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Transitioning Fields: Turning and facing the strange of a new academic specialization by Christopher Hill
January 11, 2017


Dr Christopher Hill is a creative writer, who works in the field of academic writing as both a teacher and researcher. Originally from New Zealand, he has spent over a decade living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. Chris has a passion for the histories and cultures of the Asia-Pacific region, which form the inspiration for his writing in the form of essays and a novel that is currently in progress. He currently works as a lecturer at the Communication and Language Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where his research focuses on pedagogical strategies for the teaching of writing. He is currently focused on developing a study investigating the transfer of learning from writing courses to students’ specific disciplines. This is the second of four blog posts he will write for the series. His twitter handle is @chrishillnz.

You dedicate 3+ years of your life to graduate studies that promised to make you an expert on something. But what happens at the end when you can’t get a job, or you don’t care anymore, or you feel like a change? The question of what to do next, can be a little scary.

Last week, I wrote about transitioning countries, and in this article I explore some of the reasons behind why you might change or develop a new academic specialization and a few strategies that have helped me make the transition from one specialization to another – because, yes as crazy as it sounds, I did change countries and fields at the same time.

There is an antiquated culture in many university departments around the world that believes if you can’t make it in your specialization you are a failure. There is also a huge amount of pressure on PhD graduates to transform into tiny little diamonds of expertise. There is a logic behind this model, we can’t be experts in everything. In the past, if a graduate didn’t make the cut he or she was discarded. There was no discussion of alternative careers or of new possibilities, you were deemed a failure and that was that.

However, there are now communities of PhD graduates, researchers, and professors who are reinventing themselves in new ways. The term “recovering academic” has been a prominent one over recent years. The twitter hashtags #postac and #altac feature inspiring stories of academics that have found new paths.

For those not quite ready to walk the plank and take a dive into the unknown, academia offers opportunities beyond the specialization you trained for. This is because academia is changing; the new technological landscape of education and research is evolving new roles and possibilities. Among these are new interdisciplinary fields. You may not be able to switch from psychology to biology without further training but as a psychologist you might be able to work with a biologist on an interesting project that braids the two disciplines together.

There is also the prospect of developing a second stream of research or moving into a related field as I have recently done. Like many PhD graduates I had a tough time after I finished my degree. My family had just survived my studies, and so, I wasn’t about to drag them through more lean years as a post doc. I needed a job. This required an honest assessment of my career prospects.

I think it’s fair to say that I am an extraordinary academic, but not in the way that you might think. If you were to pass my CV to your supervisor, or a colleague they would probably shake their head and mutter, “There’s a cautionary tale, whatever you do, don’t be that guy.”

That’s because I never intended to be an academic, so I didn’t exactly plan my career. Over the last twelve years I have earned degrees in philosophy, communication studies and literature and have worked in a variety of institutions teaching a kaleidoscope of humanities subjects from creative writing to business English. My CV embodies the chaotic lights and noise of a Hong Kong night market in full swing.

During my PhD studies I dreamed of being a literary theorist. But after one year and 50 odd job applications I knew that this wasn’t going to happen. Not only was my CV a mix-and-match collage, but I wasn’t exactly setting the world alight with trailblazing research. Universities wanted focused academics, with degrees from prominent universities and a small ton of journal articles. I felt frustrated and a failure.

The ‘a-ha;’ moment came after many months when I started thinking about myself and my CV differently. After all, Hong Kong night markets are wonders to behold. I thought about how my ridiculously eclectic CV might be relevant to jobs in academia beyond literature. Often we think we have attained expertise in a subject and ignore all the valuable skills that we learn completing a PhD such as research, computer and communication skills along with project management to name a few. These skills are valuable and can help you move into administrative or consulting roles and new areas of research and teaching.

To guide me in a new direction and reimagine my career, I spoke with senior colleagues, my supervisor, friends and family. They pointed out that because of my experience I knew a lot about writing styles in different disciplines and genres and could teach a variety of different kinds of students. They also pointed out that Academic English was in high demand among universities, especially in Asia – my adopted home. I had worked for a couple of years at an editorial assistant at an Academic English journal so I had some ideas about this field even though the applied linguistics research it involved was very different to literary theory.

It was clear that I wouldn’t get a research track job in this new discipline. Research track was a dream installed in me since my first days of graduate school. It was and remains hard, but I had to let this dream go at least for a while. I set my sights on academic English lecturing jobs. I interviewed for a few and accepted a job at a good university. Although my new role was primarily concerned with lecturing I was also expected to do research, so the door was still open.

Six months later and I am on my way to developing a second stream of research. I am still writing up articles from my PhD, but I have also just finished my first grant application for an Academic English research project. I won’t pretend it’s been easy, teaching is one thing, but there is a steep learning curve to the research. I am embracing it anyway, jumping in the deep end and have been surprised by how much overlap there is between my existing skills and knowledge and the new field I am working in.

Nobody said it would be easy, but in the words of the philosopher Bowie, “turn and face the strange.” Consider all the things that are “wrong” about your skills and experience and see how they might be right for other specializations and opportunities.

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