Drawing from the informal poll I did weeks ago on Instagram to solicit suggestions on what content should appear more on this blog, one of the suggestions was a discussion of my failures in academia. I don’t know why, but it kinda just popped up in my head as I was vacantly gazing outside the window. My dog was chasing a garden rat.
When I was a student, both undergrad and grad, I imagined academe would be nice place where everyone is civilized (not all), intellectual (definitely not all), and working together towards the common goal of human enlightenment (some are actively conspiring against this). Plus, my dad is an academic and he got to travel—business class!—everywhere. Given these rose-tinted goggles, I sought my place in academe.
What most people see on the outside are the happy moments: graduation, completion, and acceptance. These are moments I choose to present. However, this is all superficial. What often goes unrecorded are the constant failures, rejections, and plain old stress. Also, back pains because of too much sitting and irritated eyes because of too much screen-staring. And indigestion. Lots of it.
What I learned, especially in these two years of holding an active academic position, is that everything oscillates until it reaches equilibrium. If you haven’t failed yet, you will, and vice-versa. You just don’t know when. So here’s a short summary of my academic journey. It’s not always smooth, as you may infer. Caveat abound. Some unconscious self-censorship may be present.
Undergraduate life and the interim period
I put in the hard work since undergrad life. Of course, there was also my language advantage. In the friends department, I had a few best friends, but mostly everyone else were acquaintance.
Winning my first paper competition boosted my confidence (and my bank account). Almost failing an exam slapped me in the face. Other than that, my university life was as normal as it could get.
I graduated early, having completed my undergrad project in only 1.5 months, and top of the class. Boy, was I happy during the convocation. But, this was where life’s balancing mechanism came into play. I admit I had a slight sense of hubris; I was on top of the world and thought that grad school would be easy.
Getting in wasn’t easy. I applied for a scholarship provided by the Indonesian government. I sought the War Studies program at King’s College London. I was confident (if not overly so) that getting the scholarship would be a breeze, considering my academic acumen. However, I was rejected and I kinda took it hard. To the point where I stopped doing anything for 3 weeks.
After being beaten back to sense by someone who shall remain anonymous, I saw this as a temporary setback. So I tried finding work. It was hard to find anyone who wanted to hire an IR undergrad, so I waited for 6 months before finally landing a job at an NGO in Bali. I worked there for 7 months until I decided I had enough. In the meantime, I applied for the same scholarship. Now, I was more confident because I had some work experience under my belt. However, I failed again. And due to government regulations, I was put on a blacklist for failing twice and was no longer allowed to apply for said scholarship. Apparently, trying is a crime. The failure slap hit me again and I was basically an empty husk for 2 weeks.
I then applied to RSIS, hoping they would provide some form of scholarship. I applied for some, but didn’t get any. Again, I cursed life. But, luckily, I was eligible for a 50% tuition fee cut and my parents had enough money to cover the rest. And there I went, to Singapore.
In Singapore, I again brought the same hard work ethic I applied in undergrad, only this time, I increased it by a couple of notches. I was determined to write a dissertation, so I aimed for an A- average. Turns out I wasn’t as smart as I thought, so I had to settle with a B+ average. Again, I kinda pouted for a couple of days.
But, that was a temporary setback. I then decided, hey might as well get certified if I’m not writing a dissertation. So I took some courses on Terrorism Studies and got a glossy piece of paper certifying I had rudimentary theoretical knowledge on how to stop terrorism. I also took some Japanese courses, but still can’t remember my N5 Kanji list.
The opportunities life denies, it compensates in unique ways. I got accepted for a part-time job coaching students on paper-writing and presenting. Hey, look at that, if I were doing a dissertation, I wouldn’t be able to brush up my coaching skills and earn some pocket money.
And now here I am, dealing with a heavy teaching load, too many undergrad projects, office politics, and a burgeoning list of works-in-progress. For the latter, I have myself to blame because I often just decide to take projects—articles, book chapters, etc.—on a whim.
I’ve had some failures and setbacks. My five PhD proposals are in limbo (one was rejected), my promotion is delayed, and my mental health isn’t doing well. But, now and then, something manages to make me smile and continue. Sometimes it’s a short publication (a commentary of 800-1,000 words), sometimes it’s extra money (which immediately goes towards books or coffee), and rarely, it’s when something actually goes as planned without a hitch. See, my standards for success have sorta declined.
As far as successes go, I managed to land a big project sponsored by the government, published some commentaries and a full-length article, and am going to attend my very first conference. So far so good I guess.
The long haul and equilibrium
Despite the evil reviewer narratives, the burgeoning evidence of mental health deterioration, and the general tedium of academic life (which may spiral downwards), life as an academic is a constant oscillation of success and failures, which eventually reach equilibrium. The waves keep coming and going, and what I can do is simply stay rooted and keep looking towards the future. Very rarely is something accomplished within a short time in academia; it is not like the corporate world where you can just “move fast and break things”. No, everything is for the long haul, so might as well enjoy the ride.