Associate Professor Dirk Tomsa on Career Pathways in the Study of Asia

Associate Professor Dirk Tomsa on Career Pathways in the Study of Asia

The Career Pathways in the Study of Asia series aims to help demystify potential career pathways for those engaged in the study of Asia, particularly at an early stage. Next in the series is Dr Dirk Tomsa who is an Associate Professor on Wurundjeri land at La Trobe University. In 2024, Associate Professor Tomsa will become the Editor-in-Chief of the Asian Studies Review.

How did you become interested in studying Asia?

As an undergraduate student in Germany, I studied political science and anthropology. Both parts of my degree included subjects on Asia and I was lucky enough to have some inspirational academic mentors during this time. In particular, Professor Sebastian Heilmann (now Professor for Government and Political Economy of China at the University of Trier) nurtured my interest in Asia. He encouraged me to pursue my interest in Asia academically when he helped me publish an expanded version of one of my undergraduate essays back in 1997. My nascent interest in Asia then turned into a passion during two extended backpacking trips to Southeast Asia and China in 1998 and 2001. Having witnessed the contrasting fortunes of the reformasi movements in Malaysia and Indonesia, I decided to move to Australia to complete postgraduate degrees in Asian Studies and try my luck in academia.    

What was your first academic job and how did your career progress from there?

I started casual teaching about halfway through my PhD at the University of Melbourne. Though I was based in Asian Studies, there were few tutoring opportunities in the Asia Institute at the time, so I defected back to my home discipline and started tutoring in Politics and International Relations. That turned out to be a good move because it was through these networks that I later managed to land my first ongoing academic job, a part-time Level A position in the School of Government at the University of Tasmania’s Launceston campus. I commenced this job just before I was due to submit my PhD in late 2006 and initially commuted between Melbourne and Tasmania, teaching two days a week in Launceston and spending the rest of the week in Melbourne finalizing my thesis. Fortunately, my part-time contract was soon converted to full-time, so I eventually moved to Launceston in 2007 and spent three wonderful years there.   

Launceston may sound like an odd choice to kick off a career in Asian Studies, but for me it was a matter of right place, right time. Small student numbers and a collegial atmosphere on campus produced the perfect conditions for me to finish my PhD and then quickly turn the thesis into a book manuscript. I then moved from the School of Government into what was then called the School of Asian Languages and Studies and shortly afterwards won an ARC grant for early career researchers. So all in all, I think it’s fair to say that I had a successful and enjoyable time in Tasmania.

In 2010, I returned to Melbourne to take up a position at La Trobe University’s politics department. I’ve been with La Trobe ever since and while I am once again based in a politics department, I have always maintained close relations with Asian Studies, partly through co-teaching undergraduate subjects on Indonesia and Japan and partly through collaborations with La Trobe Asia.    

What is the focus of your academic teaching and research now?

At the moment, I am Head of the Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy, so my teaching is limited to just one third-year subject on Southeast Asian politics. As a core subject in our Asian Politics and Security major, it provides a systematic comparative analysis of processes of political change in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. The curriculum draws heavily on my own research, which focuses mainly on the region’s democratic trajectory, and especially on electoral and party politics. More recently though, I have also become increasingly interested in environmental politics, including issues like climate justice and civil society activism for conservation. My main country of expertise is Indonesia where I have conducted regular fieldwork for nearly twenty years now. I am currently working on a number of projects that examine the various implications of Indonesia’s democratic decline for environmental politics.  

What has been one career highlight?

I have been lucky enough to work with some fantastic colleagues over the years, both from Australia and overseas. Co-organizing the Indonesia Update conference with Professor Edward Aspinall and Associate Professor Marcus Mietzner in 2014 was a great experience, as was my time as a Visiting Professor at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (Germany) in 2015. More recently, I collaborated with a marine biologist from the University of Tasmania, Dr Narissa Bax. That was a new and very rewarding experience for me as a social scientist. Our article was published earlier this year in the ASAA’s Asian Studies Review – which brings me to one more highlight worth mentioning here: in 2024, I will become the new Editor-in-Chief of the Asian Studies Review. I feel honoured that my colleagues from the ASAA have entrusted me with this important role and look forward to leading the Association’s flagship publication as Editor-in-Chief.

What is the best part about your job as an academic with expertise on Asia?

I really appreciate that the job allows me to do exactly those things that helped me discover my passion for Asia in the first place: continuously learn from inspirational academics and travel to the region (though I haven’t done any backpacking trips for a long time). At the same time, I now have the opportunity to be an inspirational teacher and mentor myself, and feedback from some of my former students indicates that at least occasionally I have succeeded in my attempts to ignite a passion for Asia in the classroom.    

What piece of advice would you give to your students keen to build a career as an academic in Asian studies?

For undergraduates, my main advice would be to learn an Asian language early and learn it well. I started learning Indonesian fairly late and have always regretted not doing this earlier. For postgraduates, there is no way around publishing, but networking is also essential, so look for opportunities to attend conferences, teach and coordinate a broad range of subjects and speak to the media about your work. In addition, in-country experience through volunteering, fieldwork or exchange programs can provide invaluable experiences. Finally, given the precarious state of Asian Studies at many universities these days, I would recommend retaining or gaining a foothold in another academic discipline as well. If jobs in Asian Studies are out of reach, there may well be opportunities to be an Asia specialist in a politics, anthropology or history department (or any other department for that matter).

Photo by Tristan Pineda on Unsplash

Dr Dirk Tomsa is an Associate Professor in Politics and Head of Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy at La Trobe University. Associate Professor Tomsa is the incoming Editor-in-Chief of the Asian Studies Review.

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