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 Professor Michele Ford. Professor Ford is a Professor of Southeast Asian Studies and the Director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre on Gadigal land at the University of Sydney.
How did you become interested in studying Asia?
I became interested in studying Asia by accident. I grew up in regional Queensland, and my big rebellion (!!) as a 17-year-old was not to study medicine or law. Instead, I decided to enrol in a combined degree in Engineering and Arts. This led me to UNSW, the only university in Australia offering that combination in the late 1980s.
Coming to UNSW, and to the city of Sydney, was pivotal to my development as an Asian Studies academic. In my first year, I met some Indonesian students and through them got involved in the Indonesian community in Sydney. The other part of the puzzle was totally unrelated. I was meant to go travelling in Europe in the summer of 1990-1. The trip fell through and I didn’t want to just do what I always did and work the whole summer. I happened to be reading the campus newspaper (something I almost never did) and saw an advertisement for an Indonesian language intensive. I took it and I was hooked.
After finishing my degree, I got an Australian Vice Chancellors’ Committee Scholarship, which funded two years in Indonesia. After that I did Honours at the ANU. Things were a bit chaotic in the Faculty of Asian Studies that year, and none of the academics were working on the things that interested me. So after Honours I did a graduate diploma of education and took up a teaching post in North Queensland. We lived at Mission Beach, which meant I drove to work through the rainforest. It was a great job, and I was very happy there. Then one day, I got a call out of the blue from Adrian Vickers, who was then at Wollongong, offering me a PhD scholarship. The rest, as they say, is history.
What was your first academic job and how did your career progress from there?
My first academic job was teaching Indonesian at the University of Southern Queensland while doing my PhD. I was offered a two-year postdoctoral position at the University of Wollongong in early 2003. I wanted to stay in Toowoomba, so I negotiated to do both roles half-time. I graduated at the end of that year and took up a continuing position at Flinders University in January 2004. Lenore Lyons and I got an ARC grant at the end of that year, so things started pretty well on the research front. Then a job was advertised at the University of Sydney. It was a risky move – Flinders had five Indonesia specialists, and Sydney had just tried to close its Indonesian Studies program. But I like a challenge, so I applied.
I ran the Department of Indonesian Studies from 2006 until 2012. At first it was just me and a couple of tutors. Then Adrian Vickers and Novi Djenar joined the department. In 2011-2, I was given the opportunity to do the groundwork for the establishment of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre (SSEAC), a university-wide multidisciplinary initiative. In 2012, I was awarded a Future Fellowship and offered the SSEAC Directorship. The Provost convinced me that I could do both. I am now in my 11th year as SSEAC Director. It has been an amazing experience, but I am ready to head back to the faculty.
What is the focus of your academic teaching and research now?
I haven’t taught for about a decade – I’m looking forward to resuming teaching in 2025 after my sabbatical next year. My research is still on labour relations, but my focus has broadened beyond Indonesia to include Cambodia and Myanmar. The main question I’m interested in is how the international labour movement engages with local labour movements in Southeast Asia. My last two books were on trade union responses to migrant labour in East and Southeast Asia and (with Teri Caraway) on Indonesian unions’ engagement in electoral politics. Currently I am working on three ARC-funded projects. The topics of these are global production networks and worker representation in Myanmar; union responses to gender-based violence in Cambodia’s construction sector; and employment relations in Indonesia’s commercial fishing industry.
What has been one career highlight?
Running SSEAC has definitely been a career highlight. I love building things, and I’ve been fortunate to work with the most amazing team. I feel like we’ve managed to make a real difference in and beyond the university. We’ve done some big things, like filling the Opera House for an event with Aung San Suu Kyi and hosting over 1,000 people at the 2018 ASAA conference. But the things I have most loved are bringing Southeast Asianists from across Australia together and helping early career academics build their careers.
What is the best part about your job as an academic with expertise on Asia?
I love the ability to follow my passions, which are many, and to combine academic and outreach work. For example, I was heavily involved in Inside Indonesia for many years. I also do a lot of work with the international labour movement, which gives me an opportunity to give back.
What piece of advice would you give to your students keen to build a career as an academic in Asian studies?
Optimism and resilience are the key attributes I think if you want to build an academic career. I think it’s helpful to go and do something else before doing a PhD. Once you’re in one, it’s really important to publish (and publish well) during your candidacy. But it’s not just enough to be a great researcher. It’s also necessary to demonstrate that you can teach and do administration as well. And then there’s the question of what you’d be like as a colleague. Personally, when I’m hiring, I look for people who demonstrate initiative, commitment and academic generosity, and who are not just interested in furthering their own careers. I encourage my students to build their academic community and take every opportunity to gain skills and experience. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that they’ll make it in academia – but it certainly gives them a way better chance!