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#61 Per Olof Arnäs Story

Dr. Per Arnäs is a logistics researcher, podcaster, public speaker, blogger and entrepreneur with an - as he puts it - unhealthy interest in the digitalization of transportation.

Published onNov 09, 2018
#61 Per Olof Arnäs Story

We are joined by Dr Per Olof Arnäs who is a logistics researcher, podcaster, public speaker, blogger and entrepreneur with an - as he puts it - unhealthy interest in the digitalization of transportation.

Per Olof has been working in, around, and with the logistics industry since the late 1980s, both as a professional and as a researcher. He has a MSc in Mechanical Engineering and a PhD in Logistics from Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. He has also worked as a developer building sustainability tracking systems for the freight industry. Today, he is back as a senior lecturer at Chalmers after a long time in industry.

Apart from his research, Per Olof is also a podcaster and a keen social media enthusiast. His first podcast (Logistikpodden, in Swedish) is one of the the largest logistics podcasts in Sweden. Together with Lena Göthberg, he also runs the show Podgeek, a podcast about podcasting (in Swedish). During 2018, he will also launch his first international podcast, Logistics Rocks.

What is the feeling when you put your hand on the doorknob and enter your workplace? Do you feel happy or not? If not, you should look for something else.

– Dr Per Olof Arnäs, Senior Lecturer, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden


Hi and welcome to Phd Career Stories. My name is Maria Sjögren and today I’m recording this podcast in Visby where the Almedalen Week 2018 is taking place right now.

At a social event earlier this week, I had the privilege to bump into Doctor Per Olof Arnäs, a fellow podcast geek and enthusiast that I have known for many years. And we decided to meetup and record an interview for our respective podcasts.

Maria: Hello PO, and welcome to the PhD Career Stories podcast!

PO: Hi and thanks for having me.

Maria: I'm very happy to have you here. Let’s start with you telling us a bit more about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?

PO: My name is Per Olof Arnäs, which is difficult name for non-English and non-Swedish speakers. I am a doctor in logistics, and right now I'm a senior lecturer at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg in Sweden where I teach and research in the digitalization of the freight transport industry. Because I love the twenty first century so this is quite a nice job actually for me. But I've been doing a lot of other things as well. My path - my PhD career path - has been a bit bumpy, and it has taken some other turns. Now I see that it's a quite unique path.

Maria: It usually is. But I'm curious why did you decide to pursue a PhD in the first place? Was it always an obvious choice for you?

PO: Partly is because I tend to agree to things I don't really understand. Like starting a podcast or doing a PhD. I was a student in mechanical engineering in the 1990s. I took my degree in 1996, but mechanical engineering was not really my thing. I just ended up there because I sort of crossed that program when I applied and that's where I ended up.

But during the third year of this five year education, I got the first taste of logistics, and I really found that interesting, and challenging, and that I was really good at it as well. I started taking all of those courses, and when a PhD position opened in 1996 I applied for it. No, actually, it was quite a conscious decision from my part. The last year - to get into the department - I, actually did some extra teaching for them. I worked extras as lab assistant and things like that, because I knew that I would like to do a PhD there. When they open up a position and I applied for it and I got it. Then I started doing my PhD, and I had no idea what it meant.

Maria: That is actually another question from me. Is is there anything - now that you're looking back - that you wish you had known before you started to do your PhD?

PO: Yes. The importance of publications. That was not important in the 1990s. It was not really encouraged to write journal papers for us in our discipline, which ended up being a monograph instead of collection of papers, which was extremely difficult to write. You have to write a book instead of writing papers, so most of the work is actually done it at the end instead of during the project. If I had to do it all over again, I would have done a collection of papers and I would have aimed for the right journals and the right topics as steps on the path towards a PhD. But that was the 1990s, nothing was the same then as it is now. It's much much more different now.

Maria: If I understand correctly: after your PhD, you decided to leave academia.

PO: Actually, before.

Maria: Before - to take a job in the industry.

PO: In 1999, I did my license. We have this intermediary degrees in Sweden, which is sort of halfway through the PhD process. But, I would like to say it’s 25 percent of the work, then 75 percent of the work on the content comes after that. A lot of courses, saying that you’re trained to craft the research — that's what you sort of doing the license for — that you can perform a study, you can do interviews and things like that.

And then I started on on my PhD project and I sort of shifted. I started out working on dangerous goods, logistics effects of dangerous goods. But then I started looking more into heterogeneous codes, more broadening the perspectives. Then I also started a consultancy on the side, writing computer programs for the transportation industry, and that's when I came across object-oriented programming, which was a completely different topic from logistics. I was wondering why it was so, because it was really useful — the modeling tools in the object-oriented programming world was really applicable in logistics, but no one had done it.

So I switched gears and started looking into object oriented modeling of transportation systems as a tool to understand them better. Some people had done it but that was like five or six papers, some consultancy work, but it was quite an open field.

So I started looking into that, and I was almost finished - I was taking a bit longer. Lots of the PhD students in my department was taking a bit more time than they actually should. I was in 2002, which was then my sixth year. We have this final seminar, which is supposed to be two months before PhD thesis is finished, where you have an external opponents, and all your colleagues. The informal name for this is the”Pie throwing” — where everyone tries to bring your thesis down as much as possible, so that you would have that feedback before your defense. It's a sort of a dry run.

And after that the opponent and you write the report each and say this needs to be done and this is time plan. Everyone signs off, and then you do the work, and a few months later you can publish your thesis. I had this event in 2002 in December and in January I left the university. Because I had this two months left of work ahead and I had a plan to do it, but I got the job offer from the industry. I started working for the haulage industry in Sweden, in an R&D-based organization — those that once I've done consultancy work for. So I started programming, and started educating, and I started doing a lot of things in the industry. I had really a good time, and I made more money than I did as a PhD student, and all of a sudden it was 2006.

My employer asked me: “Well, we hired a doctor - where is he?”. And I actually had not stopped — I’ve been keeping the thesis afloat. It was a monograph, so no papers. It was just that things needed to fall into place. Then in 2006, I said to my employer: “I need two months.” So they say: “Okay, get two months, when don't have to do anything else.” So they were actually funding my PhD thesis. I got December and January 2006-2007 and finished the thesis. It took two months, and I defended it in 2007 — eleven years after I started.

Maria: But I'm really impressed, because you decided to do it -- and you did it.

PO: It was then or never. Because I was quite comfortable in the industry. And then I worked at that organization for a number of years, and I started to work together with the university. Instead of being a PhD student, I now started projects together with them. We hired a PhD student, we started looking into different areas.

Maria: Did you maybe get funding as well?

PO: I applied for funding together with the university for one PhD student in a project that was mutually published between us. I kept the relationships - I went there for coffee, we had a lot of fee where we sit and drink a lot of coffee in the afternoon, everybody loves it, and that's where you meet all the nice people. I kept the relationships and in 2011 I went back. They had an open spot as a senior lecturer, and I applied for it and I got it. So since then I'm back at Chalmers, doing a lot of different things.

But those eight years that I had an industry are priceless for me, because I’m very much unique in that manner. I've been in academia, then I've been in industry, and then I'm going back to academia with the network and with the knowledge. And you cannot learn that in the book — you have to do it.

Maria: Looking back when you had your PhD and, of course, you were already consulting, and then you started working with that company even more: what kind of skills did you bring from academia to that company that they found really useful?

PO: Teaching.

Maria: Teaching?!

PO: Yes, I was already doing a lot of teaching. At Chalmers a lot of students teach. We gave lectures even, not only supervisions and things like that. Back then, at least. Now, it’s more or less just the lecturers and the professor who give lectures. PhD students did a lot of the teaching.

I had experience in teaching and my main skill sets is to whip up the PowerPoint presentation in 5 minutes - that will blow everyone's mind. I did a lot of teaching when I was in industry. We had a lot of haulage companies that needed education in environmental transportation. I did all of those.

Maria: Was that something that you knew that you were going to do?

PO: Yes. And then I brought with me contacts also. I also brought with me a vocabulary: I could talk to universities, I could talk to other researchers, and I could understand them, and they could understand me. I knew the codified language, so to speak. That was a real asset in building relationships.

Maria: And then going back to academia: What did you bring back from the industry?

PO: Some efficiency, I think, which I'm struggling with now I am in a large organisation which is extremely bureaucratic. We were two people in my previous organisation, so we outsourced some things. Now I have to fill out forms, I have to scan receipts, do all of these things. There are policies and rules and regulations for everything. Of course, this keeps a lot of people employed, which is sort of a good thing, but it keeps me from doing what I really want. That can be really frustrating. Not only for me,who had been in industry, I think, it frustrates a lot of people -- the bureaucracy of universities.

Maria: Are there any other differences that you can see between academia and industry?

PO: Of course, in industry you have you have your money. In universities you have tax money. And it is a different way of looking at what you spend, how you spend, and so on. So there are differences in culture in industry and academia.

Maria: How does that express itself, do you think?

PO: You can see it here in Almedalen, where we are now, where there is a lot of public money spent during this week. And industry is also spending money, but they are doing it differently. They are doing it more targeted, not that broad like the public organisations.

Maria: They are expecting outcomes?

PO: Yes, they are a result-oriented. Which I I think is a good thing. I haven't
done my last tour in industry, I want to go back someday, yes.

Maria: But looking back; what was kind of the biggest career decision for you? Was it to leave, or to go back?

PO: I think all of these decisions have been, in retrospect, big decisions. To do the PhD; I have my friends, they have done completely different careers, in industry. Good careers, many of them. There was one big decision…

In one way, my thesis became much, much better, being marinated for a number of years. So I'm really proud of my PhD thesis. It would not have been that good if I had done it in 2003. But on the other hand, it would have passed and I would have been approved and would have been a doctor. But then I think I would have left for industry actually.

Maria: Yeah you may not have come back…

PO: No.

Maria: … to academia.

PO: No. I would have left for industry and I would have stayed in industry. So because I had my, sort of, two months left, I kept in touch with the University.

Maria: That is really interesting. So Tina Persson, the founder of this podcast, she often talks about transferable skills. That is how PhD students can learn a lot of skills during their PhD and find out later in life that they can apply these skills to a totally different field. What are your thoughts about that?

PO: Yes. Several of those skills of course. Presentation skills, which is crucial for a researcher to be able to present your work. But also to briefly summarize something, to make sense of a complex issue...

Maria: penetrate a lot of data.

PO: Yeah, penetrate data and to avoid oversimplifications. To be able to discuss and problematize the topic, not to oversimplify it, and and to really take a systems perspective. At least for me, because I am in a discipline where we always need to take a systems perspective. Which means that it is actually more important to the define the system boundary, then to define the system itself.

You have to know what you exclude and include, because it will determine the results. I think that is a very good thing to have with you in industry, because in industry you very soon will get extremely locked in a bubble. Of your own company, or your own division, or your own organization, or your own customers. And it's very hard to look outside to see parallel organizations outside; what they are doing and how we can learn from them.

So, I give a lot of talks in industry. And one thing I always end with, is to say that once every week they have to watch TED Talk. And once every year they have to attend a conference which is totally outside their own field. Like Almedalen, that it is a good one or TEDx, or something like that. Because otherwise their brains will sort of stop evolving, I think.

Maria: This lifelong learning that we need to think about, everyone.

PO: Yes. And it is easier than ever, to do that.

Maria: Yes. Other skills, do you think?

PO: For me personally, I have done a MOOC:s I have done a lot of blended learning. I am very passionate about teaching and developing new teaching methods. So I I have evolved myself on my own initiative in the university’s development; blended learning, digital examination and things like that. So I now have positions in several committees, and things like that, at university, because I am passionate about it. And I think that that is also something that is needed in the industry, pedagogical professionalism.

Maria: That is really, really cool. Now, as I mentioned earlier, you are also a fellow podcaster. Would you like to tell us a bit more about these shows that you produce?

PO: Yes it is podcasts in plural! I have to two, and almost three. I have one in Sweden called Logistikpodden, The Logistics Podcast, in Swedish. And I'm doing it on my own money and on my own time, but it is connected to my area of expertise, which means that most of our interviews, I actually do in my office, on campus. And several of these interviews... I meet the celebrities in the logistics industry, or they should be celebrities at least... And several of these have led to deeper contacts, and even research projects. So there is a synergy between what I do in my podcast and what I do at work. So that is one of them.

The other one is about podcasting. I have just interviewed you (giggles) in that podcast. It is called Podgeek and I do this with a fellow podcaster, Lena Göthberg. And this is because we noticed that a lot of people are starting podcasts. And a lot of people have the same questions, so we are trying to address them from an indie podcast perspective. We do not have funding, we do not have a media agency behind our backs, things like that, we do everything ourselves. So that is the topic of the podcast. Our journey, so to speak.

Maria: And it is brilliant, it is it is useful for all of us podcasters out there.

PO: I think we are doing something we like to listen to ourselves. There are a number of how-to podcasts out there, so this is not unique, but we want to do it with our twist so... And then I have another podcast coming up, I promised during 2018... But I it is a logistics podcast and it is in English and it is interview based and it will be called Logistics rocks. Because I I own the domain name (laughter). So you have to put a twist on it and all the guest of course would have to choose a song to put on the Spotify playlist.

Maria (laughing): That is brilliant!

PO: They can choose any song they want, as long as it is a rock song, and as long as it is not Bohemian Rhapsody, because that is already taken by me. (More laughter.)

Maria: What is the biggest challenge in that project right now?

PO: Time. (Laughter.) To get it done. No, but I I am struggling to… Since I have been doing 100 episodes of my other podcasts I have been doing a lot of the mistakes already. So now I want to do everything right. And I want to do it with as low friction as possible, as little work as possible. So these interviews will be recorded via Skype or something like that. So my goal is to interview Tim Cook, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Larry Ellison; all these tech giants! But I also understand that I have to ramp up to those, to interview other people first, but soon I will interview some of them, I hope.

Maria: That is really exciting!

PO: That is my ambition, at least.

Maria: Brilliant! You are also very active in social media, that is actually how we met a few years back, our joint passion for digital communication. How do you think that your engagement in digital channels has had an impact on your career?

PO: I cannot begin to describe it…! I mean, I am a networking person. Which means that if I have a question, I bring it to the network. My network brings stuff to me, that I respond to. So, the network is something that is part of me, I feel like it is not a task. People say: “how do you find the time?”. For me it is not a task it is it is part of who I am, my network is part of who I am.

I use social media, I use a lot of different channels. I promote my podcast of course, but I also interact with people because it is fun! And it is rewarding, and you always have these meetings that you can never plan for, but that will end up being extremely useful. Every time you are here at Almedalen, for instance, you have at least one of those meetings. And when you go home you feel that that meeting was worth the whole trip. I am a networking person. And for me that is what the internet is all about.

Maria: Yeah, the opportunities today…! To reach anyone in the world. It is amazing. So wrapping up a bit; I have two questions here. The first is, what is the most important advice that you would like to to share to PhD:s, either being an unemployed or being in the final part of their career, what should I think about?

PO: Right down on what you said about your generic or transferable skills. Look at what type of problems are you good at solving. If you are good at doing interviews, well that is a generic skill. You don't have to do interviews on your topic, you can do interviews and almost anything if you are good at doing interviews.

If you are good at using specific research tools to make sense of fuzzy data, well then that is a skill that you can use in several different industries. For instance, there is no industry now that is not, or will not, be data driven. So if you work in a digital area, you are set up for life! I mean, there will always be work for you. So look at your generic skills! I think that is my main advice.

And the second one is the actually the most important one; if it is not fun, do not do it!

Maria: That is a brilliant advice!

PO: You should never do something because of the money or something, you should do it because you like it and you like to go to work. What is the feeling when you put your hand on the doorknob and enter your workplace? Do you feel happy or not? If not, you should look for something else.

Maria: And if we are having listeners that are about to start a PhD or are maybe just in the beginning of their PhD:s, what do you think that they should think about? Do you have any tips for them?

PO: First of all they should listen to this podcast, I think.

Maria: Thank you!

PO: Yes, but they need to learn about a bit more about... I tend to I tend to go into things I don't really understand, and usually it works out fine. It never works out as you think! But also, talk to people who are in the system. Talk to people who have done it, especially in your own field. Because the research environment today is extremely competitive. It wasn't that a few years ago, or ten years ago, at least not where I am, but now it is extremely competitive. And it is publish, publish, publish! And that means that you will work a lot. You can also be really successful, it's a tradeoff that you need to be aware, of I think. To be really good at something means that you will have to put the number of hours into it as well.

Maria: Perfect! Thank you so much, PO!

PO: Thanks for having me!

You have just listened to an episode of PhD Career Stories, the podcast in which PhD:s tell their stories, inspiring you to take the next step towards your dream job. Subscribe to our show on iTunes, or on any other podcasting app. You can also find us online at and on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin.

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