An academic rollercoaster  


Throughout the year, I’ve written at length about my personal experiences of the ups and downs of academia.

I’ve discussed feeling like I’ve been stuck in a negative rut, feeling lonely and isolated, and my disappointment with our collective response to the lack of diversity in academia. On the other hand, I’ve also talked about my enjoyment of learning new grant writing skills, of becoming better at accepting feedback and the satisfaction of working with inspirational younger and older colleagues.

This mix of ups and downs seems about right. Many years ago, I began my PhD expecting it to be a tough slog. Like many students, my trepidation was misplaced. It turns out a PhD wasn’t the intellectual feat I had expected, and it certainly wasn’t one characterised by a few draining months, followed by an extended period of rewarding work. Rather, it was rapid cycling between unbridled excitement and then despair, all occurring on daily timescales. Sometimes I felt as though no single day was simply ok, but everything was either fantastic or awful. It was draining!

With just a few weeks left of the year before Australian universities shutdown for summer holidays, I’ve been reflecting on a challenging year. I’ve spent a fair chunk of the year questioning my place in academia. While this has been largely an uncomfortable experience, it has been useful and I now I feel like I’m ending the academic year positive and excited for the future.

I was recently awarded an ARC DECRA award, which will allow me to pursue my own research agenda for three years. It is an exciting opportunity and vote of confidence by the community in my potential. It’s also the result of hard work, good luck and a sizeable investment of time and care from my generous colleagues. It’s thrilling to think of coming back in the New Year and getting stuck into a different research direction. I’m very grateful for this opportunity.

I’ve also come to feel that this extended period of questioning aspects of the industry and my skills and aspirations has strengthened my commitment to science and to academia more broadly. I started the year feeling as though such hesitations were atypical and should not be openly discussed. I also felt hesitant to discuss which aspects of work I found most difficult and which most interesting. I had thought this was an irreconcilable point of difference with my fellow academics that should be hidden away. I’m now seeing this in a much more positive light. Having different skills and interests is surely a good thing?

The many words of support I received, including through comments on this blog or through private emails, suggest that such questioning of our work and work practices is indeed commonplace. These also suggest that this is an ongoing process. It seems that many people who are energised and engaged with work are never truly comfortable with all aspects of it and regularly question what they are doing and where they are heading. There is no end point to our search for a more meaningful connection with work, just evolving lines of thought.

There are many positive events and experiences that I can pick out from the year, including building new collaborations, seeing my PhD students excel and learning new skills. One of the clearest positive experiences has been the continued support and care of, and trust in, me that has been offered by my senior colleagues.

It has been affirming to have so many inspirational scientist and university leaders express a genuine desire to help me achieve my own goals, regardless of where these goals are situated. I have had casual acquaintances freely offer time, advice and contacts. I have also had long-term mentors and supervisors step back and listen to my goals and extend great confidence in me. It has been appreciated and humbling.

I’ve blogged a lot this year about the challenges of being an early career research, and particularly about being a ‘young’ woman in a highly male dominated field. These are honest and genuine feelings about my experiences that I feel should be discussed and must not avoided because of the discomfort they cause.

Nonetheless, it’s easy to look back and string together negative experiences without reflecting on the positive, or the positives that emerge from such challenges. At this point, the year coming to a close was equally imbued with ups as with downs. I’m glad the year is now coming to the point where I sit down and write out a strategic plan for the following year. But I’m also excited about what positive experiences and opportunities are likely to lie within that plan.

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