By Freya Grace MacDonald, SEI Doctoral Fellow, Department of English
Sydney Environment Institute’s (SEI) pathways to employment in academia workshop focused on providing Higher Degree Research students (HDRs) and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) with key recommendations on how we can position ourselves competitively when applying for academic roles and fellowships within the field of multidisciplinary environmental research.
Chaired by Associate Professor Thom van Dooren, the workshop took shape through an interactive panel discussion between SEI members and University of Sydney Academics: Professor Anik Waldow (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences), Dr Rachel Killean (Sydney Law School), and Dr Aaron Opdyke (Faculty of Engineering). During the workshop, the panellists took questions from the HDRs and ECRs in attendance, reflected on their career journeys, and shared their insights on how to be successful researchers.
What quickly cohered, as the panellists, all of whom have themselves been involved in the hiring process, reflected on their respective career pathways in academia, and began to offer their advice and recommendations, was the succinct formula for career success in academia: attract funding (a scholarship or a grant), publish (in journals and at the right time), attend conferences (show up actively and be collegial), network locally and internationally (resist flying too much/ don’t fly at all), and get teaching experience (but not so much that it takes you away from your research).
While the workshop captured and reflected a multiplicity of approaches to career success in academia and acknowledged that there is of course no singular correct employment pathway, it also affirmed that you really need to follow the formula if you want to be considered for an academic role.
The workshop reminded me that the support you have while figuring out how to personally navigate the formula for career success in academia is critical. And this support emanates from being able to access and engage in mentorship and having the time and resources to build a sense of community among your peers.
It was this element of the workshop that prompted me to reflect on the importance of questioning how, why, and who the formula works for, and if, in a time of sustained environmental emergency, and shifting academic work environments in Australian Universities, it still holds up. The formula is a good guide to tether yourself to, but it ultimately obscures and erases the reality of personal difference, capacity, and the day-to-day pressure of navigating academic workplaces while becoming a good researcher and staying healthy.
I do know that it’s critical to figure out how to best navigate the formula early on. Getting the balance right is key. Putting too much pressure and focus on networking can derail writing or lead to burn out. But getting the balance right is becoming increasingly challenging, particularly for HDR students. As arose during question time, there are key challenges HDRs and ECRs are currently contending with, such as cost of living pressures, adjusting to and re-emerging from remote work in the wake of COVID-19 lock downs, and Sydney's housing affordability crisis, which is affecting students’ ability to secure affordable accommodation and access to the University of Sydney campus.
Mentorship and community were the two take aways that emerged at the workshop. As Anik, Rachel, Aaron and Thom all vocalised, mentorship and a sense of community among their peers and colleagues have been vital throughout their careers. Thom spoke about how sometimes the best mentors are those who are a couple of years, or one step ahead of you in their career journeys as they have fresh experience and knowledge of what you’re going through, and probably have the most up to date and informed advice.
Aaron noted the importance of staying research active when you finish your PhD, and highlighted that having networks and mentors helps you maintain momentum after completing your doctorate. The panel also focused on the importance of knowing and immersing in the institution you are in and highlighted that networking among HDR students is helpful and important, as navigating the internal systems, and attending events together, fosters community. And for those both on and away from campus, Aaron reminded us that your mentors don’t always have to be in academia themselves.
Rachel discussed the strength and importance of mentorship between honours, MA, and PhD students. And Thom highlighted how SEI’s Postgraduate Network, coordinated by SEI Doctoral Fellow Myles Oakley, has been a catalyst for networking and mentoring among postgraduate students at SEI this year. As the network has expanded, it has become a site for postgraduate students at SEI to meet one another, explore research synergies, and develop formal and informal networks and support systems.
The workshop reminded me that the support you have while figuring out how to personally navigate the formula for career success in academia is critical. And this support emanates from being able to access and engage in mentorship and having the time and resources to build a sense of community among your peers. Both mentorship and community are extremely important now, not only for career success, but for grounded and impactful multidisciplinary environmental research.
Header image: The Quadrangle via the University of Sydney.