Sabbatical at Middlesex University London: a story of swans and unicorns

Heejin's wonderful reflections on her one-year stay in the UK

How can we develop ourselves as researchers early in our careers? We have a hectic time during our Ph.D. and in the years after getting our first job, balancing lectures, administrative tasks, and researches. It took me about ten years to feel that I had enough mind space to take a breath and look around. However, the more lectures I did and the more research projects I engaged in, the more I felt my own knowledge and chances of growth were falling short.

Fortunately, for researchers, there is a very graceful chance called sabbatical. How to use it obviously depends on the situation and purpose of individual researchers. In my case, as I had finished my Ph.D. in Japan, where an idiosyncratic academic culture persists, I was eager to know what was going on in the world outside the island. In this essay, I want to share my one-year experience in London with junior researchers who are seeking a springboard for growth.

I know her but she does not know me…

The first step in the preparation was securing funding, because my university has a tacit rule to prioritize faculty members who secure external funding for temporary leave. Therefore, I took making the application as perfect as possible to win government funding very seriously, and was lucky enough to get a chance for a one-year leave.

However, the real challenge was in the next step. How to get an invitation letter? Although there were some convenient options such as asking my supervisors or colleagues to introduce me to someone in an overseas university, it was the last option on my list. I wanted to spend this valuable one year not where I can go but where I want to go. In fact, I had someone deep in mind since I had started to plan this one-year leave (Anne-Wil Harzing). Among the many papers that I had read in my research field, I especially loved reading her works and longed for writing something like that in a future. The problem was, I know her by many papers, but she does not know me. This might be a common challenge for junior researchers who have no extensive overseas network.

I wanted to write an email to her. However, I hesitated, thinking that maybe she gets this kind of email almost every day so it might be deleted without reading. Also, I know her only by papers and blogposts, so she might be in fact a very cold-blooded scary person. Whatever kind of person she is, in general, hosting someone takes nerve and paper works which of course would take up her time and effort. How come I can ask her to spend her limited resources to host someone she doesn’t know and has never met?

Still, I told myself that I had nothing to lose by writing an email, so stop hesitating and go! This is how I wrote Anne-Wil my first email, and surprisingly, she responded me within 25 hours. I still remember the thrill and excitement when I saw her name in my inbox. She gave me several questions about my visiting plan and gently opened the door for me.

The visits: four platforms of learning

With research funding and an invitation letter from Middlesex University, things seemed perfect. I expected the bigger world was waiting for me out there if I fly out of Japan. However, the reality was not that easy. Most of my life and network that I had built was in Japan, and I needed to craft them from zero in a new city. Moreover, as a visiting researcher, I had no social system to be embedded in to make a regular interaction with local people and build relationships. I could remember some visiting researchers I met in Japan who appeared for a conference or seminar and became invisible soon (I should have been kinder to them!). I therefore actively tried to extend my activities in London using four kinds of platforms.

Middlesex University

First, Middlesex University’s seminars and research lunches. There are various types of research support programs in Middlesex University, which are wide open to visiting researchers like me. Some meetings are formal and serious, talking about each other’s research progress and sharing information about funding or journal submissions. Other meetings are more causal and social, chatting over sandwich and tea. I am very envious for faculty members of Middlesex who enjoy such a rich inhouse research support environment.

CYGNA meetings

Second, CYGNA meetings (CYGNA is a network for female academics, see picture of first CYGNA conference dinner above). CYGNA meetings were one of the reasons why I wanted to come to London, as I’ve read the blog posts of previous meetings and felt so attracted. There were bi-monthly meetings where usually 20 to 30 female academics gathered and discussed about a specific topic related to academic life.

Just knowing that other female academics have similar issues was a huge relief. Moreover, the CYGNA writing bootcamp (see picture later in this post) was an unforgettable experience to learn more specific knowhows of writing papers for journal submission. One of a few benefits of Covid-19 crisis is that we now have virtual CYGNA meetings which are held online every month this year, so that worldwide CYGNA members including I can join.  

Academic conferences

Third, academic conferences held in Europe. I submitted papers and participated in four conferences in 2019, including AIB-UKI held at Brighton, AIB at Copenhagen, EAMSA at Dornbin, and EIBA at Leeds (see picture of PDW with Peter Liesch, Rebecca Piekkari and fellow participant Anna Hsu above). Especially, I joined three JIBS and JWB PDWs (paper development workshops), which were really impressive.

As I did not know very well how to make the best use of international conferences, I had just joined regular paper presentation sessions in the past. However, I got to know that PDWs are the yolk of the egg, which can be the primary reason of participating in costly international conferences. Because very experienced editors and reviewers of the journals read the submitted full papers and gave us very detailed comments on how to develop the papers for submission, which was really helpful.

Research-skill development workshops

Four, methodology workshops held in various universities in the U.K. I wanted to study qualitative methodology more systematically, and there were lots of chances to learn. Some examples include ‘Responsible research method symposium’ held at the University of Birmingham and ‘Spinning straw into gold: publishing theory-driven, empirical papers in top journal’ at the University of Surrey. Also, various methodology courses were provided at the University of Surrey, department of Sociology, so I could take courses such as qualitative data analysis, NVivo, and narrative analysis. These workshops were an excellent place to meet researchers from various fields with similar methodological interests.

Role models: swans and unicorns

There was and is no female faculty in the graduate school of economics, Tokyo University where I’ve done my master and Ph.D. course. No foreigner faculty either. Overall, most of the so-called star researchers who were very active and respected in Japanese academia were and are Japanese man. Before, I have never felt that it is strange as I have grown up in Korea, which has a very similar culture.

“Heejin, you are a foreigner, female and mother, triple handicapped. So, maybe it would be very challenging for you to get a job”, one very frank colleague of mine in the graduate school lamented for me when I was seeking for a job.I could not find any word to deny his concern given the situation. Although I could deny it with my own case by getting a permanent post at one of the top schools, I had been quite anxious and feeling lost to explore my path forward. Of course, in recent years Japanese academia has been moving toward embracing more diversity, but the change would be very slow. 

When I first attended a meeting at Middlesex university, what surprised me most was the overwhelming number of female and foreigner faculty members. So diverse and vivid atmosphere at the university made me very comfortable and gave me no moment to recognize myself as an outsider. Not only in the university but also in CYGNA (Latin for SWAN, supporting women in academia network) meetings and conferences that I’ve attended, I could meet lots of ‘triple handicapped’ sisters, who are female, foreigner and mother at the same time.

Before meeting them, I thought that such a woman who even have successful academic accomplishments is imaginary as a unicorn, or exceptionally genius or gifted, but there were a lot of ‘real’ cases out there walking, talking and eating! They were so intelligent, confident, professional and even kind. I have got full shower of inspiration and courage from the strong and beautiful female academics and became to think “If they could do it, why not me?” with the lively sense of reality.

They are the biggest treasure that I found during my stay in the U.K. I was extremely lucky to be exposed to the absolutely different academic environment from where I belong to. The best way to pay forward, I think, is to become a good role model for junior female and foreigner academics in Japan and take my bit to make this society a little more diverse.

Challenges and joys of living in London

My experiences above only show the bright side, but of course there were lots of dark moments as well, about which I can talk for several days and nights. For instance, after I and my ten-year-old daughter took off at Heathrow airport, it took me a few weeks to rent a house. There was an egg-or-chicken dilemma when searching for a place to live, because a bank required a house address to open an account and the real estate agency required a bank account to make a contract, which was really ridiculous. And as we went to London at the beginning of April followed by Easter holidays, the school application took so long time so my daughter could go to school from mid-May, which means I was a full-time kid sitter for about six weeks (it’s like a prep of Covid19 crisis situation).

And it is a bit shy to say, but almost for the first half year of our stay, we stayed home after I picked my daughter up from school at 3 p.m., because people told me that there are many gangsters and criminals in London, which was very stupid of me to believe that. Moreover, because I was not blessed with a reliable kid sitter, I needed to take my daughter whenever I joined the conferences. She stayed in a hotel room nearby and I ran to feed her at mealtime. In fact, temporary living and studying in a new place with a kid was half pleasure and half pain.

On the other hand, I really loved parks and art contents of London. London is full of green. According to London City Hall, roughly 47% of Greater London is green, with 3,000 parks of varying sizes. As I had always thought that the word ‘city’ and ‘green’ are something very distant from each other, having several huge and beautiful parks in 30 minutes’ walking distance was utterly unbelievable. The Regent park and Hampstead Heath were my favorites, so morning walk in these parks are the most luxurious moments in London.

At the same time, London is filled with various art contents. Almost every weekend, I and my daughter went out for enjoying performances and exhibitions such as musicals, jazz, ballet, orchestra, play, art galleries, museum, etc., as there are countless and endless opportunities provided in the city. The count of performances and exhibitions that I enjoyed for one year in London is definitely bigger than the sum of my 39 years life, that left me deep excitements and many touching moments.   

Taken all together, one year in London was a real blessing, and provoked a huge change inside me. I could take enough time to stop and think what I have done (and why), what I want to do (and why) and how I will achieve it, which was not available in my hectic life before. Now, I know that I can go as far as I want, thanks to the swan and unicorn sisters I’ve met in London.

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