In the last three months, I’ve been approached by eight or so (prospective) postgrads around the world who wanted advice on academia and their research projects. I don’t consider myself an expert at academicking, being rather new to the industry and still learning along the way; but having been a recipient of much academic kindness and mentoring myself, I usually always oblige to chat with postgrads via Skype or email. None of them were based at any of the institutions I work at, so I can only guess that they must have found me somewhere on the internet.
Incidentally, they were all young women; this brings me much hope and joy knowing that young academic women are venturing out to explore and secure collegial relationships, resources, and care outside of their institutions in an industry that is otherwise structurally unequal for some bodies and identities over others.
I treasure that these women had the courage to be forefront with me about their vulnerabilities and struggles – student debt, scholarship failure, juggling parenting and other domestic responsibilities and a career, inability to participate in academic events due to national diplomacies, learning to speak and write in English as a second language, disability, and a mixbag of social and cultural handicaps.
Many of these questions were research-based: Who are the key scholars to read in the field? Where are the gaps in our field of work? Would their methodologies work in this setting? What would you want to read about as a scholar in this area? These were questions I felt most equipped to handle and role-modeling after the many mentors I had, I was always happy to share resources and broker introductions. I learnt from personal experience that not all of us have institutional access and support to the highly specialized knowledges we need, and some times despite having good supervision, it is still difficult to discover and access the amorphous networks of resources existing out there some where. I surreptitiously stumbled upon “my” community of scholars via suggestions I received from a mentor at a summer school in the middle of my candidature.
Some of the questions were about the structures of academia: Can a PhD guarantee an academic job? Must I move to the US to get a recognized degree? Is it okay if English is not my first language? These questions were tricky to navigate between my responsibility to prepare newbies for the harsh realities of academia such as job scarcity, and my desire to give them measured hope and encouragement to pursue their goals. These types of advice are also difficult to dispense because every one experiences academia differently depending on our demographic and habitus. Most of the time, I tell newbies to make contingency plans, consider a backup route if they decide academia isn’t for them, and to be farsighted in securing intermittent/casual paid work within and outside of academia.
Still some questions were bewildering and probably reflected the impressions and illusions early postgrads have about academic jobs: One postgrad asked how she can “become popular” in academia and spent more time fussing over her branding collateral than her actual research. Another postgrad said she was presenting at dozens of conferences each year but hadn’t written much of her thesis or published any thing, and wondered why her “high visibility” was not translating to academic credentials such as scholarships. These questions worry me personally especially when postgrads become very specific about things I post on the internet – some one said she noticed a Facebook post of mine garnered X number of likes and a tweet got X number of retweets. My Carrie Bradshaw internal monologue pondered what she thought of me and why she wanted to emulate whatever it was she saw as valuable. I tried to be gentle but direct in emphasizing that for all the socializing and publicizing of research that academics do, the baseline is still actual labour. Behind every tweet promoting a new article is months of writing work based on years of research. Networking skills are important, but they are no substitute for actual hard work.
But for the most part, the questions often revolved around being a woman in academia: Is it true that most academic women end up having to choose between their career and their family? How did you handle fieldwork travels and a relationship? How can I tell some one important that I have familial responsibilities without coming off as being uncommitted in my academic work? These questions are experientially familiar to me, and women academics before me have mentored me through similar conundrums in their personal time. I find these makeshift digital spaces of transient intimacies very precious and important, because of how (marginalized) women can share insider knowledge of coping mechanisms, compensatory strategies, and academic literacies that may seem like a given, a natural instinct, or second nature to the more privileged academics.
I love my work and my job, and like many of you feel a lot of good and bad things about academia. Today I am especially thankful for many of the women mentors I’ve had in my short career thus far, many of whom have gone beyond discursive advice to practice and role-model mentoring and sponsorship in academia – the woman who generously let me bunk with her when I couldn’t afford accommodation for a conference; the woman who offered to buy me lunch when she learnt that I was tightly budgeting my research travels; the woman who secretly sponsored the rego for a few postgrads at an event because she wanted us to be able to attend; the woman who tipsily instructs postgrads and young academics to keep our money and wallets whenever the post-conference karaoke bill arrives; the woman who took time from her crazy schedule to prepare me for an interview; the woman who offered to share her travel nanny with a young scholar who was struggling with her toddler at a symposium; the woman who intervened when mansplainers were being condescending to young postgrads during Q&A; the woman who saw me lost at my first conference and invited me to join her and her postgrads for events the rest of the week; the woman who held my hand and recounted her experiences of grief while lending me her strength; the woman who held up my hair and let me cry on her in the toilet when I was feeling sad; the woman who gives out hugs as encouragement before we give a big talk; the woman who sits down with all young women academics to chat about family planning; the woman who purposefully cites young scholars to amplify their work; mostly the woman I meet in toilets at academic events really.
These one woman are so many women and so many of you. I am so proud to be learning and growing alongside you all. Happy International Women’s Day.