In this edition of One Branch Ahead, we hear from Scott Mackenzie, a recent neuroscience PhD and founder of the travel tricks-and-tools website, Hack My Trip. Oddly enough, I discovered his website long before I knew who Scott was, or that we were in the same graduate program – I was researching travel credit cards and my search brought me to his site.

Wondering what a neuro PhD is doing writing a travel blog? Read on to learn how his graduate school experience prepared him for this venture, what he misses most about science, and where he sees himself going next. Oh, and does he get better travel service now that he books his reservations under Dr. Mackenzie?

What did you study in your PhD program?

I originally examined ERK/MAPK signaling in the context of learning and memory, very similar to my undergraduate research. However, I switched labs in my third year to study developmental neuroscience instead, looking at regeneration of the zebrafish lateral line. My original advisor and I just didn’t click, but fortunately it was a pretty smooth transition despite the radical change in focus and starting from scratch.

When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?

I don’t think I’ve ever quite known what I want to do, but I did know that I didn’t want to become a professor. At that time I was thinking about a job in science policy. Planning for the future is important, but I have tried to remain open to new opportunities as they appear.

How did your career plans or goals change by the time you were finishing your PhD?

I started a small travel blog in my last year of school as a hobby, eventually building it into a small business, and also learned a lot from some of the speakers we invited for the Bioscience Careers Seminar Series at the University of Washington. I decided I like doing entrepreneurial things, and a business setting might be more interesting.

Were you involved in any organizations or activities while in grad school that helped lead you to where you are now?

Yes, I was a senator for the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, treasurer of the Neurobiology & Community Outreach Organization, and chair of the Bioscience Careers Seminar Series. These different groups taught me, respectively, how to work as part of a group to reach consensus, how to create and fund new activities, and how to organize others to host events for a public audience.

A lot of what I currently do as a blogger is very similar. I have to reach out to industry contacts, organize events to interact with my readers, and find opportunities to collaborate with fellow bloggers. I am generally an introvert, so I’m glad to have had practice putting on a brave public face.

What do you do now?

I complain about first-world problems and fly around the world for free.

That’s not always the case, but it is often close enough. When I realized my Ph.D. was wrapping up, I wanted a backup plan in case I couldn’t find a job right away. Not wanting to continue as a post-doc, I knew it might be difficult. I have always loved travel, so I created a website (HackMyTrip.com) and started a small business as a travel writer.

Most travel writers you’ve seen in the news or online do destination travel, but not me. I focus on loyalty programs, credit cards, and hotel and airline pricing models. People like me are called “travel hackers” because we try to figure out how to travel for less and still get upgrades and other benefits.

Of the skills you developed as a grad student, which are most useful to you in your current position? Which are you happy to leave behind?

Graduate students are used to working on their own, designing and completing projects on the schedule they think is appropriate. Being a self-employed writer isn’t much different. No one else is making me work, so I have to set my own deadlines and figure out what I need to do to get ahead. Sometimes I will just spend a day reading and answering emails. Other days I’ll write three or four posts.

It’s been very valuable to have practice navigating the politics of university departments and funding committees. Many of my readers and other bloggers are used to getting upgrades and special treatment as frequent travelers. Others have day jobs as lawyers, doctors, or consultants. There are a lot of strong egos. At the same time there are cliques, feuds, and competing financial interests.

I like to think I have done better than most at navigating this minefield and avoiding enemies while making friends. Those friendships have helped me grow my audience and find new income streams.

But on the other hand, I only deal with the bureaucracies I choose. As a researcher, funding committees, animal welfare committees, thesis committees, and others are all telling you what to do. I can decide, if I wish, to avoid the hassles of complying with affiliate programs by just not participating, or by moving to a different program that is more cooperative.

Are there any skills/tools/habits that you need in your field but didn’t develop during your grad school training?

Scientific writing is often very detailed and lengthy. You need to cover topics exhaustively and consider each alternative. You can’t always do that when you write for a public audience. Although I had some experience creating public presentations, cutting down my written material has been a work in progress.

Other than that, learning some web design and other programming skills has been important. I’ve been able to create and modify my website almost entirely on my own, giving me the power to create a better experience for my readers. Several competitors are surprised I didn’t hire outside help.

What’s a typical day for you like now?

I’ve become fairly domesticated. My fiancée has to be downtown by 8 AM, so we get up early and I make her breakfast, clean up the apartment, run errands, and meet her at the gym after work.

In between, my job really varies from day to day. Usually I write posts in the afternoon one or two days before they get published, and I schedule them for 4 AM to hit the East Coast audience as they wake up. The first things I do — before I even take a shower or eat breakfast — are check my email and Twitter, make sure the new post looks right, respond to a few comments.

Then for the rest of the morning I’m answering emails, chatting some more on Twitter, and maybe drafting a late-morning post on a news item or a recent promotion. Social media is the hardest part of my job, but it does drive a lot of traffic. Afternoons are spent job hunting (I haven’t given up on a traditional career) or fielding phone calls from my advertisers and companies that want me to review their services or products.

Travel days are more fun. I love organizing my itineraries, checking in at the airport, and visiting the lounge and all my other favorite spots before heading to the plane. I take a lot of pictures and notes for future trip reports, but during the trip I can escape the blog and catch up on some reading. Once at my destination, the camera comes out again to document the hotel.

Conferences are the best. I’m not there so much to learn new things but to meet readers; socialize with other bloggers; and connect with advertisers, small business, and so forth. Sometimes it leads to a small consulting gig. Other times it means I get to sit back with a drink and talk about new tricks.

What’s the best thing about your job? Do you miss anything about bench work?

It’s pretty awesome when people recognize you left and right. There are bigger celebrities than me, but it’s still nice to run into a reader who offers to buy me a drink and have a chat.

I still miss the experimental design and methodical process of bench work. That was part of what brought me into science, and I’ve tried to keep a very critical perspective in my writing. Maybe people don’t always agree with my conclusions, but they appreciate the detail. They learn how to reach their own conclusions if they start with different preconditions.

Is there anything you don’t like about your job?

It is very weird to sit in a first class seat and find yourself writing an email to the airline because the flight attendant wouldn’t serve you a cocktail before departure. This is what I mean when I say my job is to complain about first world problems. Many members of my audience are collecting their miles and points and looking for a good way to use them, or deciding if they should be loyal to Company A or Company B.

It’s my job to take a company to task if they aren’t fulfilling their published elite benefits, taking shortcuts, and providing poor customer service. But it’s very awkward to do it when I know how lucky I am to have such opportunities. I grew up on road trips and cheap motels.

There are also a lot of “angries” on the Internet. Anonymity brings out the worst in people. I’ve chosen not to censor comments on my blog, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy reading those that are mean, rude, or just ignorant.

Where do you see yourself going from here?

I’m currently looking for a job that better fits my scientific training. Being a travel writer was a nice break from school for the first six months after graduating, but I started this website as a hobby and that’s where it should stay. I don’t think it can sustain my interest as a career, and I’m skeptical of its ability to sustain me financially given that a large part relies on credit cards issued by banks and regulated by the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

I do know I’m not going back to bench research. Instead I’m looking for a job in regulatory affairs or project management. That may require going back to school, but I hope it’s something I can do remotely while I continue to travel and use the blog to pay the bills.

As far as the future of the blog, I have no problem keeping it going indefinitely as long as it remains a hobby. I’ve always needed two things to do at once or else I get bored. I have hired a couple freelance writers to supplement my own work and give me time off. There are one or two additional income streams I think I can tap once I get a little bigger. Diversifying will be important as I continue to establish myself as an authority and insulate myself from rapid changes in the industry.

Any words of wisdom for current grad students who might be interested in making a transition like yours?

Don’t jump into a very different, competitive field without some understanding of how you’re going to succeed where others have failed. I can’t tell you how many new travel blogs were started in the last two years because (1) I lost count and (2) some are so obscure I have never heard of them. I was very fortunate that I was selected to join a popular community of bloggers shortly after I started. It provided publicity, legitimacy, and advertising dollars. I am the exception.

But it was no accident I got to where I am now. I was a frequent commenter in online forums for a year before my website launched, giving me practice and establishing an initial audience. I thought about the approaches of existing blogs and how I could stand out by offering something different.

Everything I do revolves around looking at what others do and thinking, “I can do that, and I can do it better.” The same philosophy should apply to any career path. Sympathy runs out, so you need to offer customers value if you want to succeed at anything. Even without your own business you still have customers: you sell your time to your boss and your funding agency. It’s surprising how willingly people will pay when you offer something they need and can’t get anywhere else.