Caryn Lim, 28, Academic at Monash University Malaysia
Being an academic is probably one of the careers held at the highest regard, and Caryn Lim’s on her way to being a lecturer at Monash University Malaysia. While she didn’t plan on this path, Caryn had excelled in research during her Honours year and also found that she enjoyed teaching when she started tutoring. Having a curiosity in exploring identity politics in death practices in Malaysia, she decided to take the subject further in her PhD. Caryn’s experience doing her PhD wasn’t a totally smooth one, but she persevered and completed it just earlier this year.
Please describe what it is you are; and/or what you do.
I currently perform multiple roles. I tutor a unit called Contemporary World Politics and History at the School of Arts and Social Sciences. That’s a temporary role. My other role is as Academic Coordinator at the Malaysia Immersion Hub (MIH). MIH is a fairly new department at Monash focused on providing students with the opportunity to engage meaningfully with Malaysian nature, culture and history. We are all about experiential learning and innovative approaches to education.
What made you decide to pursue what you’re currently doing? What was that one lightbulb moment?
I’m not sure I had a lightbulb moment at all. It was more of a series of fortunate events that I simply went along with. I pursued an additional Honours year after completing the normal 3 year undergraduate programme. During this time I was able to explore some of my interests in identity and politics in Malaysia and I realised that I liked research and was quite good at it. I also tutored at Monash for a year prior to beginning the PhD candidature and I found that I really enjoyed teaching. I also liked the idea of not “going corporate” which, at the time, I thought was the most boring kind of job ever and I would never ever work in a cubicle. I had a very inaccurate image of teaching in my head!
Can you tell us what inspired your PhD topic in death studies?
I remember clearly discussing possible PhD topics with my supervisor at the time. He rattled off a list of random areas including education and death. I suppose I thought death was an interesting and “sexy” topic. I also wanted to continue research into identity politics in Malaysia and I was interested in how identity politics might unfold in particular death spaces and practice. I thought there was definitely something interesting about how even in death we remain categorised and separated spatially.
“I wanted to continue research into how identity politics might unfold in particular death spaces and practice. I thought there was definitely something interesting about how even in death we remain categorised and separated spatially.”
What is it like being in academia? Can you share a bit about a typical day as a researcher/ academic?
Teaching (both lecturing and tutoring) is very fun but tiring. I prepare for my classes by reading and thinking up creative ways to engage with students who very often come to class looking like they haven’t slept in 10 years. Usually the lecturer and I decide on an activity of some sort, maybe a debate or a small group discussion. When we actually get to class it’s like a performance. You have to be “on” or else the whole class goes to sleep. If you want to excel in academia you also have to keep your own research up and get your work published so there’s a lot of juggling going on.
Pursuing a PhD is a commitment as it takes a few years. How was the experience like and how did you stay motivated?
The experience was… hard. Much more difficult than I anticipated, although I had been warned. I suppose in the beginning it was great, though. I loved having the time to explore my own interests, go down every rabbit hole I found, all in the name of research. During my fieldwork year, I was very fortunate to learn from several people in the funeral industry and I really enjoyed my time shadowing them. It was the latter stages, after I had collected all of my data, where I struggled to stay motivated. I started to doubt my abilities and question my plans for the future. I suffered from anxiety at this point. Suddenly the independence and the time became a bad thing. I know I would not have been able to finish if not for the people around me who supported and encouraged me.
What’s something that you didn’t expect when you chose to pursue academia? Please elaborate if possible.
I didn’t expect that it would take as big of a mental and emotional toll. I was warned that the PhD would be hard but I didn’t think that it would be hard in that way. I’ve always thought of myself as a happy, optimistic and emotionally resilient person. As I struggled to write the PhD though, I suffered from anxiety issues that I could not control. I had trouble sleeping for a long time. I think it’s pretty common amongst PhD candidates actually but it was not something I anticipated at all.
What would you say to young women who are looking to do what you’re doing?
Do your research and be sure you know what you are getting yourself into. Teaching is amazing and fulfilling, and academia is a place where you can make a difference in many ways. But the road there is hard and unglamorous.
Special thanks to Tropicana Gardens Property Gallery for venue assistance during the shoot.