From ASU to HKU: My Academic Job-Search

by Christine Yi Lai Luk (University of Hong Kong)

[Editor’s Note: After hearing about Christine’s journey in finding a position in the history of science (over a delightful breakfast in Rio de Janeiro), I invited her to write about her experience for the HSS Newsletter. I plan to print more such journeys in future newsletters.]

In June 2015, I came back to Hong Kong, not just to spend the summer, but to remain for good. Since completing my PhD at Arizona State University (ASU) the previous summer, I, like many new graduates, had been looking for jobs all over the world. I taught at ASU as an adjunct for one semester, but after that ended in December, I had no jobs lined up. As joblessness and visa constraints pushed me to leave the US, my familial support and recruitment opportunities lured me homewards.

Today, I am writing as a postdoctoral fellow from the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the most prestigious university in my home town. Although my story is unconventional, I hope my experience could shed some light for new PhDs in the history of science and the humanities in general.

My road to Hong Kong was paved with uncertainty and fortuity. During my six-year academic sojourn at ASU, I had no intention of returning to Hong Kong, because my area of specialty—the history of science in modern China—simply did not align with the hiring needs of Hong Kong (at least in my perception). Before coming to ASU, I did my bachelor’s and two master’s degrees at Hong Kong’s universities, which convinced me that I knew Hong Kong well. Because of this assumed knowledge of my home town, I felt nervous and distressed about being unemployed in the US.

In addition to the financial pressure and the anxiety of unemployment, international students like me also face the extra burden imposed by our visa situation. My F-1 student visa expired the day I received my diploma, but I could apply for a twelve-month optional practical training (OPT) permit, with a further one month to prepare for moving out of the country. Usually, December is the busiest month in the academic hiring season. It is around that time of the year when candidates begin to receive requests for interviews and campus visits.

In contrast, my job search that year yielded no results—no phone calls, no emails, nothing.

I had no one to blame but myself. A few months before December, I was completely occupied with teaching an upper-level undergraduate course by myself. Since I had no independent teaching experience prior to that fall semester, I spent nearly every waking hour preparing for the class and worrying whether I could make it to the end of the semester. When December approached, I was so happy to see the class coming to an end that I forgot there was no job waiting for me. After I turned in the final grades in mid-December, I started to worry about my next step. Adding to my difficult circumstances was the unforeseen dissolution of a two-year romantic relationship. As it turned out, I was ill-prepared for both the job market and the dating market.

I knew nothing would go differently unless I genuinely made a fresh start. So I set new personal and professional goals as my new year’s resolutions. Getting a job was, of course a professional priority, but was that really my personal goal? Sure, I needed a job, but that’s not why I came to ASU in the first place. Although I had other admissions offers back then, I chose ASU primarily because of the world-class scholarship and the trans-disciplinary environment. Above all, I turned down another more prestigious school for ASU because I was so impressed with the scholarly writings produced by some ASU faculty members. I never knew academic articles could be written in such a fun and engaging manner. Clear, creative, and compelling texts are not just eye-opening but mesmerizing to a non-native English speaker like me.

After taking some time to rethink and reflect, I resolved to put all my efforts into the one task that I considered the most important: writing. I spent the first half of 2015 writing and revising daily. I worked on a revise-and-resubmit article and re-submitted within a month; I wrote up a new article, from scratch to submission, in less than three months; and more importantly, I published a monograph and saw it to publication before I packed my bags to return to Hong Kong.

I didn’t know what awaited me in Hong Kong other than my supportive parents, but I remember feeling more confident and less stressed when I boarded the plane. It wasn’t because I was confident about the future. After six years away from Hong Kong, I hardly knew a thing about the local job market. My confidence sprang from focusing on doing the single most important thing in my life. Of course, I know that writing and publication does not necessarily lead to a job offer, but the time I spent on pursuing and perfecting academic writings illuminated what really mattered to me. The act of writing and revising and re-writing, though boring and repetitive at times, validates my life and makes me happy. It is the kind of love that Erich Fromm so powerfully described in his 1956 book, The Art of Loving. Overflowing with the joy of giving, I felt alive and hopeful about returning to Hong Kong, even without a job offer.

In pre-modern China, the imperial court would send new officials to serve at provinces other than their home provinces to avoid abuses of power based on pre-existing networks of connections. This fact from China’s past sparks speculation on the motives of my relocation. I have been asked on more than one occasion whether my current HKU position was a pre-meditated arrangement exploiting my Hong Kong-based family connections and other guanxi factors. I wish it was that simple. Hong Kong consistently ranks as one of the most transparent and corruption-free cities in the world. Furthermore, I do not come from an elite family with ready access to inter-personal and social resources. In fact, my prior connection with Hong Kong has no correlation with my existing employment at HKU.

It all began with a job advertisement I saw the following July about a tenure-track assistant professor opening in the humanities of science and technology. I applied, but secretly I knew the chance of getting shortlisted for such a competitive position was slim, not least because Hong Kong is a status-conscious society—a money-oriented, fame-obsessed urban jungle. In academia, it means an esteemed university like HKU almost always pursues Ivy Leaguers. Although people who know my field recognize ASU as a renowned research university, the school as a whole simply does not command respect like Harvard or Princeton. I Googled the hiring department, a place called “the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences,” and found that nearly all employees working as postdoctoral fellows or research assistant professors held doctorates from Harvard, Cornell, or Yale. It dawned on me that I stood no chance of entering such a place, and I expected my application be dropped immediately.

I was very surprised when I received a follow-up email from HKU in September asking for a Skype interview. “What a good chance to practice Skype interviews and prepare for rejection!” I thought. After all, I had only had one previous Skype interview, and even though I knew this one would not lead to the next round, I still took it seriously. I familiarized myself with every piece of information I could find about the institution, the search committee, the job description, and practiced speaking about my research and how I am a good fit for the job. The Skype interview lasted for an hour. Based on the smiling faces I saw from the web camera, I knew I had performed quite well. I actually felt a bit sad that I wouldn’t see those friendly faces again.

Two days later, I was invited to give a job talk at HKU the following month. It was the first time I had ever been asked to do a job talk, and I had no idea what it meant to present one’s research in such a setting, but I was glad to have the opportunity to practice these skills. In November, I gave the job talk, had lunch with faculty members, and visited the campus. When I left HKU, I still could not fathom what the search committee was thinking. On the one hand, I did my best in front of the audience, and their reactions suggested that they probably liked me; on the other hand, I simply did not believe they genuinely would hire me for such a competitive position. These questions left me sleep-deprived for several nights.

I almost fell out of bed when I picked up the phone three days later. “Hi, I am XXX from HKU and I would like to speak to Dr. Christine Luk.” I recognized the voice as a member of the search committee. He told me the search committee had decided to hire another candidate for the AP position, but since the committee was very impressed with my achievements and enthusiasm, they would create a three-year postdoctoral fellowship for me, should I accept their offer. I thanked him for calling me and said I would consider the offer. It was a totally unexpected outcome, breaking the binary of either acceptance or rejection. In the end, I took the offer, because it was the best offer available to me. It only took them three months to file the paperwork and I started to work as a postdoc on the first day of March in 2016.

Although it is just a coincidence that I happened to have landed the right job for me in my home town, my story of job-hunting contains some lessons other than luck that might be helpful for folks coming out of graduate schools:

  • First and foremost, figure out what is truly important to you. In retrospect, spending the final six months on writing was the right strategy for me. From a pragmatic standpoint, writing leads to publications, which one can use to impress search committees. But what is more important is that writing gave me the confidence, because I genuinely believe that writing enriches my life. In comparison, my teaching experience did not really appeal to the search committee. Although I received good teaching evaluations, I think people could tell I simply was not as dedicated to teaching as I was to research and writing, which leads me to my second point.
  • Have faith in people’s capacity to distinguish the truthful manifestations of commitment from the showy acts of grandiosity. Everyone wants a job, but it is worth taking a step back and thinking about what inspires you the most. After teaching as an adjunct for one semester, I realize that I wanted to write well more than I wanted to teach well. I am eager to learn how to craft my teaching skills, but research and writing form the core of my scholarly identity. If you don’t know what your personal priority is, it is difficult for the search committee to see where your professional commitment lies.
  • Brace yourself for the bumpy road ahead. With all my idealistic advice on truthfulness and what not, I can’t conceal the difficulties I faced without a job. I was unemployed for the entire year of 2015, meaning that I had no institutional affiliation, no access to specialized journals and databases, and no office space, which is a huge issue in an ultra-dense city like Hong Kong. To adapt, I went to a public library to work on my revisions, used online resources like Google Books and Google Scholar for limited access to scholarly materials, and converted my bedroom into a loft bed with a writing desk underneath.
  • Be open-minded and willing to embrace change. Just because you thought you knew a place in the past doesn’t mean you know it now. I thought I knew Hong Kong because of my background, but clearly the Hong Kong in my perception is quite different from the actual Hong Kong in front of my eyes, which is always in the process of evolving. The same applies to the academic job search. Sometimes the result is neither hire nor fire. In my case, there was a third option out there beyond my imagination.

Since this postdoctoral fellowship is not a permanent offer, I am still on the job market looking for more sustainable jobs. I would be lying if I say I am not aiming at a tenure-track assistant professorship. But I don’t base my self-worth on catching the brass ring as such. If I have learned anything from the last two years, it is the importance of staying flexible and preparing for different kinds of work opportunities outside of one’s familiar territory, particularly the US.