School of Communication Alumnus Becomes Successful Author while Embracing Working in Industry

May 22, 2024

When SFU School of Communication alumnus Sam Ladner defended her master’s thesis just days after 9/11 in 2001, she envisioned going on to have a career in academia. While things didn’t happen exactly how she had planned, she is now able to look back at her career which included publishing two books that have sold thousands of copies, starting her own company, and playing an important role in companies such as Microsoft and Amazon.

After defending her master’s thesis at SFU, Ladner moved to Toronto to finish her PhD at York University. While initially planning to stay in academia, Ladner pivoted to doing research at interactive design agencies before founding her own research company, which she ran for four years. Following this, Ladner was offered a position at Microsoft and moved back to the West Coast to accept the role in Seattle in 2012, where she worked on the envisioning team, focused mostly on strategic foresight and ethnographic research. She followed this up by working at Amazon in a similar research environment.

Despite her success in industry, Ladner’s legacy will be the books that she wrote during this time. Her book “Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector” has sold over 10,000 copies and is a leading textbook in this area. When Ladner was writing this book on the bus to and from work years ago, nobody could have predicted the lasting success that this book would have, not even her.

“I actually had a lot of people telling me to not write this book, because they didn’t think that practical ethnography was a legitimate topic,” she says.

This book was written for with two personas in mind: academics who were leaving the academic world and wanted to adapt their training to industry, and people who were already working in an applied research role but didn’t have academic training in ethnography or qualitative methods. Ladner initially wanted to teach this subject but found that there wasn’t an existing textbook for practical ethnography.

“The response on the book has been beyond my wildest expectation,” says Ladner. “I’ve had many people who have told me directly that the book helped them and inspired them in their work.”

Ladner then wrote another book, titled “Mixed Methods: A Short Guide to Applied Mixed Methods Research”. Again, she wanted to teach this subject but found that there was not an applied mixed methods textbook that fit her needs. She self-published this book and learned a lot about the publishing and business processes of being a self-published author.

Ladner believes that the strong grounding in science and technology studies that she received at SFU was influential to her career success. She also believes that she received great training in quantitative and qualitative methods at SFU. She is especially grateful to SFU School of Communication professor Richard Smith and SFU School of Communication professor emeritus Catherine Murray for the training and support she received during her master’s degree.

When asked what advice she would give to communications graduands entering industry, Ladner says, “Use your communications training to understand the context and the system of the organization that you are in. You’re probably really well positioned to know what the organization needs to do, so go all in on that.”

She also encourages new graduands to start learning about personal finance now to position themselves well for the future and avoid stressing about finances.

For new students joining SFU, Ladner encourages them to enjoy the beauty on campus every chance they get.

Ladner is currently working on a third book which will focus on strategic foresight. Her published books can be purchased via her author page on Amazon.