This is part 3 of a three-part blog post which follows a conversation between Dr Yu Tao, Dr Jess Kruk and Dr Felix Pal’s 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. The second part detailed the challenges they faced in the job market and their coping strategies. This final part reflects on the importance of support networks and pursuing a work-life balance in an academic career.
The Importance of Support Networks
Yu: The journey from PhD to securing an ongoing job can be challenging and sometimes lonely. Did you have any support network, whether academic or personal, to help you through these challenges?
Felix: I relied on an extended social network and set a rule for myself at the beginning of my PhD, which I still follow. I treat it as a job and try not to work past 5:00 PM or on weekends unless absolutely necessary. This boundary has been crucial for my well-being and productivity. It has allowed me to have a healthier work-life balance, and I believe it has improved the quality of my work. I understand that this approach may be a luxury, as I am an early-career researcher with few other responsibilities at the moment. I recognise that circumstances may change in the future.
Having a supportive social network and engaging with a community outside of academia has been invaluable to me. It has provided me with a sense of belonging and a source of meaningful work beyond academia. I also believe that having a well-rounded life outside of my research has been instrumental in navigating the challenges I have faced.
Yu: Jess, correct me if I’m wrong, but your journey coincided with Melbourne’s lengthy COVID lockdown.
Jess: That’s true. Yeah, it wasn’t a great time, to be honest. Well, there’s never really a good time to be an under-employed academic, but that period was particularly challenging. I did rely heavily on my broader social network during that time.
I also had academic mentors who offered invaluable advice. It was good to have someone to check in with, especially considering the toll it takes on one’s mental health to go through numerous job interviews and face rejection. It’s hard not to take it personally. Talking to mentors and reflecting on the reasons for my lack of success was crucial. It prevented me from falling into the trap of thinking I just needed to work harder and harder. It’s easy to go down that path, but unfortunately, it doesn’t lead to a positive outcome. Being able to discuss it with other academics who assured me that I wasn’t doing anything wrong but rather that someone else was chosen for various complex reasons made a significant difference. Without those relationships, I wouldn’t have persisted with the job application process for as long as I did.
Felix: Regarding academic mentors, I found having a mix of senior academics and other early-career researcher mentors incredibly useful. Junior academics, who had more time to dedicate, provided detailed feedback on my applications. On the other hand, senior academics offered a broader perspective. Having this combination was truly beneficial.
Yu: Thanks, both! I also want to mention that many professional associations in different disciplines, including the Asian Studies Association of Australia, have dedicated groups for early-career researchers and PhD students. These groups can be a valuable resource for our early-career colleagues. Additionally, there’s something new called “SHAPE Futures,” a nationwide network for early and middle-career researchers in social sciences, humanities, and creative arts. These resources and networks provide much-needed support and advice during the challenging early stages of a career.
Pursuing a Work-Life Balance: How? And Why?
Yu: How do you maintain a healthy work-life balance while pursuing academic goals? If you have any strategies or habits that help you manage stress and prevent burnout, we’d love to hear them. And if you haven’t been able to achieve a healthy work-life balance, what challenges have you faced?
Jess: I can confidently say that I can maintain a significantly healthier work-life balance now that I have the security of an ongoing job compared to the past four years. Prior to obtaining this job, my work-life balance was not particularly good. I would say it was pretty unhealthy for a while. I remember when I was going through the interview process for a specific job, I was working an absurd number of hours per week. I had almost no personal life outside of work. I kept telling myself that it would be worth it once I got the job, that I would finally have a work-life balance and be able to repair the damage I had done to myself while pursuing the job. However, when I didn’t get the job, as crushing as it was at the time, it made me rethink my approach.
I realised that I had done everything possible to secure the job. I was working as much as humanly possible without completely burning out. And yet, I didn’t achieve the desired outcome. It made me question whether it was worth working 10-hour days, seven days a week, and engaging in unsustainable practices. It didn’t necessarily lead to the success I had anticipated.
Now, having the luxury of an ongoing position, I can prioritise my time in a way I couldn’t before. As a result, I have been able to maintain a much better work-life balance. Setting boundaries around personal time, as Felix mentioned, such as working from 9:00 to 5:00 and not working on weekends, has been enormously beneficial to my overall well-being.
Felix: I believe it’s important to consciously and actively resist the self-narrative that academics often create within our industry. There’s sometimes a tendency to “glorify” our work and make it an integral part of our identity. While I understand the sense of personal investment when we put our names on papers and research, it’s essential to recognise that, fundamentally, it’s just a job. It’s no different from my previous hospitality, retail, or construction jobs. As a matter of principle, I’m not willing to sacrifice my physical or mental health for any job.
I genuinely love my research and teaching, but I clearly distinguish between work and personal life. It means being willing to say no to certain things and explaining those decisions. Fortunately, I established these boundaries early on, perhaps because I was somewhat lazy during my PhD. I may have initially framed it as an industrial relations issue, but I now understand it as a question of health.
Jess: That’s such a good point. The turning point for me was when I started viewing academia as a job rather than the core source of my identity and self-worth. I had to question why I took job rejections so personally. It made me realise that I was investing too much of myself in an academic career rather than recognising it as just one of many possible jobs I might have throughout my life.
Felix: Exactly. Once you recognise that your job isn’t the sole source of meaning in your life, it becomes essential to actively identify what truly matters to you and create space for it. It involves actively seeking out community organising opportunities and cherishing my relationships with family and loved ones. So, it’s about intentionally finding meaning outside of work.
Yu: Thank you, Jess and Felix, for sharing your helpful insights. I wish you all the best in your ongoing academic endeavours!