Dear fellow and future Early Career Researchers
This is a story. The story that I would have written to my younger self had I wanted to remind her of the challenges experienced and the lessons learnt in becoming a female Early Career Researcher in tourism. As this is the account of an academic who has just landed her first full-time job, the story is young. Nevertheless, I hope that the universal feelings and thoughts experienced in my journey resonate with and somehow benefit you in your current or future steps towards an academic career.
Setting the scene: Growing up in a traditional society in Iran, where math and physics were more valuable subjects than art, literature, and philosophy, I majored in mathematics and physics in high school. Consequently, this (not much of a) choice meant that I had to pick the engineering field as my first university degree. I did receive my bachelor’s degree in material engineering with high distinction in the end. However, I soon found out (or better yet, dared to finally acknowledge) that what I desired to work with were not materials but humans! I was always fascinated by various cultures, languages, and tourism. Changing field of study/work from engineering, which was highly desirable by the Iranian society, to social sciences, especially tourism, which was hardly heard of or understood as an academic discipline, was not easy. However, a detailed account of those difficulties and how being a woman contributed significantly to creating more challenges could not fit into the space of this letter. I started the fight for my passion by working in the tourism industry as a tour operator and later manager for a few years. Then I went on to receive my master’s degree in Tourism Planning in Malaysia while I was simultaneously working to self-fund my education overseas, and I was still faced with some societal doubts about my choice of study. From then and there, I was sure that I would like nothing more than one day to be a researcher in tourism. The two years between my master’s degree and landing a funded PhD position were extra challenging times as I had to stay lesser-focused sharp on my goal, persist in my direction to be correct and not give up until I had proved myself.
Today I have learned to remember the context against which my story has been written so far and not compare my path with my peers. If our story’s beginning or circumstances are so unique to ourselves, why should our middle or ending be the same as others? I admit, however, that it is not always easy to stop the comparison in your mind while there is a heavy metric culture in some parts of academia.
Characters: I started my PhD with the late and great Professor Philip Pearce at James Cook University in Australia. He played the role of a supporting actor for me. He was a profound thinker, a respected scholar and an extraordinary mentor. In his supporting role, he was enthusiastic in enabling me to perform my best as the main character of my own play. Since his departure, I have been wondering whether I ever again play alongside such empowering character? Ironically enough, I have indeed come across a few fantastic collaborators and mentor figures, all due to knowing him one day.
Today I have learned that we never know if and when we wake up one day to the news of our outstanding supporting actor of a few years leaving the show and consequently affecting our career one way or another. Therefore, treasure the opportunity and the time you spend with your mentors and learn as much as you can while they are around. Thankfully, it is not always for sad reasons that people must leave. Supervisors, mentors or co-authors may also move away for a variety of good reasons. The play, however, should and will go on with you, reflecting traces of these mentors in the way you perform.
Conflicts and resolutions: Among the host of challenges that we as female researchers experience, and they have been well documented in other colleagues’ letters in this book, I am passionate about sharing my attempts to resolve two key issues. The first one is more specific to those of us who are non-English speaking and non-western researchers. Writing in English to a high standard for publication in top journals takes up to a few times more time and effort for us rather than our native peers. Some form of (conscious or unconscious) discrimination by reviewers/panels/committees may always be the case when it comes to assessing our work that is indeed full of valuable ideas, but it may lack the mastery of the language compared to those who speak the language as their first.
Today I have learned to try and be in peace with the fact that I may naturally never master another language as well as my mother tongue. Of course, I strive to become more and more fluent in the dominant language of science by practising. Meanwhile, I am aware of aiming high and going for the most esteemed publications and conferences whenever I have great ideas to share. I try not to let the geography of where I was born to hold me back in any way. I hope you, too, remember that you are smart in your first language and even brighter in English for being able to make an entire academic career based on it in a short time.
The second challenge that may apply to many of us Early Career Researchers, regardless of our background and capabilities, is the imposter syndrome. We are likely to be dealing with imposter syndrome because of being perfectionists (refer to many studies proving this relationship). Getting to where you are reading these lines, you could possibly be a high achiever, a perfectionist and an unkind person to yourself. You probably have excessively high goals and expectations of yourself. Your achievements are constantly forgotten the minute you get there, whether they are as big as getting a PhD degree, a competitive grant, a prestigious award or as small as another top publication. If this is you (and I know it has been me for a long time), you self-doubt and worry a lot about measuring up.
Today I have learned to get professional help treating my perfectionism, try and bask in my achievements no matter how small, give myself more credit, set realistic goals and have more self-compassion. Meanwhile, I try to be fine being an imposter! As Jameela Jamil puts it: “Just do it anyway. My answer whenever I am asked about imposter syndrome is to admit that I am an imposter, and I treat it like crashing a wedding; you’re in now, have as much fun as possible and grab all the cake you can before someone throws you out. Lean in and make it a party”.
Thank you for listening to my story.
University of Lincoln, United Kingdom