147 Letter from Melanie Kay Smith
Dear Future Generation of Women Tourism Researchers,
As I write this letter to you, I am 50 years old and I have been a Tourism Researcher for the past 22 years. I have two sons aged 15 and 11 and I live in Budapest with my Hungarian husband. Both my place of residence and my choice of career were something of a surprise to me, because I studied French and German at Oxford University for my first degree, as I have always loved and had a fascination for languages and I also studied some Italian and Spanish. When I finished my degree, which was quite a traditional one focusing on literature and high-level translation, I honestly had no idea how to make the transition to the world of work! Like many students, I had worked during my summers in cafes, bars and restaurants and I had taught English as a foreign language in my home town and during my University year abroad. Therefore, it seemed a logical choice to head back to France (the beautiful town of Nice on the French Riviera) and teach English as a foreign language while I figured out my career options. One of my regrets is that I knew almost nothing about business, economics and politics, despite having attended one of the best Universities in the world. I had cocooned myself in a wonderful world of literature, language and art for several years. One of my advantages, however, was that I had attended an all-girls’ school in my home town from the age of 11 to 18 and there I was taught that women can do anything and achieve everything, which stood me in very good stead. I was self-confident and never intimidated by men (even though I hardly met any during my school days!). I was very respectful of my inspiring teachers and University lecturers, but I never felt constrained by hierarchy, even if it was deeply patriarchal. Actually, I did not even realise that the world was sexist until I started work and had my children!
This leads me to the first of my recommendations for young female researchers. Be confident and do not be intimidated by anyone. It is possible to be respectful and confident at the same time. It is not necessary to be arrogant or cultivate a large ego to succeed, but you can find your voice and express yourself in a polite, friendly and ideally, humorous way. You do not need to cut others down to make yourself look better, but sometimes you need to be bold and to push yourself forward. Later in your career if you have a family or feel burnt-out, you will have to learn to say no to tasks that you cannot manage and you need courage and confidence to do that.
While I was in Nice teaching English, I realized that I wanted a career that combined culture, language and travel and this was the moment when I decided to do a Masters in Tourism Management at the University of Surrey. This helped to fill the gap in my business knowledge too as it seemed impossible to move beyond language teaching if not. I had a fantastic year there and specialized in Cultural Tourism for my Thesis research, which was a niche subject and a relatively new area of research at that time. Following a frustrating year of temporary work and low salaries in London, my dream job came up at the University of Greenwich in London helping to establish degrees in Cultural Tourism, Heritage, Museums and Arts Management. Armed with only my Masters degree and some language teaching experience, I somehow beat 5 other candidates to the job.
I was very lucky with my manager and mentor Sue Millar who was a truly inspiring woman. She was one of the only females in a senior position at that time and she had established innovative Heritage Management programmes. She was extremely supportive and encouraged me to write my first book Issues in Cultural Tourism Studies (which later ran to three editions) early in my career in 2003. Without her, I may not have had the courage to do it alone. She also prompted me to undertake a Post-Graduate Diploma in Higher Education followed by a PhD. It was tough doing a PhD while working full-time and I had my first son during the last year, so the process took me almost 9 years.
In addition to Sue Millar, I met another inspiring woman leader Heli Tooman from the University of Tartu, Pärnu College in Estonia in around 2008 at a conference in Belgium. She was Head of Department and very active in Estonian tourism at national level, as well as being a researcher and author. Heli asked me to help her develop a Masters in Wellness and Spa Service Design and Management. By then, in addition to my cultural tourism research, I had started to become quite involved in research on wellness tourism with my dear friend and colleague Dr Catherine Kelly (I was an avid practitioner of yoga by then, which had changed my life). Thanks to Heli, who has also become one of my dearest friends, I have been visiting lecturing on the Masters programme that we developed ever since.
This leads me to my second recommendation for women researchers – try to find and to be a great female mentor. I spend a lot of my time trying to help and inspire younger female researchers now. I value and enjoy our collaborations. Again, there is no place for arrogance and big egos in mentoring. I never put my name on papers that I do not author and I certainly do not put them below those of my younger colleagues if they do more of the work. Many young women ask me how I managed to combine children with academic life and research. I do not lie to them and tell them that it is easy (juggling family and work is the greatest challenge that I have faced, especially in a foreign country where I had to learn my fifth language). What I tell them is to put their research first or it will never get done. Of course, teaching, administrative tasks and emails will always be there but they also never end. Therefore, you must prioritise research at least once or twice a week (even while your baby is sleeping or with one toddler on either side of you watching a Disney film!). Ideally, do it early in the day or late at night and remove all distractions including your emails, telephone and social media.
I met my Hungarian husband (the creative and entrepreneurial Dr László Puczkó) in the late 1990s at a Cultural Tourism workshop in Poland. However, we did not get together until the early 2000s and I did not move to Hungary until 2005. My curiosity as a linguist and afficionado of cultural tourism and heritage drew me to Budapest. Sometimes we are not sure that we made the right decision (mainly for political and economic reasons), but here we still are with our bilingual sons. I have managed to continue my research here despite never really being in an environment where research was valued or encouraged that much. I have always loved writing and find it very creative and therapeutic, so I was happy to do it on my non-teaching days or in the evenings and at weekends. However, all academics in Hungary have to do other work to supplement their low salaries, so it can be incredibly challenging to combine a full-time job, additional part-time work, a family and research. I think that the quality of my research suffered because of time constraints and I focused too much on books and book chapters because they fulfilled my love of writing and were less labour-intensive than journal articles. I have rectified this in recent years, but I still do not say no to books, especially if it means collaborating with interesting people.
This leads me to my third recommendation for female researchers. Do what you enjoy! We are often forced to take on projects and papers that eat into our personal time and family life quite considerably. I always tell my students to choose a Thesis subject that they are really passionate about because love of the subject will carry you through the daunting and often tedious process of Thesis writing. Secondly, try to work with people who you like. This is not always possible, but we often have a choice (e.g. projects, papers). I usually choose to work with those people that I would be happy to go for a beer with after work! In addition, I have learnt to select only those people who are reliable and meet deadlines. I have a very linear way of working and last-minute working stresses me out too much.
I was also lucky enough to get involved in ATLAS (The Association for Tourism and Leisure Education and Research) early in my career. I had discovered the work of the great Greg Richards in 1997 and he was Chair of ATLAS at that time. Not only did he validate our Masters Programmes in Cultural Tourism Management, but he also invited me to my first ATLAS conference in 1998 in Crete. I loved this network and it afforded me all sorts of amazing opportunities and collaborations. Eventually, I became the Chair for seven years soon after I had moved the Hungary and my first son had been born. Now, I can’t imagine how I managed all of this but I enjoyed it all. I am still involved in ATLAS on the Advisory Board and I am also on the Advisory Board of Trinet which is run by another very inspiring woman Dr Pauline Sheldon. Probably it goes without saying that young female researchers should join and get actively involved in networks. It gives you great contacts, collaborations and a lot of fun. Our academic lives can be so stressful these days, we need outlets in the form of conferences, project meetings and research groups. That is why it is so important to work with people that you like and want to spend time with.
I always said that once I had published in Annals of Tourism and Tourism Management (it took me almost 20 years, by the way!), I would relax and say that I had ‘made it’ as a female academic. Of course, I have not stopped publishing or researching at all, but I am now more selective and sometimes I think that my wellbeing and the time that I spend with my family or friends are more important than writing yet another paper. This is also an important realization. Your health and wellbeing MUST come first. Perhaps one of my regrets is trying to work so much while my children were young, but the problem is that those are also the career-building years. On the other hand, be aware that you have many years to work (academics often keep working until they are 70+ or even 80), so you can afford to slow down sometimes. I heard a Professor mention ‘output management’ once, which means spacing out your publications so that you meet the minimum requirement each year. Try to do what I did NOT do and focus on one or two really high quality papers per year if that is what your institution requires. Try to work with more experienced researchers who have published in top journals at first to learn from them. I learnt on the job and often muddled my way through academic life. It was a real adventure and I achieved a lot early in my career because I had to design and run degree programmes as well as teach every subject in Tourism before I even started my PhD. You no doubt already have your PhD so you already know what is meant by good quality research. Use that to your advantage and build first on what you know (your PhD subject) and make a name for yourself. I did this in both Cultural Tourism and Wellness Tourism, but I was more successful in the latter because I was one of the first to do it. Be original, be creative, be bold, be confident, and above all, be yourself. Choose your collaborations carefully and focus on what you love doing with people you really like. Look after your wellbeing, say no whenever you need to and try to have fun. That is my formula for a happy and healthy academic career!
Dr Melanie Kay Smith
Budapest Metropolitan University, Hungary