This is part 1 of a three-part blog post which follows a conversation between Dr Yu Tao, Dr Jess Kruk and Dr Felix Pal on navigating a pathway to a first ongoing academic appointment in Asian Studies. This part introduces Dr Kruk’s and Dr Pal’s field of work and the paths to their current academic positions. The next part details the challenges they faced in the job market and their coping strategies. The third part reflects on the importance of support networks and pursuing a work-life balance in an academic career.
Dr Jess Kruk and Dr Felix Pal joined the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia (UWA) in early 2023 as lecturers in Indonesian Studies and Politics and International Relations, respectively, after highly competitive selection processes. Dr Yu Tao, currently serving as the discipline chair of Asian Studies at UWA, had the privilege to witness some of Dr Kruk’s and Dr Pal’s impressive performances during that selection process. In May 2023, Dr Tao interviewed his two new colleagues, discussing the challenges, strategies, and lessons in their journeys to the first ongoing academic appointment.
Drs Kruk, Pal, and Tao acknowledge that the interview took place on Noongar land, where the Noongar people are their land’s spiritual and cultural custodians, continuing to practice their values, languages, beliefs, and knowledge. Drs Kruk, Pal, and Tao pay their respects to Noogar elders – past and present.
“Elevator Pitches” in Job Interviews
Dr Yu Tao: Jess and Felix, welcome again to UWA! It is truly lovely to have you as colleagues. Imagine we are back in the morning or afternoon of your job interview. Can you briefly overview your primary research areas and explain your most important current research project and its significance?
Dr Jess Kruk: I’m interested in exploring questions about language and identity. Most of my research has been focused on studying marginalised and peripheral communities in East and Southeast Asia, with a particular emphasis on Indonesia, which is why I hold a position in Indonesian Studies. Currently, my most significant research revolves around the ethnic Chinese minority in Indonesia. I am in the process of writing a book based on the work I initially developed during my PhD thesis, delving into the intricacies of Chinese-Indonesian identities and what it truly means to be Chinese in Indonesia.
My interest in this research began during my undergraduate studies when I pursued a double major in Chinese language (Mandarin) and Indonesian language (Southeast Asian) Studies. Yes, that’s correct. During that time, I came across information about ethnic Chinese communities in Indonesia and their historical background. This sparked my curiosity and led me to recognise the potential of merging my interests in Chinese Studies and Indonesian Studies. As a result, I embarked on a pilot project during my undergraduate degree, which eventually evolved into an honours project and formed the foundation for my subsequent PhD research.
Dr Felix Pal: My research focuses on far-right studies and South Asian politics. In the past, my research has been quite specific, delving into the far-right movements in India and South Asia. However, I now also examine far-right mobilisations globally. Using qualitative political science methods, I aim to map civil society and far-right networks, primarily in India and the Indian diaspora, as well as in other regions.
Regarding the initial trigger of my research interest, I have been travelling back and forth to India for quite a long time. Initially, I was the stereotypical Australian backpacker, a naive tourist. But as the years passed, I kept returning and forming connections with friends and loved ones there. Many of them would ask me if people in Australia were aware of what was happening in India. And I realised that the rising Hindu nationalist movement, which was not widely known or understood in the Australian popular consciousness, was a topic worth exploring. Around that time, I was beginning my honours degree, so I thought it would be a valuable subject to focus on. From there, everything snowballed. My honours turned into a PhD, which also examined aspects of far-right mobilisation in India. I became embedded in pro-democracy advocacy networks through that journey, leading to an expanded research agenda.
Journeys to the First Ongoing Academic Appointment
Yu: It seems to me that both of your current research can be traced back to your honours projects. Did you know you wanted to be an academic one day while doing your honours thesis?
Jess: For me, no. I was simply interested in doing that small research project. I wanted to learn more about the Chinese community in Indonesia as I discovered their significant historical and political presence. It just grew from there. When you embark on an honours project, you realise there’s much more to uncover. That’s when the idea of pursuing a PhD project emerged. And even after completing the PhD, I realised there was still more work to be done.
Felix: In some ways, the honours and even the PhD were a delaying tactic for me because I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do. I definitely didn’t envision myself becoming an academic while doing honours. But then things started to snowball from there.
Yu: That is fascinating! Can both of you walk us through your academic journey from when you decided to become an academic to your first ongoing appointment?
Felix: Even until the end of my PhD, I wasn’t certain about pursuing an academic career. My research was always focused more on advocacy rather than academia. Only when I started applying for jobs did I realise how much I truly enjoyed this path. During my last year of the PhD, I wasn’t really focused on job applications, or anything related. I was quite oblivious to it all. However, I had a year in the wilderness between my PhD and this appointment. I relied on grants for my advocacy work as well as Centrelink for financial support. While applying for government and community organising roles, academic jobs also came into consideration. In that process, the idea of an academic career became more appealing. Academic jobs naturally became part of the mix, and I realised that I truly had a passion for this field.
Jess: Similarly, I didn’t have a clear intention to pursue an academic career during my PhD. I was focused on conducting research and exploring the topics that intrigued me. Only later, when I began applying for jobs, I recognised my deep interest in academia. The prospect of continuing my research and contributing to the academic community became very appealing.
I don’t think there was a specific moment during my PhD when I decided to pursue an academic career. It was more of a gradual realisation, thanks to my conversations with my supervisors about my future academic prospects. It made me aware that it was a viable path to consider. So, I started thinking about it around the halfway point of my PhD, but I wasn’t actively working towards it in a concrete way. It was only after completing my PhD that I truly embraced the fact that this is what I do now.
Yu: During this journey, how did you actively prepare or make deliberate efforts to look for academic jobs?
Felix: I made preparations for various types of jobs, so pursuing an academic career was just one path I prepared for. One of the “advantages” of not having a full-time job during that year and relying on ad hoc grants was that I had the time to write numerous job applications. I explored what it would be like to work in government and imagined different career trajectories. As a result, I spent a significant amount of time writing applications for academic, as well as non-academic, positions. Fortunately, my advocacy work and academic pursuits overlapped, allowing me to produce writing that was valuable for my academic resume and job applications.
Jess: During the four years between my PhD and my first ongoing academic appointment, I took on short-term academic jobs and temporary contracts for one or two years. One of the “benefits” of that period was that it allowed me to diversify my research interests. I had the opportunity to explore different areas and collaborate with various individuals and universities. It broadened my research horizons in ways I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.
The next part of this conversation is available here.