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The longest lesson to learn

Updated: Oct 22, 2022

Friday marked the last day of a 16-year long journey, that took me from a pathless psychology undergraduate, to a naive research assistant in Singapore, via an internship, and then a PhD in Cambridge, a postdoc in Melbourne, back through Singapore and culminating in consecutive postdocs over six years in Oxford. It ends rather unceremoniously with emptying out the desk I no longer use in the department, and trying to sort through 1000s of emails and transfer 1000s GBs of data before the university revokes all my access.

I still find it difficult to view my career as objectively successful, since I spent most of it stitching one short-term contract to the next, creating a Frankenstein’s monster of administrative tasks, like repeatedly renewing security passes and re-verifying email accounts. From the outside my career seems purposeful and calculated. Educated in “world-class” institutions, experience in labs around the world, a decent output of publications, and enough awards and small grants to make me a desirable postdoc but not a sure-fire fellowship holder. In reality, I always stood at the window of the ivory tower looking out, like a character in Game of Thrones who has witnessed far too much.

I often imagined myself at retirement age after a long, and enviable, academic career, like an old couple in a restaurant who seem outwardly comfortable in relaxed silence, but are inwardly full of regret, disillusionment and resentment. I always had the feeling that I was compromising too much; that I deserved better. But I didn’t know what else was out there. I repeated two mantras for most of my academic career, “I am not motivated by money” and “science is my life”. The mantras justified overworking, sacrifice, suboptimal working conditions, neglected hobbies, friends, holidays and belated life milestones. While my friends got mortgages and went on holidays they chose, not holidays tagged on to major conferences, I justified my “flexible” working and my globetrotting career (paid upfront on my personal credit cards) as a vocation; a life's calling.

A turning point for me was taking part in a personal development course called RisingWise, designed for Oxbridge women in STEM. One of the first exercises was to reflect on our personal values and what brings genuine joy into our lives. For the first time, I clearly saw a large chasm between what I valued and where my academic career fell short. For the first time, I was told about the many other career options open to me. For the first time, I was taught how to value myself; that I don’t need to be ”motivated by money” to expect to be paid adequately for the skills and experience I have amassed. I finally stopped drinking the academic kool aid that keeps highly intelligent and highly trained individuals in a perpetual state of insecurity and self-doubt in service of a giant pyramid scheme that lines the pockets of publishers.

But the final push for me was the realisation that this institution of academia, that I held in such high regard, was guilty of institutionalised racism. Another justification I have repeatedly given myself for tolerating the short-term contracts, the incessant reliance on metrics, the warped incentives, is the illusion that I would be within a network of intelligent, liberal individuals who would share a similar worldview to me. Yet, I overlooked that at virtually every institution I have been in, I have had to devote a significant amount of my time to committees dedicated to diversity and inclusion. Yet, I have rarely seen people who look like me, in senior roles. In my own department, I have seen the consecutive hire of four white males despite hours of voluntary time dedicated to DEI initiatives. I have seen people who have dedicated years of their lives to departments, completely overlooked for promotion. Brilliant people, honestly, jaw-droppingly fantastic people - can you guess what physical characteristics they might share (hint, it's related to the production of melanin). How can I justify this from people who I hold to such high regard?

I spent so long obsessing over my own identity that was so deeply enmeshed in being an academic, I completely overlooked the more shameful side of this identity, that should, honestly, embarrass me. I clung to this identity like a devoted wife to a philandering politician, thinking a stoic smile erased my culpability rather than simply justifying immorality. Now, please don’t mistake this for a broad dismissal or criticism of everyone in academia. I am under no illusion that I will enter an equitable world outside of academia, but at least I won't be gazing down from the hypo-melanin tower.

These posts serve partly as therapy for me, and partly in hopes that the words will resonate with you and help build a community of parents and friends that can support each other. Take a look around the website, and join if you want to see more.

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