Transition Update:
Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

I wrote my Transition Q&A in late November 2016, just four months after moving from New York to Ann Arbor and taking a new position as the Digital Media Manager for the Association for Asian Studies (AAS).

Fifteen months later, I’m more or less settled in at the AAS. Although I still haven’t done anything to decorate my office, I’ve been through a full annual cycle of association activities and now have a good sense of what happens when. Last March we launched our blog, #AsiaNow, and the majority of my 32-hour work week is spent commissioning, editing, writing, and publicizing posts for the blog. Additionally, I run our social media accounts, work with my colleagues on preparing everything for our annual conference at the end of March, assemble email campaigns that are sent to the membership, and take on other special projects as they come along. I keep pretty busy, but appreciate that this job enables me to stay engaged with my own narrow slice of academia (Chinese history) and puts me in touch with scholars from the broader Asian studies community.

When I’m not in my undecorated AAS office, I work at home on the “historian and writer” side of my career. I spent nearly all of 2017 co-writing (and then co-revising, twice) the third edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, which will be published by Oxford University Press next month. A lot has changed in China since the second edition was published in 2013, so my co-author, Jeff Wasserstrom, and I completely rebooted the book by tossing out a lot of old material, adding new stuff, and rewriting large sections of the manuscript. I’m very happy with the final product and am proud that there will be a book in the world with my name on the cover.

Now, having finished the book and taken some time off to binge-read a bunch of fiction, I’m trying to settle down and get back into a writing routine during the two hours I have to work at home every morning. Self-discipline is something I struggle with, so I’ve learned to put my phone in airplane mode and set small, reasonable goals for those two hours every day—read one chapter of a book I’m reviewing, write half of a blog post—to keep myself on task and motivated. If I dwell too much on the long list of things I plan to do but haven’t, I get so paralyzed by anxiety that I find myself unable to start anything.

Even though I knew from the beginning that my career interests lay outside the classroom, I still went through a period of transition after finishing my PhD three years ago. In many ways I think I’m just starting to exit that transition. Undecorated office aside, I’m finally feeling more settled, both physically (I bought a house) and career-wise. I’m developing a better feel for the projects that I want to pursue and the invitations that I want to accept, and I’m more confident in saying “no” when an offer comes along that doesn’t seem like it will take my career in the direction I want it to go. (Like a lot of scholars—and writers—I’ve been inculcated with the idea that you should always say “yes” to everything. Learning when and how to say “no” takes time and practice.) I still seek advice from trusted mentors, but not as often, and I no longer feel like an impostor when current grad students ask me for advice. It’s been a longer transition than I expected, and often not an easy one, so I’m relieved to finally feel like I’m gaining confidence in and traction on both sides of my career. The challenge for me now is to maintain that traction and move forward.

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Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (PhD, Modern Chinese history) originally wrote a Transition Q&A in November 2016. Read her interview and find her at mauracunningham.org.

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