Treading water

Warning: Verbose, rambly post from self-reflexive Anthropologist to follow. Proceed with caution and attempted interest. Ready? Let’s go.

According to the wisdom of the internet, to tread water, one keeps a vertical position, continuously maintains a break over the surface of water, keeps from being submerged, attempts a directional thrust, overcomes inertia, and propels in a specific direction.

My academic career (-to-be) feels very much like treading water right now. There is much awkward underwater paddling, although the face may appear 500% cool and calm and super chill. I spent last week roving through Singapore, catching up with peers pursuing all sorts of postgraduate degrees around the world, reconnecting with former profs/tutors-turned-friends, and meeting new acquaintances in the academy:

Me: “I am actually quite socially awkward.”
Prof: “You look completely comfortable over coffee now.”
Me: “You have no idea.”

And everyone – and I mean everyone – released the same barrage of questions onto my already-haphazard, tired, and anomic thesis brain:

When are you submitting?
What’s next?
Postdoc or proper job?
Research or teaching?
Will you partner travel with you?
WILL YOU LEAVE ACADEMIA TO GO INTO INDUSTRY?

*frown frown* (Although to be honest, I’d very much prefer to engage in these conversations than the usual Singaporean “OMG you are already 26, when are you going to get married? Don’t you know those lady bits have expiry dates?! Make babies NAO.”)

I often answer so blankly and honestly that most people think I jest. But the truth is, I am going to grovel for a postdoc some where in the world. (If you are reading this and possess a job factory and have more of those job things, please give me a job?).

So I’ve been trying to work out what I’d like to chase in my line of work, carefully re-calibrating my over-ambitious dreams with the practicalities that my demographic and resources afford me, and came to three mini-epiphanies. In my career:

1) I want to dream big and not be afraid to fail.
After accumulating bits and bolts of exposure to non-Australian academia, I have grown pretty conscious of my academic distance in terms of status (I’m just a postgrad roaming through professional circles), appearance (I’m a young Asian women who chooses not to ‘power dress’ to up market myself and is thus not always taken seriously), and locale (I’m based in Australia, which is far far away from other nodes of research buzz but we have pretty awesome research clusters yay). While retaining this consciousness, I would also very much like to shed the insecurity, and aim for exciting adventures that may be out of my reach. In the words of Coldplay, if you never try then you’d never know’.

2) I want to enjoy my work and resist falling into the abyss of jaded apathy.
I would rather be in a relatively unknown department where I have some autonomy to conduct the research I gain satisfaction from, than to chase after superstar departments and be stuck with research I feel apathetic towards. I have been very blessed in that the bulk of my academic pursuits have thus far been pleasure-oriented. Simply put, I write/publish/present/teach because I genuinely enjoy it, and that adrenaline and euphoria alone is motivation enough  to keep me going for now? (I don’t know; if you are a seasoned academic, please share life hacks). On a related note, please don’t make me do quantitative SPSS things all over again; I will cry.

3) I want to remain intimate and honest in my lifespan.
I sincerely think I am intimately honest in most academic settings. For instance, I find it uncomfortable to pretend to *know* things with enthusiastic head nods, ambiguous-intellectual questions, or celebrity academic name-dropping if I *truly* have no idea what’s going on – not that every one engages in this, but I know some of us do because they are basic ‘life skills’. I am more likely to politely tell you I *really* have zero knowledge and competence in this area, although this often causes me to be perceived as ‘aloof’, ‘funny’, or ‘cute’ (see point 1 on appearance above). At the same time, I realize I need to be learning the smarts of the industry, say, present myself ‘professionally’, for example. And you know, the job talk buzzwords like ‘networking’, ‘socializing your research’, ‘social media management’, ‘coffee talk persona’, etc. So here’s to navigating the ropes and rules and rigor of academia while attempting to remain rooted to the principles that are important to me (alliteration bingo for 5 R-words in a sentence).

According to the wisdom of the internet, to tread water, one keeps a vertical position, continuously maintains a break over the surface of water, keeps from being submerged, attempts a directional thrust, overcomes inertia, and propels in a specific direction. There is much awkward underwater paddling, although the face may appear 500% cool and calm and super chill. But hey, here’s me admitting that I’m just trying to figure out the industry one paddle at a time.

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