This is part 2 of a three-part blog post which follows a conversation between Dr Yu Tao, Dr Jess Kruk and Dr Felix Pals on navigating a pathway to a first ongoing academic appointment in Asian Studies. The first part introduced Dr Kruk’s and Dr Pal’s field of work and the paths to their current academic positions. This 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.
Challenges to Humanities and Social Sciences Early-career Researchers on the Academic Job Market
Yu: I think because both of you are incredibly kind and that you found ongoing jobs in the end, you can appreciate how you “benefited” from the peculiar employment you had before getting your current job. I understand the journey from PhD to the first ongoing appointment is not always smooth and can incur a lot of challenges and obstacles. Can you discuss some specific incidents or obstacles you had to overcome during this journey? How have some challenges impacted your professional and personal growth?
Jess: As much as I look back now and see those temporary contracts as opportunities, I didn’t view them that way at the time. In hindsight, I realise that during that period, it was – for lack of a better word – exploitative. Although I was fortunate to have short-term contracts and work in academia, it meant I had limited time for research. My research was entirely self-funded, and I couldn’t produce the same amount of research as many of my competitors for job positions. While I don’t regret that time and acknowledge the valuable things I learned, the heavy teaching load left little time for research.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with various people on different projects and to gain teaching experience during those four years. However, it also presented difficulties in the job market. I went through approximately 10 to 15 job interviews, particularly in the last two years. It felt like a constant battle where I would apply for linguistics positions and be told that I lacked sufficient research or that my focus on Asian Studies made me less suitable for linguistics positions. The same happened in reverse for Asian Studies positions, where my teaching experience in linguistics was seen as too much. It became a significant challenge.
At one point, I had almost given up on the idea of getting an academic job. I had mentally prepared myself to explore other options. I decided to give it one last shot and attended this job interview, thinking I would pursue a different path if I didn’t get it. To my surprise, I was offered this position.
Felix: The number one challenge for me was financial precarity and the inability to make long-term plans. It not only posed material difficulties but also had a significant impact on mental health. The constant cycle of casual academic teaching positions I held meant that I couldn’t accept other full-time jobs if they were offered to me. I had to prioritise these teaching gigs to gain teaching experience for academia, which prevented me from pursuing other career paths, such as a government job I had applied for.
Another difficulty I faced was being tied to Western Australia for family and personal reasons, which limited my options. There was a perception that if I were willing to relocate, there would be more job opportunities available. The job market in Western Australia was highly competitive, and I felt there were limited prospects.
When this current job opportunity came up, it felt like my last chance within academia. I didn’t anticipate many politics-related positions emerging in the academic job market in the foreseeable future. Similar to Jess, if I hadn’t secured this position, I would have needed to pivot into another field.
Yu: Yes, the challenges of limited ongoing job opportunities in certain locations not only create difficulties in finding employment but also introduce inequalities for those who cannot easily move due to various circumstances such as family obligations or life stages. This can put early-career researchers who are already vulnerable and juggling multiple responsibilities at a disadvantage in the competitive job market. I think it’s crucial to investigate these dynamics further and provide appropriate institutional support for those in need.
Coping with the Challenges Before the First Ongoing Academic Appointment: Strategies, Lessons, Reflections
Yu: You both discussed the nature of short-term jobs, some involving teaching and others not aligning with your long-term research agenda. Could you elaborate on how you managed to make the best – or the most – of these short-term jobs?
Let’s start with research. Jess, did you find it challenging to balance your own research agenda and the expectations of the projects you worked on as a research associate or assistant?
Jess: I worked on various research projects but wasn’t officially paid or in a research-supported position for most of the four years between my PhD and the first ongoing appointment. The only exception was that I once worked as a research assistant for six months, but it wasn’t a continuous research position.
The projects I worked on were tangentially relevant to my broader skill set and areas of expertise. For example, I conducted research relevant to marginalised groups, such as deaf communities in Australia. In addition, some projects drew on my specialisation in discourse analysis. However, while they were related in terms of my skills, they didn’t align with my specific research interests or personal research agenda. So my motivation for participating in those projects was primarily financial, as I needed to support myself.
Regarding benefits beyond financial payment, I received some writing credits for my contributions to certain projects. This ethical arrangement from my employers allowed me to collaborate on articles and publications, contributing to my publication record. This was particularly important as I faced the challenge of generating a competitive publication record that selection committees would recognise.
Felix: Due to the external income source from advocacy grants, I had the luxury of being more selective in the research projects I worked on as a research assistant. I focused primarily on one or two projects that closely aligned with my own research. This allowed me to explore my research field more deeply in a diaspora context. It significantly influenced and expanded my research agenda. I recognise that this may not be the typical experience, as it provided me with the opportunity to directly connect the research I was doing without an ongoing academic job to the research I continue to pursue in my current position.
Yu: Thanks, both! Now we turn to teaching.
Teaching has become increasingly important in the ongoing job market and plays a significant role during job interviews. While research publications are crucial for shortlisting candidates, teaching abilities and experience often become more relevant during the interview stage. As candidates are assumed to meet the basic criteria, their teaching skills and experience can make a difference in the final selection.
Teaching duties may have been necessary for financial reasons during your journey from your PhD to your first job. However, I’m curious to know if you could also otherwise benefit from these teaching opportunities. Felix, I understand you deliberately pursued teaching opportunities in the journey to your ongoing appointment, sometimes at the expense of other job opportunities. Could you share more of your insights?
Felix: During the COVID pandemic, a unique opportunity worked in my favour. The university I was at faced financial pressures and relied on PhD students to take on additional responsibilities. As a result, I found myself serving as the convener, lecturer, and tutor for a large overseas program. This was an opportunity that I would not have had in normal circumstances.
Teaching experience became crucial during job interviews, as it allowed me to point to the responsibilities I had taken on. However, I realised that the experience felt more like a box-ticking exercise than a pedagogical opportunity. There was little emphasis on learning about pedagogy or teaching methodologies. Honestly, the pressure in my head focused solely on gaining teaching experience to fulfil that requirement. Looking back, I acknowledge that my mindset was driven by the need to tick that box and meet the job market expectations. While this reflection may not be flattering, it accurately represents how I approached teaching during that time.
Jess: I think Felix is right in saying that teaching can often be seen as a tick-box experience. I received messaging from various universities that they primarily value teaching experience regarding job interviews. However, based on my own experience, I’m not entirely sure to what extent that experience is valued on the same level as research.
I had a lot of teaching experience, and it seemed that the effort I put into teaching wasn’t always recognised or valued. Most of my positions prior to my current one were teaching-only roles, so I dedicated a significant amount of time to creating engaging and valuable learning experiences for students. I innovated units, developed teaching materials, and explored new content delivery methods. While I don’t regret the effort I put into teaching, I felt that universities, especially since I was on temporary contracts, were not necessarily concerned with the quality of teaching I delivered but rather that it wasn’t subpar.
Yu: I see two challenges here. One is the conventional perceptions that academics and academic managers have of early-career researchers, valuing research more than teaching. But there is also a challenge for them and us: how to recognise teaching activities beyond the minimum or conventional expectations. Teaching awards are not always easy to win, and it’s even more difficult for non-ongoing positions to get nominated and curate a teaching portfolio. So we should continue to reflect on these issues on both individual and institutional levels.
The final part of this conversation is available here.