Careers Corner: “Academia gives me the freedom I would have to trade off in other sectors”

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The point of university is to figure out what one will spend one’s life doing. However, embarking upon a career path is scary for most of us. Thus, every month, Roar News talks to inspiring people about their job and career, and which steps led them to be where they are now.

This month, we have spoken to King’s War Studies Department’s Dr Christine Cheng about being an academic, and about her trajectory from being an engineering student in Canada to being one of King’s most esteemed academics.

Dr Christine Cheng says she approached the field of academia with humility. “I was aware most of us don’t become the next Jennifer Welsh (famous academic, journ.note.), most of us will be average. That was the reality I gave to myself when I started. But I have been lucky and hard-working, and have had more of an impact. My work has exceeded my own expectations,” she tells Roar.

If most academics will only ever be average, it does not seem to be the case for Dr Cheng. She is the author of several books, the newest of which keeps her engaged in book talks in many different countries. She comments on international affairs for the BBC, the Wall Street Journal and Al Jazeera, is active in British party politics for the Liberal Democrats and sits on the Governing Council of the Conflict Research Society, to mention a few of her accomplishments.

Her days, she says, consist of teaching, marking, writing, taking part in panels and events, book talks and “a lot of emails”. In academia, she explains, “what your job is is up to you. My days are very variable.” When asked whether she considers her job a 9-5 job, she says “it is and it isn’t.” Dr Cheng explains she will probably be working until midnight trying to answer emails, and that she “owes people about five chapters in various projects”, leaving Roar with the impression that being an academic is as far from 9-5 as you can get. “It’s crazy. The job is full-on,” she notes.

A freeing, but full-on career choice

Dr Cheng did not seek out academia initially. “I have a very weird career trajectory,” she says, explaining how she started out studying engineering in Canada, where she is originally from, before getting into policy when she was elected student government president. After a year in the position, she was hooked and realised it “was more fun than engineering, so I went on to get a degree in public affairs from Princeton”. Although the decision to pursue an academic career ended up being a conscious choice, Dr Cheng says “one step led to the other, and I realised what I wanted to do along the way,” calling the path towards academia a “gradual shift”.

Dr Christine Cheng of the King’s College London War Studies Department.

After realising engineering “wasn’t as fun as it should have been,” it was policy Dr Cheng thought she wanted to do. She worked in the UN Secretary General’s Office, in the World Bank, and on a US Presidential Campaign. Soon enough, she realised working in government was too slow-moving for her. “I was worried I would lose my voice in the sense that it’s hard not to become part of the bureaucracy. I didn’t think I wanted to compromise my autonomy,” Dr Cheng explains. She thought that working for a big institution would mean compromising her beliefs and autonomy for something bigger. “I wasn’t interested in the private sector either. It wasn’t exciting to me, and I felt that being an academic is freeing.”

Careers are very serendipitous

When asked what the best part of being an academic is, Dr Cheng answers that “impacting student lives is extremely rewarding. You get to shape a personality while they are still open to thinking about things differently, and help them become better critical thinkers.” When asked about the opposite, Dr Cheng is also quick to respond. “Marking. I don’t think I know anyone who likes marking.”

“Careers are very serendipitous. Don’t follow the traditional path,” Dr Cheng adds, noting that one should try to stand out from the crowd and be different in a job-seeking process. She says her career path has been “very strange. Not planned, not linear, and I don’t think that’s abnormal.” She urges King’s students to “be open to what life presents to you. You don’t really know what you want to do at the age of 18 to 21, and that’s okay. If someone were to tell me at 21 that I would be doing what I am doing now, I would not have been able to imagine the weird steps that took me here”.

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