Changing disciplinary horses

[Photo by Kenny Louie:]
Photo by Kenny Louie:

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been mired in active discussions around who I am as a scholar.

Luckily for the world at large, these discussions exist mostly in my head, and only occasionally weigh upon the ears of close colleagues and my lucky, lucky partner.

The reason for these internal discussions is that I’ve started an academic job in a field that’s unrelated to my previous disciplines.

As a PhD student and then a research fellow, I have meandered through literary studies, cultural studies, heritage and museum research, touched on sociological work, and wished repeatedly that I’d built my expertise in science fiction and horror screen cultures.

The hinge that my scholarly work depends on is critical race studies, and the sub-field of diasporic Asian studies.

I have a shelf in my study that carries books and special issue journals that I’ve written and edited. It is my (occasionally successful) talisman against imposter syndrome. However, none of the publications I’ve had or journals I’ve published in overlap with the field Education Studies, part and parcel of the new role I’ve taken up.

Many times recently, I’ve moseyed through the literature around diversity and leadership in the academy (new field), and found a mini-Ygritte on my shoulder intoning, “You know nothing, Tseen Khoo.” And mini-Ygritte is right.

Right now, I do know just about nothing on the conceptual histories and key texts of that field.

Hence the scholarly identity crisis.

The crisis is about who I am, academically, and it’s also about the pressures of being seen as a scholar in a new field. How do I establish myself in a new area, feeling very much like an early career researcher, when expectations are more in line with those of a mid-career academic? What is my sharp intellectual narrative, which is so important for grants, job applications, and promotion documents?

And, overriding all of this, is the stare-at-the-ceiling-in-the-middle-of-the-night idea that I won’t be producing enough, or my work won’t be good enough, to establish myself with any credibility in the new field. It’s a very vulnerable state.

I feel like this but I also know that the way we’re often forced to think about our research activity and output goes against how the work actually travels.

Jonathan Gray’s post on Recomposing Scholarship at the LSE Impact Blog covered (with much more erudition) some of the things that I wanted to say.

Gray observes:

Scholarship is about the way in which constellations of people and objects produce meaning, understanding and insight, through interaction, acts of interpretation. The value of a journal article is not the stated impact factor of the journal, any more than the value of a scholar is the aggregate of his or her publishing record. The value of a piece of scholarly text is in the interaction it has with its readers, in the sparks it generates, the friction and light that it produces – whether tomorrow, or in a hundred years’ time.

In contemporary academe, it can be very easy to get disheartened by the measures of ‘success’ that we are meant to abide by. I’m not immune to the angst or attacks of self-doubt.

I often tell researchers that, in all the jockeying for position, the element that will get them through, and make their academic research lives worth sustaining is passion for their topic, finding opportunities to advance it, and working with good colleagues. I’ve written before about how researchers are more than their disciplinary codes.

I really must start taking my own advice.

I think of the field I’ve helped create and am still heavily involved with, and it’s extremely satisfying. Not only because I can sit back and say, “Well, there was something that wasn’t there before!” about Asian Australian Studies, but also because various members of the research network (AASRN) have galloped off with their own intellectual and creative passions within the field. They’ve gone on to create other groups and organisations that boost Asian Australian academic and cultural work further, such as the Asian Australian Film Forum Network (AAFFN; focused on screen cultures), Peril (critical arts and culture magazine), and the AASRN meetups (mostly in Melbourne, starting in Sydney) that are increasingly taking on an activist edge.

The directions they’ve taken the research network mean that my changing scholarly identity, as it coalesces, will have no problem finding a home there.

In addition, a huge part of being able to discern the likely trails I’d take through these new research areas comes from an excellent mentor and welcoming, highly productive colleagues from my #circleofniceness network (almost all of them became my buddies through Twitter).

So, does changing disciplinary horses mid-stream leave you professionally stranded, and with chafing to boot, or can it be a catalyst for joining a new stable and building a broader research identity?

I’m obviously hoping for the latter. Only time, and getting stuck into publishing new research, will tell.

Affirmations or warnings from those who’ve been there are very welcome!


  1. I graduated as a phd in evolutionary genetics and I feel like I don’t have what it takes to be successful in this field as I am mostly a bench biologist and am less competent on computers. I feel like I produce data but I am not able to interpret it. I feel like I am a technician. That’s why i want to change my fields.

    ON the other hand, this may be entirely about me, not being able to do science at all.

    Is it too soon to tell? or is it to late to try something else?


    • I’m a great believer in it never being too late to try new things. The balance, however, lies in the price of changing over fields and directions. I’m writing this post from a position of privilege – I have a good job that isn’t casual or fixed-term.

      Re your queries: I’d first ensure that your anxieties have a basis – do you have a mentor/senior academic you can talk to? Are there expert courses in analysis/interpretation that you can undertake? If the field and its issues still excite you, I’d be looking initially to stay, and find ways to make your strengths work in the area. If you’re not particularly excited about the field, then maybe it’s not such a trauma to consider your options more broadly (i.e. within academia and elsewhere). Just my 2c worth!


  2. My advice is to take your time. I finally found ways to relate what I’m good at to Education Research, but after 2.5 years only got to the conference paper stage. Research was extra, not part of my role, and I kept publishing in literary studies/musicology: with more focus I might have made more progress. But it’s bruising to change horses in midstream–though worth it for the journey ahead. Good luck!


    • Thanks, K. I know giving it time will make a big difference. As we know, though, the academic outputs clock keeps ticking loudly our ears. Another key thing is that I left a good and happy professional space/job to make tracks back into academia because I missed doing the research. So I feel like I must make it absolutely worthwhile. Within 6 months or so. (I know I know)


      • Oh I don’t think you should take as long as me! But we know from doctoral candidates that it takes then 6-9 months to be experts in their new field. Certainly not less than 6, even for people who are already experienced in being expert.


  3. Thank you for the nice and enlightening contribution 🙂 I have no particular interest in neither asian australian studies or research eduction, but I do thoroughly enjoy your soul-searching and humorous posts. Best wishes from a Research Support Officer working exclusively outside my field… 🙂


    • Thanks, Anya. I’m glad the soul-searching isn’t just boring and excruciating. 😉

      I do sometimes wonder why I was so drawn back to research/academia, particularly at a time when things are rather dire. Having worked on Research Whisperer and as a grant development person, I know too much about the sector and its terrain…and yet here I am.


  4. Great post. I have done something very similar – PhD in art history and now in education – specifically assessment and measurement. It is a strange feeling to be new to an entire field. We get offers of support for conferences and encouragement but I still feel so new. I keep feeling impatient. I am still writing in my original area too, but that has slowed right down due to balancing it with my new work.

    Still I am already noticing that I have quite different ways of approaching things to some of my colleagues who have been working in the area for decades, and that new way of looking seems to be appreciated.


    • I think the new perspective one brings to an established area can be wonderful and energising for colleagues. It’s a great contribution.

      I can relate to the impatience, and I also feel like I’m losing touch with my ‘old’ areas while not gaining much ground in the ‘new’. Feels funny to research on shifting sands!

      (sorry – I just found this comment and I’m responding more than 6 months later…oy)


  5. […] And, overriding all of this, is the stare-at-the-ceiling-in-the-middle-of-the-night idea that I won’t be producing enough, or my work won’t be good enough, to establish myself with any credibility in the new field. It’s a very vulnerable state. (Changing disciplinary horses) […]


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