For Eric Jay Dolin PhD ’95 (above), the road to earning a PhD was tricky. He realized while working on his degree requirements and dissertation that he wanted to be a writer, not a professor. “My dissertation was on the Boston Harbor and the role of the courts in the cleanup,” he says. “But my draft of the first few chapters turned out to be a 500-page narrative history.”
The realization didn’t come as a huge shock. From an early age, Dolin wrote about things he was passionate about—including a 140-page paper in high school on the mollusks of Long Island Sound. He explored marine biology and environmental policy, getting his bachelor’s in biology and environmental studies from Brown University and his master’s in environmental management at Yale before earning his PhD in environmental policy and planning at MIT. Since then, he has published four books that focus on history and nature.
I guess I’m a poster boy for pursuing your passions.
The book that solidified his writing career was Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. Selected as one of the best nonfiction books of 2007 by the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Providence Journal, Leviathan was also chosen by Amazon.com’s editors as one of the 10 best history books of 2007. “Leviathan is my favorite because it’s the one that enabled me to make the jump to becoming a full-time writer,” says Dolin.
His three other books explored the fur trade, China, and lighthouses; a book on pirates is due out in September 2018. “For almost every single one of my books I essentially knew little or nothing about the topic before I started,” he says. In the end, his books are geared toward people like him: generalists.
“I’m not a trained writer, although I am a writer, and I’m not a trained historian, although people call me a historian because I write books about history,” he says. “I guess I’m a poster boy for pursuing your passions.”
Dolin’s work has received many accolades, including the John Lyman Book Award, the James P. Hanlan Book Award, and gold, silver, and bronze medals from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. “I’m happy that my books have been well reviewed and won awards,” he says. “But the most heartening to me is the feedback from readers who really like my books.”
Dolin and his wife, Jennifer, and their two children live in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
First published in the January-February issue of MIT Technology Review.