, you had mentioned that you wanted to to get the dissertation done, I would say doing the research in your backyard, if it means you’ve got connections and resources and the ability to get the research done is a good idea. You just have to make sure that you’re sufficiently professionally detached so that you can just put the dissertation in a box and get it in and out and be done with it. That’s what’s hard for a lot of folks. So don’t leave your passions behind. But if you if you have resources, you have assets, use them to get your dissertation done. That’s that’s very, very valuable.


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:18:54]

And that’s when I redesigned it. That’s what I did. I looked through where did I have networks that existed that I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, not do it specifically. And what my organization was doing so that I wasn’t caught up in the trials and tribulations and the passions of those. But rather, I realized that I had a lot of access because of the research institute, two university leaders. And so ultimately, that’s how I decided to do what I did.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:19:20]

So that’s where I would say that a quantitative project helps you with that as well, because you don’t have to worry so much about being passionate about a quantitative project because the numbers say what they’re going to say. Qualitative has this more subjectivity to it. Sometimes it’s a little harder to know when you’re done this sort of thing. So if there’s something you’re really passionate about, you can always go out and do that after you graduate. We tell folks all the time to get their books out there and get them published. Interesting stories. Get those.


Dr. Teresa Spaeth [00:19:52]

I’m with you on that. I’m with you on that. Very much so.


Dr. Russell Strickland [00:19:56]

Because your mileage may vary, but for most students that I know, there’s approximately zero people that read their dissertations after they graduate.

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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.