141 Letter from Lisa Ruhanen
Dear Future Tourism Researchers,
I feel very honoured to have been invited to write a letter to you, the future generation of women tourism researchers, in what is my 20th year in academia. Like a typical academic, I have procrastinated over this task for months and as the deadline looms, I finally carved a day out of the office and away from the barrage of emails and meetings, to reflect on my career story and share some of the lessons that I have learnt along the way.
So, a bit about me. First and foremost, I am a Mum to Patrick (13), Emily (9) and Claire (5). When I am not in “mum mode”, I am a Professor in Tourism in the University of Queensland’s Business School, located in my hometown of Brisbane, Australia. My career story is a little unusual (I would say not that exciting) in that I have spent my whole academic career at the University of Queensland. I began as a Research Assistant in 2001 and 20 years later in 2021, still here but now a full Professor and Director of Teaching and Learning and member of the Senior Leadership Team for the UQ Business School. So, what to share from the journey so far…? If I reflect on a few key themes that have been personally important to me:
There really is no such thing as work/life balance but you can give it a go anyway. I know it sounds like a cliché, but while my career is important to me, it is not as important as the happiness and well-being of my family. My friends have always said that they thought I was so driven, so strategic, working late into the night so that I could get ahead in my career. Yes, there was many a time that I did an all-nighter to get a publication or project finished (and I still do at times). But it wasn’t because I was desperate for the next promotion. It was because I wanted to pick my kids up from school, take them to their rugby training or ballet class, be there to do their homework with them, or spend the school holidays at the beach. I feel fortunate to be in academia where I have the flexibility to do such things as many working mothers don’t have the same sort of work/life freedom. Would I recommend this to a future academic though? Well, on the plus side my career progressed, and I was promoted to Professor the year I turned 40. On the other hand, sleep deprivation is used as a torture device for a reason! I have more wrinkles under the eyes than I would like, and my personal hobbies are non-existent. However, only you can decide what is best for you, your family, and your career. Hopefully, you can find a better “balance” than I did.
Work with good people, not just people who are good academics. Academics are high achievers by nature and our benchmarking systems can lead to a competitive and toxic culture in our workplaces. In the last 20 years, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of academia. However, I was very fortunate and will always be extremely grateful to Professor Chris Cooper (former Head of School of Tourism at the University of Queensland) who opened the door to academia by offering me a Research Assistant position with him at UQ. At a time when many senior academics took full credit for the work of their Research Assistants, Chris never did. Instead, he was nothing but collegial and supportive by including me on publications that I contributed to, providing opportunities to teach, undertake further study, attend conferences, and setting up a secondment for me at UNWTO in Madrid, Spain. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Chris for several years, but not everyone was as fortunate as me. As I moved through the early stages of my career post-PhD, I saw that while there were good academics, the “support” they espoused came with a lot of caveats (usually doing the work for them that they could take the credit for). So, my advice on this one is to trust your instincts. Having an awkward conversation to decline an invitation to collaborate will be a lot easier in the long run than working with someone who isn’t genuinely supportive of you and your career. When you are then in a position in your career that you can give back and support others, do so. I aim to be a good academic but also a good colleague by being the number one champion and supporter of the PhD students and Research Assistants that work with me.
If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Well, I’m not sure about that, but that’s how the saying goes anyway. As academics and researchers, we work hard but we are usually rewarded well for that work. Yes, there are plenty of things we don’t love in our jobs: university bureaucracy, marking student assignments, sitting on committees, and so on. But if we are able to complain about such things, then that probably means we are fortunate to have some sort of academic role within an institution at a time when many in the world have lost their jobs, businesses and incomes. Our reward is hopefully more than financial, and that we are fortunate to be working in an area that we are genuinely passionate about. We often tell PhD students to pick a topic that they can live and breathe for at least three years, and as academics we need to remember that too. As an early career academic, I was often steered towards projects that were not my passion and I know many of my friends and colleagues have felt the same pressure to find a research area that can attract grant funding and generate high quality publications. While that might be good for your CV, it’s unlikely to be particularly rewarding personally. I ended up researching in an area which isn’t mainstream, doesn’t attract mountains of grant funding, but I don’t really care as I love it. My research areas are my genuine passion and usually make up for all of the long, boring committee meetings that I have to attend these days.
Be strategic. I attended a women’s career development program as a senior lecturer and received a great piece of advice from one of the presenters: never say yes immediately when asked to do something, go away, and think about it first. As academics there are many tasks competing for our time, and we have to be strategic about what we agree to do. However, we also need to be a good citizen within our Schools and Faculties but also to the broader tourism research community. So, say yes to the committee, say yes to the journal reviewing, but think about it first. Can you play an important role on that committee that will be useful to present at your next promotion? At some point in the future, would you like to become a member of the editorial board for the journal that invites you to review? There will be times that you decide to say no because it is not the right fit for you at the time, but have you already said no many times before? Many institutions are focusing more on good citizenship and service alongside teaching and research. My advice is to have an academic BFF; your go-to person or group of supporters, that can be your sounding board for these types of decisions.
Now that I have started reflecting on the last 20 years, I wished I hadn’t procrastinated! I have shared just a few things that have been important to me on my journey to date and I hope that if you have read this far, you might have found something in the letter that resonates with your own journey. You can probably see that the essence of my letter is that I feel very fortunate to have found a career in academia. It has been hard work of course, but I have had the chance to work with great people who have become great friends. I get to work on research that I am passionate about and genuinely enjoy. I wish you nothing but happiness and success on your own journey.
The University of Queensland, Australia