How To… Survive in academia until you secure a position (some personal reflections)
In this week’s post, Jatinder Mann offers some personal reflections on his journey to secure an ongoing position in academia. He talks candidly about the personal and financial impact of staying in academia until he was offered a position at the Hong Kong Baptist University. He also gives insights into his experience studying Australian history as someone who is not from Australia and discusses the lack of diversity at conferences in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
I am currently an Assistant Professor in History at the Hong Kong Baptist University (and my teaching portfolio includes a course on the History of Australia). I did my Ph.D. at the University of Sydney in Australia and had two postdocs before I secured myself a tenure-track position in Hong Kong. I was previously a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow (the Canadian equivalent of a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award) at the University of Alberta in Canada. I also undertook a postdoc as a part of a collaborative team project at King’s College London in the United Kingdom. I believe it is becoming the norm to have at least one postdoc before hopefully securing a long-term position in academia. It is certainly very rare for someone to go straight into a lectureship after being awarded their Ph.D. And this is for one main reason I think: the increasing number of history Ph.D.s and so many more people applying for the academic positions advertised, leading to increasing competitiveness.
Although on the surface it may seem that I had a fairly logical career progression, in between the two postdocs and between my Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship and my current tenure-track position, I had unpaid fellowships at King’s College London. I was certainly grateful for these as they provided me with an important institutional affiliation and office space and resources to continue my research. But the fact that they were unpaid meant I had to primarily rely on savings or pick up some part-time paid work where I could. Although this took some time away from my research and publishing, the need to support myself obviously took precedence. Pursuing a career in academia can be extremely precarious and you may very well find (as I did on several occasions) that you are in unpaid positions. If you can, try to save money when you are in a paid position, for those difficult periods.
As I was thinking about what to write for this blog post I was reminded of an informal Graduate Student Workshop that I gave at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada last year. The main advice I gave at that, and would like to repeat here for ECRs, is to publish as much of your research as you can (I recall an academic friend and former colleague of mine saying to me soon after being awarded my Ph.D. to ‘publish, publish, publish!’). As mentioned above, the academic field is becoming increasingly competitive and so you need to be able to distinguish yourself from the rest of the many other applicants. It is also important to present your work at as many conferences and seminar venues as you can (although I am not sure I would suggest becoming a conference junkie as I have!). Not only will you receive valuable feedback on your research, but it will also provide you with an opportunity to let people know that you exist – raise your profile, and could even lead to potential collaborations. And get teaching experience where you can. In my experience as long as you can demonstrate that you have the ability to teach, that is sufficient.
My career has been very international, doing my Ph.D. in Australia, a postdoc in the UK, another postdoc in Canada, and now working in Hong Kong. The fact that I had worked in several countries before arriving in Hong Kong I believe certainly contributed towards me getting the position, as universities like to increase their internationalisation. On a practical note, the far wider you cast your net in terms of places that you are willing to work in, will only increase your chances of securing an academic position. My net was pretty much the whole world when I was applying for positions! I know that this might not be possible for everyone, as you might be tied down to a particular place, due to family or financial reasons. But the larger the geographical area in which you look for opportunities, the more positions you can apply for.
I have lived in four different countries over the course of my academic career so far. Although I found it extremely exciting and I have made some amazing friends all over the world, it can also be quite tiring. I loved my two years in Canada (during which I also got to spend several months in New Zealand carrying out research) but towards the end of it and knowing that I would need to leave again and rebuild a life for myself back home in the UK, before possibly moving on to who knew where, I did decide that it was the last time I would do this. It takes a lot out of you moving to a new place, making a life for yourself (including making friends) only to have to leave after a few years, if that, and start all over again. And I did this several times. It also took a real toll on my personal relationships as it is difficult to be able to maintain a long-term relationship with someone when you do not know how long you will be in a particular place. So, I am extremely pleased that my current tenure-track position in Hong Kong has also enabled me to pursue a long-term relationship and give it a real go 🙂
When it comes to applying for academic jobs you should be mentally prepared for a lot of rejections. Although, from my own experience it is very difficult not to take it personally, try to not let it get you down. I have probably applied for 100 different positions in total, and was shortlisted for several, but was always the runner up, until I secured my current position in Hong Kong. I do not miss having to work on job applications every week (Sundays used to be my application days). But I am glad that I stuck in there, and maintained my self-belief (although it was not always easy). As several people said to me when I was applying for positions, you only need the one! I was also personally very inspired when academic friends of mine secured positions as it gave me hope that if it could happen for them, it could hopefully happen for me. Taking into account all of the above if a Ph.D. student asked me whether I would recommend pursuing a career in academia to them, I would say that if that is what they had a passion for, then they certainly should, but they should be prepared for a bumpy journey and a lot of rejections along the way. But my experience will hopefully inspire you that it is possible 🙂
I wanted to end with some perspectives from my experience of being someone who researches and teaches on Australian History who is not Australian or from Australia, and being a person of colour in an academic field that is overwhelmingly white. I recall someone asking me at one of the first Australian Studies conferences that I attended, why I did not study my own history? I assumed they were talking about British History (as I am British and was born and raised there), but it turned out that they were actually talking about Indian History (I am Indian in terms of ethnicity). I was quite taken aback by this to say the least. I have always thought that not being Australian, provides me with a unique perspective, especially as I focus on questions of national identity, and so I have not grown up with dominant national myths or tropes about this, and perhaps can approach the subject with more distance and objectivity. So, I would certainly encourage those interested in studying Australian History who are not from the country to do so, as the perspective of an outsider can sometimes be very beneficial.
One thing I always notice when I go to Australian Studies, or even Canadian Studies, and to some extent even New Zealand Studies conferences, is just how overwhelmingly white they are. As a person of colour I frankly tend to stand out like a sore thumb in all of these settings. I find it especially interesting as much of my research has focused on multiculturalism and so I certainly do not find the conferences that I usually attend great examples of multicultural Australia or Canada for that matter. However, I think this is even more reason for people of colour to come to these conferences, as although it may unfortunately take some time, together we can increase the diversity of those participating at a lot of these academic associations. So, again I would encourage fellow people of colour to pursue their research interests in Australian History, if that is what they enjoy doing, and I personally look forward to welcoming you at future conferences!
Note: this article was edited on 17 September 2019 to clarify the sentence in which Jatinder describes applying for approximately 100 positions.
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