The messier the better: exploring the value of crisis
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, my academic career was already in a crisis. I was in the last few months of a fixed-term contract and was deeply haunted by a mindset of ‘publish or perish’. The pressure of job-seeking somehow made me feel increasingly desperate, guilty and upset for not being productive enough in research. This mindset significantly sabotaged my research passion and I was doubting my career choice on daily basis.
However, just when I thought the pandemic would become yet another personal crisis, it eventually enabled me to find an expected breakthrough in my career. Following this storyline, I will discuss three ways in which PhD students and early career researchers may benefit from disruptions or crises.
First, crises will enable us to think outside the box and explore creative alternatives.
Although my PhD was in sociology of religion, none of my work had related to this area ever since I graduated in 2016. Soon after the pandemic hit the UK in February 2020, I realised that the British Chinese Christian community (of which I had been a member for nearly 10 years) was experiencing some unprecedented changes. Chinese churches were one of the first communities to react to the pandemic: from purchasing sanitisers to monitoring members’ travel history, and from helping victims of racist abuse to organising donations to China.
The instinct of a sociologist told me that I should do something to record this critical historic juncture of the Chinese church in the UK. Consequently, four years after graduation, I began to use my spare time interviewing Chinese church leaders across the UK.
This part-time, voluntary work surely did not generate any direct profit. Nevertheless, I managed to regain the long-lost passion for research, Interviews, observations and writing became fun once again. I stopped lamenting and worrying and got more proactively engaged with this particular work that I really enjoyed.
Second, crises are almost always associated with new career and research pathways.
In Mandarin Chinese, the characters for crisis (危机) are comprised of two characters: one indicating “danger,” the other, “opportunity”. Although crises are associated with danger, they are also incubators for new opportunities.
One of the key roles of a social researcher is addressing the messes in our society and ask questions. What are the conflicts like? What are the causes? How can we deal with them? In this sense, a crisis is in fact a powerful generator of new research questions due to the social, economic and political conflicts it created simultaneously. Importantly, the uncertain nature of a crisis means that the whole society is likely to find an answer to your potential research questions (Rosenthal et al 2001). Those who are acutely engaged in relevant areas may thus gain most of the attention.
This was exactly how my research developed. After I contributed blog article for LSE Religion and Global Society (https://lst.ac.uk/the-bible-and-the-chinese-community-in-britain/), the discussion on hate crimes targeting the Chinese in Britain quickly became a popular topic in the media. In the next six months, I was frequently asked to provide comments on this issue on newspapers and radio, such as the BBC, The Guardian, Le Monde and LBC.
Third, crises can produce essential bridging and linking of social capital within and outside the academia.
Another important dimension of researching crisis is that it is likely to connect the researcher with an extensive network of stakeholders who are interested in the same issue. This is a prominent source of social capital, which may be useful when it comes to job-searching.
Through the research, I built a rapport with several Christian and para-church organisations in the UK. At that point, I knew that a new career path was lying ahead of me. Therefore, I tried to compose a proposal for a comprehensive study of Chinese Christianity in the UK and made some tentative approaches to potential funders.
About three months later, I was contacted by the British and Foreign Bible Society, who said they would like to fund me (https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/latest/news/with-the-chinese-church-in-the-uk-at-a-crossroads-now-is-the-time-to-act/). What impressed them the most was not the research proposal or my CV, but how everybody in this circle was talking about the research and how I was the only one who did something to address the crisis in an academic way. The new research project, hosted at the London School of Theology, officially started in May 2021 (https://lst.ac.uk/the-bible-and-the-chinese-community-in-britain/).
I need to admit that luck has probably played an important role in my story. However, I do believe it is evident that winning beyond a crisis is not unrealistic if we can find transformational opportunity signals amid transitory noise. Life is much larger than the academia. There are so many dimensions we can explore, even in times of crisis.
Yinxuan Huang is a research fellow at London School of Theology. He is currently coordinating a project on Christianity and the Ethnic Chinese Community in Britain funded by the British and Foreign Bible Society. His main research interests are in sociology of religion, Chinese Christianity, East Asian diasporic communities and survey methodology.
Rosenthal, U., Boin, A., & Comfort, L.K. (2001). Managing Crises: Threats, Dilemmas, Cpportunities. Springfield, Ill: Charles C Thomas.
Trilling, B., & Fadel, C. (2009). 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.