Falling in and out of love with academia: the story of my academic aspirations

What comes to your mind when you think about academia? Is it the excitement of working with knowledge and of contributing to the world? Or is it a job prospect filled with insecurities and competition? You may come up with different answers, depending on the country where you live in, your personal situation, and your academic aspirations. For me, the second scenario is on the top of my head.

In Australia, where I live, the higher education sector has been hit hard by the pandemic due to the significant loss of international student revenues, which has resulted in job losses in many universities. A few months ago, news about university job cuts would pop up on your newsfeed once every few days. As a result, academic job prospects seem bleak for many early-career researchers, including PhD candidates and graduates.

As an aspiring academic, I would love to stay in academia, but the pandemic and its impacts have forced me to reassess my priorities, in both life and career. In this post, I’ll take you on a “tour” of my academic aspirations and how I began to ask a different set of questions to rethink my career paths. In sharing my story, I hope not only to offer companionship – if you have similar worries – but also to propose a way to think about life beyond the PhD.

How my academic aspirations became more realistic

I entered my PhD feeling excited to start a research journey that would hopefully take me one step closer to being a full member of academia. Even though I would not want to be a first-year PhD student again – mostly due to not wanting to start my research from scratch again – I certainly miss those carefree days when worries about jobs were nowhere in sight.

In the second year, the concerns about securing an academic job started creeping in when a few finishing PhD colleagues were talking about life post-PhD. In addition to my research questions, a few words kept floating around my head: competition, precarity, and casualisation.  

From anecdotes and my own research, academia seems like a layered pyramid. Once you “get in”, you have to make an effort to ”climb up” or you’ll get eliminated as other people are moving ahead of you. And while you are doing all of this, with the highest degree of commitment, there is every chance that you will be asked to leave. At one point, I thought of academia as a scene in an apocalyptic movie: a burning house where people trapped inside are screaming and telling those waiting at the gate (aspiring academics, doctoral students) to run as far as they can.

But I managed to convince myself that there was nothing I could do except for focusing on my PhD. The hopeful, optimistic part in me said that if I worked hard and published a few papers, there would be a place for me in academia. (Then I will live happily ever after!)

Then, at the beginning of my third year, the pandemic hit. The first three quarters of 2020 saw the university sector struggling to adapt to online learning, retaining students, and keeping graduate researchers and staff stay motivated while trying to keep its head above water.  A recent estimate suggests that due to the loss in revenues the number of job cuts in the sector has reached more than 17,300. To put it in perspective, the total cut amounts to approximately 10 percent of the total higher education workforce.

As a PhD student, I feel fortunate that my research has not been significantly disrupted by the pandemic. As an aspiring academic, I cannot help but feel depressed. As I wrote in a recent paper about support for doctoral students during the pandemic, ”what does it mean to have a thesis passed, articles published when there is no job at the end of the road, or having a job in a system that tends to make workers casualised, overworked and susceptible to redundancy?” Through my research, it is interesting to see how someone can bear – or even enjoy – the uncertainty of doing research but cannot stand the uncertainty of not having a stable job.

I realise I can’t run away from the reality that the academic job prospects are bleak. Although I may be doing all the right things, there are simply not enough places for all of us. At the same time, I only look for jobs outside academia half-heartedly, because academia as a place for knowledge and learning has an aura that is too attractive to let go of. Perhaps this is a kind of “cruel optimism” – a stubborn attachment to something even though it is deemed impossible or toxic.

What should I do? I figured out that a switch in the mindset can do some tricks.

Rethinking my career path

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a seminar titled “So you’re graduating during the pandemic, what’s next?” by Inger Mewburn, Director of Research Training at Australian National University, also known as the Thesis Whisperer. Her statistics showed that the job forecasts (in Australia and New Zealand) for academia might be bad, but there were options for doctoral graduates if we knew where to look. She said, “I’m fairly pessimistic about academia but quite optimistic about everything else.”

Inger suggested three questions doctoral candidates/graduates could ask themselves when seeking jobs:

  • Where can I add value? What problems can I help to solve?
  • Who has these problems and will they pay me to solve them?
  • How can my research contribute to the recovery?

In addition to Inger’s questions, I ask myself: Do I need a job in academia or do I only need a job? Can I make a difference and utilise my skills in a non-academic job? There may be a possibility that I can still work with knowledge, enjoy a relatively high degree of autonomy while contributing to society and, most importantly, having a sense of job security.

I’d like to end this post with a positive note by borrowing a comment of a doctoral student whom I interviewed for my research. When I asked her why she seemed quite relaxed about her job prospect knowing that there would be a lot of competition and uncertainty, she responded: “Considering we are decently educated by this point, whatever job we do, we are probably able to make a difference anyway.”

So, this is my modest New Year’s resolution: asking a different set of questions while thinking with a different mindset.

Ai Tam Le (@aitamlp) is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Centre for the Study in Higher Education and Melbourne Graduate School of Education (University of Melbourne, Australia). Her PhD project explores aspiring academics’ understanding of the academic profession in Australia.

Photo by Andreas Gücklhorn on Unsplash

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