Fortunately, that supervisor remembered this moment, and several years later when I was working as an environmental consultant, I received a phone call from him asking if I was still interested. I was! A week later flew across the country to investigate a fully funded PhD on the ecology of a small, threatened wallaby. It was virtually my dreams come true: three years in the field chasing a threatened animal about and learning all there was to know about them. I then returned to Sydney with the aim of writing up my PhD thesis. It was in this time that I gained some career guidance from my peers –“if you want to become an academic, publish, publish, publish”. I did want to become an academic, and so I published. They also told me I’d need to do some post-docs – so I planned to do that too. While I was waiting for my PhD to be examined, I did some lecturing to gain teaching experience at two different universities, and I started applying for academic posts in Australia. Two applications – one interview – no job.
Africa is where all the cool animals are, so I did Postdocs in South Africa at the Walter Sisulu University on bush meat hunting in the coastal forests of the Transkei, and at the Nelson Mandela University on the reintroduction of large predators (lions, leopards, hyaenas) to Addo Elephant National Park. This was a life-changing experience and I retain collaborators and friends from there to this day.
I also met my now wife there and we ended our time in Addo to return to Australia for the birth of our first child. My wife got a job first and she went back to work part-time 5 weeks after giving birth, while I stayed home to look after our daughter. I also picked up some lecturing, and so we had a great 8 months raising our daughter together, in poverty but fully involved. More job interviews passed but still no successes, so I took up a European Union Marie Curie Postdoc in Poland. This was another amazing experience with great friends and collaborators made, and a new baby born in Poland.
In the typical Postdoc manner, I began searching for jobs prior to the completion of my contract, and with 5 months left I took up a position back in outback Australia as a conservation manager. Although my colleagues were great and the company was doing brilliant things, this wasn’t the job for me. When I heard the CEO talk about an ex-staff member as ‘a failed academic’, I twigged that he probably thought that of me, so set about unfailing my own academic career.
More unsuccessful job interviews followed. In all, I had 12 interviews for academic positions in Australia and didn’t win one of them. At some universities I lost out to people who didn’t even have PhDs. My general impression was that the weaker universities chose to employ people already affiliated with the university; while stronger universities did this less frequently. This didn’t help me having spent so long outside Australia. I also recorded the number of papers and citations the successful applicant had compared to what I did. These two metrics did not seem to reveal why I failed – and the feedback from the interviews was rarely informative (‘they were a better fit for our school’ was a common refrain).
Eventually, I started looking overseas at academic positions. After gruelling discussions with my wife, we began looking for jobs in the UK. Two interviews – one job. The job I got was at Bangor University in North Wales, and having worked here for 4 ½ years, I now know the reason I got the job was because I fitted their needs. The student body wanted an academic to offer animal conservation and ecology-related projects; and I fitted that bill.
Academia was all I hoped it would be (well, except for the marking). My colleagues were fantastic and the students enthusiastic. The move overseas has been a great experience. My children have thrived and now speak Welsh. But then along came Brexit. The morning the result was announced, with my wife in tears beside me, I took a look for jobs in Australia. We had benefited from the EU, and the thought of turning our backs on that left a sour taste. But once such a thought gets embedded in your mind, it’s hard to get out – proximity to family, nice weather, bush, wildlife…
And so I began applying for jobs in Australia again. Two interviews – one job. The job was so good that I even turned down an interview for a Professorship in another town when I was one of only two interviewees. Why was I now employable in Australia? I don’t know, but travelling and experiencing new places has been a great experience. It has broadened my knowledge, experience and understanding; introduced me and my family to wonderful people and life-long friends; and shown us all some amazing places.
Wales and her people will forever stay in my heart, but it’s time to go home. Australia calls.
Matt Hayward is currently a Senior Lecturer in Conservation at Bangor University, UK, and soon to be Associate Professor of Conservation at the University of Newcastle, Australia.