(My) Identity, worth, and ego in academia…

This week is my one year anniversary of being a new career academic. I have never quit something I set out to finish, but I am still pretty surprised I lasted, this has been an uncomfortable and wild 12 months. So much to learn, so few hours in the week.

Since I was a child I always knew that I would go to University, but even I didn’t foresee myself developing a career as an academic. I remember the moment I made up my mind to get a degree, the actual moment. I was six years old and standing in my Grandmothers tiny housing commission kitchen, my parents were at work so I had walked to my grandparent’s home after school. I was watching my Nan cook, she had just gotten home from a long shift of work herself. I remember feeling like all of the adults in my life were controlled and stressed by a lack of money. I felt that there was ‘us’ and ‘them’ when it came to money and privilege.

I didn’t want to be poor, I wanted to be able to help my family, to ease the stress I could see they were under. So at age 6 I asked my Nan: “what do you have to do to not be poor?”

Nan paused, tilted her head to the side, and responded dryly “be a lawyer”.

“How do you become a lawyer?” I asked.

“You go to University” she said, continuing to cook without looking up, end of conversation. She was exhausted, I doubt she had any idea how seriously I took her response. I walked out of the room with a determination to go to University.

It didn’t matter that no one in our family had a degree, or that I was six and knew nothing about University – I didn’t understand what that tone meant, I didn’t know about the impacts that a lack of privilege and capital would have on my journey – from that moment on I didn’t daydream about developing passions or creativity, I dreamt about going to university because I loved school and I hated that we had no money.

Nan, Mum, and baby me


As an adult I look back and recognise that I had a ridiculously simplistic view, and heck I now know a lot of people who have no degree, no HECS debt, and earn a lot more than me, but there you go. University is a community of people from diverse backgrounds, with different experiences, expectations and motivations, and this is a little insight into what mine were when I entered my first degree.

A focus on achieving a degree impacted all of my decisions from age 6 onwards, I kind of think that might be why as an adult I don’t have any hobbies… but I digress. The further I went with my education, the more I enjoyed it. I love to learn, and having access to journals and publications felt like magic. I loved and trusted academia, believing not only in the outcome but also in the process itself (bless). It was so hard, and during the degrees I continued to be financially poor, but I felt good about the direction I was heading in.

Once I got in and on the graduate journey itself, and entered adulthood, I grew to understand the creativity and exploration available in a degree. Even with a new born baby, it was only six months after my first graduation that I realised I wanted to return to do a Masters Degree. I love the way that engaging in a degree opens up opportunities to learn about issues, and concepts which you never understood or recognised before. I saw time and again, friends who were studying go on self discovery journeys. As they understood their field of choice more, they began to consider and understand themselves more. Education, the process of actively choosing to open your mind and learn, is such a privilege.

So in these ways, the academic processes and institutions have been heavily involved in the formation of my identity and sense of self. As a student I always saw academia as a finely tuned machine, faultless and flawless (academics, if you’re reading this, stop laughing please 🛑 🙈). I had no idea how human a space academia is, until I was on the other side of the lectern.

To be clear, it isn’t a criticism that I find the space to be human, on the contrary, if I had known or understood how human and ‘real’ the space was I would have asked for help and extensions more when I was a student. I would have contacted my teachers more, and probably applied to opportunities which at the time I was too intimidated to even consider. I always felt like I didn’t belong, even though I wanted to be there, and I never knew there was a name for that (if you’re relating to this, then I recommend you google ‘imposter syndrome’).

Masters Degree Graduation (breastfeeding bub #2)

But now that I am on the other side of the lectern, so to speak, I spend more time reflecting on the human experiences and practices which come together to form and facilitate these degrees and graduations which mean so much in our broader society. I find myself viewing the world with less naivety and trust, I recognise the humanity of the lecturers who taught me, of the students I studied with, of people like our family dentist, and doctor, and the teachers who I trust with my health and children. I see that they are still human even with their attainment of a degree. This is why it is not only okay, but sometimes necessary to get a second opinion. This is why it’s not only okay to receive criticism in your student feedback, but should be expected. This is why collaborative research is valuable. This is why sometimes very simple acts and words can go a long way.

The way I see it is, academia is in many ways the trade and development of knowledges, we develop our own, the students develop their own, we collaborate with/build on/ or critique those of our peers, facilitate the sharing of knowledges with students, with society, for SO many purposes and so on. Our ideas, our understandings as teachers and researchers, and our ability to communicate and delve into these ideas, that is what we ‘sell’ or offer as professionals. If your ideas, creativity, and communication skills are the base of your professional worth, then is it any wonder that ego and pride are anecdotally so tied to academia? Is there anything more core to ones self than our internal workings and ability to communicate and express ourselves? Whether you deal in quant or qual, your own perspectives and voice leaks into your research in so many ways – data is political and you are present in your research. People are political, and together we create and are this space.

As I progress in developing my skills as an academic (argh feels like I am going backwards most of the time), and dive further into the realm of the PhD (dive = drown) I now see how incredibly complex and political education institutions, and education itself is. Swimming through this space, with a family and young children at home, no longer driven by a fear of being poor, my perspective continues to be challenged in good ways. My love and respect for my Elders in these spaces grows daily, the warriors who made a way for mob to enter and engage with education, and now stand up and produce the content. I feel smaller and smaller in the expanse of knowledge and jargon as I go forward – which isn’t necessarily a good thing, it can feel quite overwhelming. The more I understand the academic space, the more I truly love the academics who take the time to encourage and share and mentor others.

They’re the people who I think have not forgotten where they came from, and why they’re there. And in my experience they’re not the minority in the space. There is a lot of good heart to be found in academia.

So as a baby academic, as someone low down on the competitive ladder of academia can I offer up a challenge to you to go and do something intentionally kind for a colleague this week? Wherever you work, even if you really dislike your colleagues, find someone down the food chain from you to give a random act of kindness to. A kind word, a positive piece of feedback, or even a coffee! Be the community you want to see in your workplace, because it’s small kindnesses that have kept me holding on during this wild ride of a year.

Eternally fatigued,

Amy x


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