An unplanned path to academia – John Selby

John-SelbyAs a lecturer at Macquarie University in the Department of Accounting and Corporate Governance, Dr John Selby confesses he took an unusual path on his way to academia. At age 15, John was already deciding which university to attend and degree to pursue. His parents had left school early and as the first in his family to go to university, he was drawn to Griffith University to study combined law and international business degrees. “I just didn’t want to study law on its own and wanted to have another degree. I felt the academic staff at Griffith focused on ensuring students learned as much as possible and there was a focus on a new generation of university students.”

With an OP 1, John soaked up every opportunity to gain knowledge and training in his time at Griffith. “I really enjoyed the freedom and flexibility to choose how I spent my time.” John’s experiences extended beyond the classroom and one of his fondest memories is when a professor used a technique learned whilst studying at Harvard to encourage his cross-cultural management class to connect with local cultural groups and to learn directly from them. “I spent time engaging with the “White Russian” community who were exiled after the Czar was overthrown. I spent a couple of weeks with them learning their business, cultural and religious practices. They were known as the “White Russians” because they opposed the “Red Communists”.”

After graduating as a University Medallist, John planned to practice as a lawyer and spent three years working for a large law firm, Mallesons, in Sydney. With a newfound interest in the bigger picture of the law instead of the partner track, John was consulting when he received an offer to teach at a university. Within a few months, his temporary gig turned fulltime and started John on an unplanned path.

“I never intended to become an academic. It was something I fell into by accident.”

“Having said that, when I look back at doing things like publishing my undergraduate honours thesis, and writing journal articles while I was a lawyer, those were things that someone who was planning an academic career would do. I happened to do these by accident,” he said.

As his academic career took off, John studied his PhD part-time and wrote his thesis on the ‘History of the Regulation of the Domain Name System in Australia’. “I now do research, teach courses, write conference papers and travel around the world to present my findings. This is perhaps not the journey I thought I would have had when I started law school.”

John credits his double degree with giving him the advantage to learn different disciplines and be flexible in steering his career path. “I think that’s the important thing in life, that you have that flexibility, that you set goals. Going and practising as a lawyer I think was a great experience in terms of training, branding and expertise; but you don’t know whether that’s your life path. You have to climb the mountain and then decide if you like the view.”

“There are plenty of other mountains to climb with different views. Students nowadays will have many different career paths. It’s very unlikely that their first job is where they’ll stay through their lives.”

For anyone wanting to pursue an academic career, John admits it is a competitive field and for those who are close to finishing their PhDs he offers advice from his own experiences. “You need to have flexibility, a willingness to teach in areas that perhaps others do not want to and this will increase your opportunities and the likelihood of getting that first job.”

“There are a lot of people who have great PhDs but teaching students is not their ideal path. There are opportunities in industry and in government where they can take their PhD. So thinking carefully about what career path you want to have after your PhD is really important.”

“It’s really important you start thinking about that during that your PhD candidature and not wait to the very end.”

John continues to pass these thoughts on to his students each year. Whilst he pushes his students hard to learn, John wants to inspire them to be independent thinkers “the best feeling is when you see the light bulb go on and they really get it.”


Top Tips from John

  • Select your examiners carefully for PhD examination
  • The networks you have, conferences you go to and papers you present are vital in terms of your career after your PhD
  • Get teaching experience because it will help identify if academia is for you


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