One research whisperer’s career so far (Tseen Khoo)
26 April 2016 10 Comments
Last year, the indefatigable Angela Dobele interviewed me for her Women and Research newsletter (Issue 2, 2015, pp. 7-8). The interview, with some minor updates, appears below. You can find the original version, and previous newsletter issues, at Angela’s website under “Networking Business Education”. Many thanks to Angela for allowing me to share my interview here!
I wanted to share it on Research Whisperer because, of late, I’ve listened to several academics on panels talking about their research trajectories. These participants – whether they’re established professors, Mid, or Early Career Researchers – are almost always apologetic about the fact that they haven’t had a straightforward progression through an academic career. Very few scholars I know HAVE had what they think of as a straightforward trajectory.
For me, when looking at how others have travelled and the experience they bring, I find it more meaningful to consider what people have managed to create or invest their time in, rather than a clinical view of what jobs they’ve held. But before I wander too far off on that topic, here’s my 2015 interview with Angela:
1) What is the best piece of advice you have received so far and why?
The best piece of research advice I’ve ever received (and try really hard to follow) is ‘Done is better than perfect’.
Perfectionism is a procrastinating behaviour and, in many cases, an excuse not to follow through on the risk of submitting that journal paper, or grant application, or conference abstract.
If you never feel it’s just perfect, then you can’t hand it over, so never completing anything is a sign of what a quality scholar you are, right? So wrong!
Especially these days when building that intellectual track record is even more essential to moving onto larger stages for projects and promotions.
The advice is also useful because it makes you think about what it is you’re trying to do with your work. If you want your academic work to be a part of a broader disciplinary or public debate, then it needs to be out there and in the conversation, not gathering dust on your overcrowded desk!
2) What was the most important lesson you have learned in your academic career?
It took a long time, and I still have lapses, but I think the most important lesson I’ve learned would be that you should never compare your career with others. Everyone chooses different ways through their work lives, and it’s unconstructive – often destructive – to benchmark yourself against your colleagues’ careers. I’m not talking here about getting a feel for what an average track-record might be and aiming to hit that mark. I’m talking about the ‘I did my PhD with that person! They’re a full Prof now – where did I go wrong…?’ dynamic. Usually, this just leads to a spiral of negativity.
I’d say linear paths are still held up as the most desirable, though academic career paths are often varied, and rarely as straightforward as we’re encouraged to believe. I had viewed my migration into and out of academia over the years as a weakness, something that I need to make up for, but I’m realising that it actually makes me better and stronger in my current role overall.
It also gives me a much better, broader understanding of universities and how they work, one that’s far beyond what a focus only on the academic or professional side would have offered. I made many of my career choices with my family in mind, and I have no doubt it has had significant, long-term effects (mostly negative, given the academic attitudes we live with). I wouldn’t change the choices I’ve made, but I’d very much like to change the culture of our workplaces where having a life appears to interfere with career progression.
3) How do you manage your time?
I always plan with time buffers in place, allowing more time than I think things will take, and I’ve tried to train myself to take my own deadlines seriously. This includes making myself more accountable.
These buffers of time are what save you at major crunch-times around grant applications, manuscript hand-overs, and presentations. It’s the difference between just buckling down for an extra day or two (during average work times) and having to pull all-nighters in the lead-up to the deadline. Missing real deadlines (e.g. for a funding body) has effects that are beyond just me, too, and I’m all too aware of the other support people who get dragged along with you should you be late or don’t submit. There’s also a fair amount of re-training that had to take place for me because academics seem to pride themselves on working stupid hours. We all know that you can’t do good work (especially thinking work) when slogging away 24/7, yet that’s the day-to-day working model for many. I was a research-only fellow for many years and that totally spoilt me – I had the luxury of focusing on my research all the time.
These days, a big part of my time management planning is getting better at saying ‘no’. It’s a constant challenge, especially if fabulous chances to work with people I admire come up, but I’m quite good at it now. I know that Future Tseen will definitely thank me.
4) How do you manage stress?
Sometimes badly! But I’ve become better at managing stress over time because of several elements:
- Having more experience with different kinds of deadlines and being able to judge time commitments better;
- Quickly deciding whether I’m channeling the stress constructively (towards action and momentum – so, keep it up for a bit longer) or not (towards a generalised worry but no direct action – so, stop it);
- (I hate to say this, but it’s true!) Feeling able to wing it with more confidence and integrity than when I was an early career researcher.
Overall, then, I try to invite less stress into my life. When I do start feeling under pressure, the first thing I do is set aside time – no matter how short – to prioritise what I’m doing and ensure that I start carving it up into feasible chunks of work. That’s my way of de-stressing a whole load of tasks and deadlines.
When all else fails, I retreat to watch cheesy movies, especially creature features. My whole family loves horror and science fiction films, and when you have a horror science fiction film, well…! They work well to destress me every time. You can’t stay that stressed about your own work when plucky villagers are fighting off spectacular tentacular aliens (Grabbers, 2012).
5) What do you consider your career highlights?
One of the wins I’ve had in my research life was being awarded the Monash University Research Fellowship (2004-2010). It was a research-only, 5-year full-time fellowship with generous project funding each year – it was a Holy Grail achievement for me at the time. I look back on it now and get nostalgic. It was at a time before I realised how naïve I was to think that I could construct a career in the humanities as a research-only academic!
I did so much during my fellowship on the research front, as well as settling into a new city, having two children, and feeling very much like I’d reached the next level of building an academic career. There have been many highlights on various fronts since that time, of course, but as far as research highlights go, I’d say the Monash fellowship and securing an ARC Discovery with my colleagues would be at the top of the list.
6) What do you consider your research career ‘lowlight’, and how did you overcome it?
I’d say my research career ‘lowlight’ was realising that I was losing touch with my scholarly field, and no longer an academic contributing new knowledge to the area. It happened while I was at RMIT as a research grant developer (I was in a professional, non-academic role with the College of Business for just over three years) and, though I loved the job and had a heap of fun doing it, I really, really missed doing research and collaborating with academic colleagues on projects. I wrote an honest post about it on Research Whisperer – Lost and found – and it wasn’t long after that that I decided to try and get back to the academic side of the fence.
The irony of all this is that I managed to secure an ongoing academic job, and get back into a space where I could have some focus on research, on the strength of my blended research / networking / coaching / mentoring skills rather than a stellar publication track record in a cognate field. So, I hesitate to call it a ‘lowlight’ as such – just a time when my researcher identity felt seriously under threat.