From Melbourne to Hanoi via Sarajevo (and Everything In Between): Where a PhD Can Lead You

After completing her PhD in History and Social Theory, Nicola Nixon has spent the last fifteen years working in international development, in a range of posts across Europe, Asia and Australia. She’s worked for the United Nations Development Programme, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and a range of international NGOs. Currently, she is Director of Governance at the Asia Foundation, based in Hanoi.

Her career has given her a unique perspective on the unexpected pathways a History PhD student can embark on after completing their thesis. Anton Donohoe-Marques corresponded with Nicola recently to discuss her journey, the rigours of moving from academia to the world outside, and the inherent value of the PhD experience.

What do you see as the value of doing a PhD?

There are many benefits to having a PhD outside academia, such that I’ve never once regretted having put the time and effort in, despite ultimately not having pursued an academic career.

First and foremost, for me, was the value in and of itself. I loved my time as a PhD student. Until a few more recent positions, I used to describe it as the best job I ever had: at what other time in one’s life do you get to spend quiet days at home reading, pondering and writing? For a lapsed introvert like myself, I revelled in the intellectual growth those three and a half years offered. I don’t think the inherent value of the PhD experience should be underestimated.

Since then, and secondly, I’ve found enormous value in the academic rigor in which I was trained during that time and the ways in which that strengthens the work of my teams and the institutions within which I’ve worked; for instance to influence the formulation and implementation of government policies and programs in ways that make more sense! In my line of work – international development, in which we work in multicultural teams across countries, continents and timeframes – people frequently struggle to synthesise ideas and arguments to communicate them clearly; to wade through a fog of jargon and waffle in order to find that kernel of an idea that is worth pursuing; to address feedback by sifting the constructive from the not-so; and to take some critical distance and produce analysis and interpretation, not just description. These are the sorts of skills I’ve been trained in (regardless of how good I might be at them!) and can support others with. The PhD experience gave me a respect for conceptual rigour that I’ve been extremely grateful for ever since.

Thirdly, the challenge of encouraging academia and policymakers communicate better with one another has been at the heart of my work for almost 20 years now. I’m passionate about evidence-based policymaking and enjoy working at the interface of the two institutions. Through my PhD, I have a healthier respect for the contribution academic knowledge in all disciplines can make to policymaking than many of my colleagues. I also have a reasonably well-tuned radar for the cultural prejudices that exist in academic and policy institutions which frequently mitigate against constructive engagement between the two.

And finally, in my various positions, it hasn’t hurt to be a woman with a PhD, when it is not always easy to be taken seriously or treated as an equal

Do you have a favourite memory or experience that you would like to tell us about from your time at the University of Melbourne?

I’m afraid my time at the University of Melbourne is almost entirely overshadowed by the memory of my partner who tragically died while I was studying for my PhD. That sort of eclipses all else. He, too, was a University of Melbourne graduate, having completed his Law Degree some years beforehand. He was a lovely, lovely guy whose life ended far too soon. Our home was where I loved to spend my days immersed in my reading and writing. That is my strongest memory of my time at Melbourne. I also fondly recall the heartfelt support I received from colleagues in the History Department in the period immediately after his death. Their kindness was so important to my staying on track and being able to finish my thesis – something for which I’ve always been deeply grateful.

Early career academics will often take jobs internationally. You’ve worked in a number of different countries. What’s your advice to someone considering taking a job overseas?

I’m all for the idea of working overseas – obviously! – and would encourage anyone considering it to do so. I’ve worked overseas for so long now that I feel more at home in the international community than in Australia, even though I recently spent a year back in Oz.

Relocating from country to country becomes a skill in and of itself. I’ve done it eight times and each time it gets easier; you have to know what your absolute priorities are (must have comfortable pillow; kids’ enrolment must be sorted) and those things that can wait (I’d love a cup of chai but heck knows where I’d buy masala chai tea in Hanoi). If you can get the former down to a minimum, you can move from place to place in a reasonably zen fashion. Life just involves a period of intensive logistical challenges that eventually settle down.

In the longer term, it’s important to get excited about the context you’ve arrived in, with as minimal comparison to ‘home’ as possible. Get to know people and places in your neighbourhood and enjoy the novelty. It’s amazing how quickly that fades as a place becomes home.

And lastly, no matter how introverted you are and how much you’d prefer to be reading the latest academic article on x, y and z – it’s so important to get out and make friends, local and international. A friend of mine once observed that in the international community we hothouse friendships. It’s true – it’s easy to find friends who will help you settle in, whether that’s at a gym class, among your colleagues, or while picking up the kids from school.

Nicola with daughter, Keira, and son, Finn, at their school, at home in Hanoi, Vietnam, May 2019

Since finishing your PhD you’ve had an remarkably varied career, at university, in the public service, and now in the NGO sector. How have you successfully navigated these transitions and what would you say to History PhD candidates wanting to move into these sectors after they finish up?

Some great advice I received when I was working on my PhD was that it is only an apprenticeship. The thesis only has to be good enough to pass. It will never be perfect; it’s not your magnum opus. If you’re lucky, that might come later. That helped me a lot to get my thesis to the ‘good enough’ point. I love my current gig with the Asia Foundation, in part for that reason: I get to draw on my research skills, oversee and sometimes do the research myself, but still remain very much grounded in a world in which good enough is often more than enough, where research and analyses are only as good as the processes they put in train to improve people’s lives.

For those who move out of academia into other career tracks, it’s important to do so with humility and a learning disposition. Those will set you on course to do multiple ‘PhDs’ in your career, beyond and better than the original.

Can you tell us about the practicalities of this transition and provide some tips, perhaps, about managing to land a job outside of the university sector?

My transition from academia to the scary, outside world wasn’t entirely planned and for quite some years I continued to keep an eye out for opportunities to return to teaching at a university and, in fact, almost did at one point. In hindsight, though, I’m glad I didn’t and am very happy with the direction things have taken. So, looking back, the first step was securing a job outside Australia, rather than outside the university sector, when I took a fellowship with the Open Society Foundation to teach and work on higher education reform in Albania. That was just after I completed my PhD and, honestly speaking, the job prospects in academia in Australia at that time were pretty limited, particularly in fields like European History.

So an appetite for risk, a sense of adventure and an interest in expanding my horizons beyond Australian academia all seem to have served me well. In terms of landing particular positions that I’ve been passionate about, again, it all looks so much simpler in hindsight, but in the throes of application after application after application the going is tough, the interviews are relentless and difficult to manage around an already fast-paced and demanding job, and the disappointment often keenly felt because the investment is as much emotional as intellectual. Developing a fairly thick skin, as well as an ability to reframe and to kick on with the next application, is pretty critical. I’ve done so many interviews now that I actually quite enjoy them – that gives you an indication of the failure rate!

Finally, there’s an awful lot of luck involved. I once worked for an international organisation I later discovered was renowned for its nepotistic hiring practices. People frequently responded with shock when they discovered I got the job through a regular open recruitment process. That one really was pure luck. Being in the right place at the right time is helpful. Being in interesting places in interesting times can sometimes help that along.

Did you face any negative perceptions moving from the world of academia into government? If so, how did you deal with these?

In my view, government is by nature more conservative than academia – more hierarchical, more process- and task-driven, and more risk averse. And not only government: I found the UN system quite hierarchical and conservative as well. Huge bureaucracies are riddled with taboo subjects, icons and holy grails. Sometimes that is for good reason and those boundaries are essential to the smooth functioning of the beast. They allow things to get done. But at other times they can reify outdated ways of thinking and working. They can set the boundaries between elites and others within the institution or they can be a hindrance to innovation. With a background in critical theory, I have always found that difficult, particularly when people adhere to institutional truisms in an almost religious fashion. But it’s also easy to overthink the nuances of the internal culture (something I have a bad habit of doing, although in my defence I reckon there’s a fair bit of underthinking going on!).

How do I deal with these? By making friends and alliances; by making the work environment a positive experience for my team and colleagues; by finding a work area that I can really get my teeth into; by observing and learning from those I respect. It’s important to understand the underlying politics and incentives of any institution, particularly if it’s large and complex, and to maintain a healthy sense of humour at all times. Satire is my comfort blanket, you might say.

Of the cities and countries you’ve worked in, which has been your favourite?

I loved living in Sarajevo. It’s a beautiful little city. And it was the symbolic culmination, for me, of years of learning and reading about the breakup of former Yugoslavia. It was a wonderful end to a long road that I had started on in 1994 when I’d volunteered, for a very short time, in a refugee camp in southern Serbia – a rather life-changing experience.

But since then I’ve been more and more attracted to the hectic, bustling craziness of some of Asia’s bigger cities. I loved the atmosphere in Yangon on a recent trip there, in beautiful, sunny weather. I always enjoy visiting Bangkok, I loved living in Jakarta, and I’m enjoying getting to know Hanoi. 

What are some of the challenges of working overseas and how have you handled them?

There are so many challenges it’s impossible to list them all! Language is probably the most significant. It’s important to get the basics so that you can function, engage with others outside your immediate work environment to provide some grounding, and it makes for a respectful way to move into a new place. But learning a language while starting a new job in a new country is unbelievably challenging. I remember dreading my Bosnian language classes in the evening. Too often, I was just too tired. If you don’t have the opportunity to learn before you get there, it’s worth negotiating that time in your work hours if you can (and push for that!), even if you have to pay for the tutor yourself.

What are the most important skills you’ve taken with you from your time training as a historian?

A keen respect for the interpretations of the past in the present and how they can be used to shape contemporary politics. Much of my work tends to be very present and future focused and timeframes tend to be reasonably short – three- or four-year political cycles, posting cycles of three years, three- to five-year project cycles. By contrast, developmental change, in whatever pathway that might be taking in a given context, is frequently nonlinear and takes decades or generations. Although we often make that observation, in fact we have scant few ways in which we take a look at the international development project from the perspective of long-term time horizons.

I’ve always wanted to do more work on impact evaluations because the time horizons are much longer: for instance, we might look back at a decade of Australian-funded initiatives in a particular sector in a particular country and assess how effective they’ve been. I’m probably the only one who feels it but the absence of historians in those efforts is striking. It would be great if we involved historians in those processes.

Nicola Nixon completed her PhD thesis, ‘Contemporary Fantasies of Ancient Hatreds: Ideology and War in former Yugoslavia’ in the Department of History and the Ashworth Centre for Social Theory at the University of Melbourne.

Feature image: Nicola with her daughter, Keira, and Theerada Namhai, Maha Sarakam Province, Thailand, June 2019