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Forking road (warning: career angst ahead)

30 May

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Every time I meet with anyone these days, whether it’s for a work or social chat, I end up talking about my career angst. 
I started a job earlier this year that meant I was now on the other side of the fence in academia. I’m no longer the researcher who applies for grants and publishes, but one who advises and assists researchers to apply for grants and publish. For the most part, the change has been positive. I love the location of my workplace, my colleagues range from decent to excellent, the mortgage gets paid, and the work is fun + challenging + I can leave it at the office.
When I first took up the role, I envisaged a slowed, but still progressing, academic life. After all, I was still convening AASRN (albeit now very well assisted by Dr Indigo Willing, my co-convenor), planning publications, and on the conference committee for AAI 4. I had taken off two editorial hats with reluctance, and was no longer editor of Journal of Intercultural Studies or reviews editor (diaspora stream) for Asian Studies Review. I told myself that it’d be harder than a straightforward academic job might allow, but if I was truly passionate about it, I would still be on track in building my track-record and carrying out academic initiatives. I was thinking that publishing an article or two a year wasn’t so bad, and I’d be content with that. I had no plans to swan around conferences or take on any new fieldwork.

I was wrong.

What I’m starting to realise is that, yes, I could do a restricted version of ‘being an academic’, but it means the constant sacrifice of weekends and evenings to academic work. As fired up keen as I am about AAI 4, I’m also ambivalent about taking annual leave to attend the event. The academic stuff takes up time that I would otherwise spend with my family, and this makes it extremely unattractive. Part of the reason why I’m on the other side of the fence is because I don’t want to take on the kind of coal-face, all-hours, intensive teaching position that lower level academia seems to be. I had been spoilt as a research fellow, and the freedom from a schedule and ability to enact every research initiative I wanted are the reasons why I stayed in academia as long as I did. I can teach and have taught before, but it doesn’t thrill or feed me the way it seems to do for others. 
My kids are still young (pre-school-age) and they’ll be absorbed into institutional education soon enough. The simple fact is that I want to spend time with them. As much time as I can. Being the one who doesn’t see them for most of the week, I actively miss them. Should I muck around with them, or close the door and work on an article? It’s not a tough choice.
If I don’t maintain any kind of momentum in my academic work, though, the door on that career will definitely shut. I won’t be competitive for research fellowships anymore and, if I don’t teach, there is no (continuing) place for me on that side of the academic fence. An added factor is that my current job is the first I’ve ever had that’s a continuing position (probation willing); being 40+ and immersing myself in a job with security has high-level comfort effects that I’d be loathe to surrender. Going back to the permanent anxiety of fixed-term work would never happen voluntarily. 
So, it seems that I’m well and truly heading away from being an academic. Because it seems to be an option that’s floating away, I’m fast realising that there were many things about it that I took for granted and will sorely miss. These elements include:
  • The camaraderie of AASRN buddies. While many of these relationships have moved beyond being merely collegial, and I would retain a swag of good friends, there’s a joy in the dynamism of conferences and collaborating on projects/publications that I’ll probably not experience again if I’m no longer an active academic. I’ve been a contact point for so long for things Asian Australian, that no longer having that makes me sad (and yet also relieved…).
  • Having the option of self-determined travelling. I’ve travelled a lot in my academic career thus far, much more than I ever thought possible. As much as I whinge and resist going away these days, when I do go away, it’s rewarding and fun. In the job I’m in now, travel isn’t closed off by any means, but the freedom to choose an international conference and just go is not the context anymore. Nor will I be able to come up with wild, woolly, and exciting projects and get funding to undertake the fieldwork inter/nationally. I’m generally quite serene about being a homebody, and often choose to be so, but when the option of travelling is removed…that’s when I get antsy.

The jury’s also out on whether my demonstrable expertise as an academic makes me more effective in my current job. It definitely smoothed my way into the regard of the people I have to work with. Never having been a person to flaunt the Dr in my title, I’ve been (astutely) advised to deploy it at every opportunity in my role. It works wonders, I’m kind of sad to say.

Writing this post has actually clarified a few things for me. It still doesn’t make the decision any easier, but I’m obviously leaning a certain way. 
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Posted by on 30/05/2011 in academia, domestic, gender

 

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