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. Closing out the series is Dr Elisabeth Kramer who is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences on Bedegal land at UNSW.
How did you become interested in studying Asia?
I have Indonesian heritage and spent much of my childhood in the country, so it has always been in my consciousness. When my family moved to Australia permanently, my parents were keen that I keep a connection to Indonesia by formally studying Indonesian language at high school. Luckily for them, I quite enjoyed it and my curiosity about the region grew. Once I got to university I enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts (Asian Studies) and I started seeking out more opportunities to learn about the various different countries of Asia, including traveling to places in the region that I was less familiar with.
What was your first academic job and how did your career progress from there?
My very first academic job was as a casual tutor while I was doing my PhD. The course was called Dilemmas of Development in Southeast Asia. I learned a lot from that experience and while it was enjoyable, it was a steep learning curve. It was also an opportunity to draw on some of my non-academic expertise as I previously worked as an international development consultant for a few years.
From there, I received a postgraduate teaching fellowship in the final year of my PhD, which paid me to teach for one day a week. I taught into four courses while finishing off my thesis—two Indonesian language classes, a course on social activism and a two-week field school in Timor Leste. This gave me the opportunity to build my teaching skills and resume, while being paid an additional regular stipend—something I really appreciated while getting by on my PhD scholarship!
By the time I was ready to submit my thesis and was thinking about next steps, a fixed-term maternity leave contract came up at the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre. Before this opportunity materialised, I had imagined that I would submit my thesis and probably continue to work as a casual academic and then return to development consulting or the public service. But it was such a great opportunity that I felt I had to give it a go.
From 2016-2022, I was deputy director at SSEAC. My role there varied considerably over that time. In the early days there was quite a bit of administration, centre management and event organising but as the centre evolved and hired more staff, I had the opportunity to rekindle my own research and writing projects. It took a while—I would say about 4 years! —but I slowly started building new collaborations, publishing in some respected journals, and I finished my first monograph. I have recently joined UNSW as a senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences as the next progression in my academic career.
What is the focus of your academic teaching and research now?
My research has shifted since I completed my PhD. I admit that I have not been very good at staying focused and tend to get easily distracted by new ideas and political issues that emerge. But I have recently gotten a few grants that will anchor my research over the next few years. One project is on socio-cultural attitudes towards opioid use in Indonesia and the other is on tobacco policy. Later this year I will be teaching on politics and policy as part of the Masters of Public Policy and Governance.
What has been one career highlight?
There have been a few so far, but I think that getting an offer for an ongoing academic position and a Scientia fellowship at UNSW has to be up there. I spent quite some time wondering whether I would be able to make academia a permanent career choice and I wasn’t really sure if it was ever going to happen for me. The nature of the academic job market—casualisation, economic pressures and the like—can make it a pretty difficult place to establish yourself and there is so much luck and fortuitous timing involved in every job opportunity. So, when I did get the job offer for an ongoing position it as a huge weight off my shoulders.
What is the best part about your job as an academic with expertise on Asia?
One “perk” is that we have the opportunity to continue to learn and grow our understanding of the region as part of our jobs. And we can do this as part of a community who share this passion. I think organisations like ASAA are really key here, providing a conduit to connect with other scholars and learn from them.
What piece of advice would you give to your students keen to build a career as an academic in Asian studies?
I always encourage undergraduate students who are thinking about academia as a career path to get some professional experience before starting their postgraduate study. If you are interested in working in Asian Studies in an academic capacity, then professional or volunteer experience in the region is really great for helping you to think through what issues are meaningful and how you can use research to address them.
If you are already on the postgraduate path then there is a lot of advice out there about getting into academia, being “competitive” on the job market etc. Of course, much of that advice is about publishing, positioning and building a profile for yourself. But more fundamentally, I think if you want to have a fulfilling career then you need to base your work on a passion. It is easy to get burnt out or frustrated when working in academia, so if you can return to a core passion—whether it is in research or teaching, service (who knows, maybe even administration!)—then that will really help to get you through the stressful times. Finally, I think tapping into all the networks you can find is a really practical thing you can do to get your career started. ASAA’s postgraduate group is one network, but you can look for groups at your university, as part of academic associations, or even join networks at other universities. I must be on about 20 mailing lists for Asia-related centres and projects around the world! At the very least, you will get a regular newsletter which will alert you to training, publishing, funding and job opportunities. With a bit more engagement, you could come away with new friends or collaborators who can be part of your support network as you go through your career.
Photo source: Photo by Afif Ramdhasuma on Unsplash