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Career Spotlight: Professor Nick Bisley

For today’s Careers Spotlight, we had the pleasure of sitting down with the accomplished International Relations Professor Nick Bisley. Nick is currently the Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Editor-in-Chief of the Australian Journal of International Affairs. He shared his insight into the benefits of studying abroad and advice he would give to those looking to pursue a career in the international academic labour market.

1. Tracing back to your time at university, you had the opportunity to study abroad to complete your Masters in Economics and PhD in International Relations at the London School of Economics. Did studying abroad have any impact on your career decisions and how would you describe the experience?

I completed an undergraduate degree at Melbourne University in Politics and History. When I finished my Arts Degree I got a scholarship to go to the London School of Economics. When I went to London I completely fell for the whole environment at LSE. It had a vibrant and dynamic international relations department that had an interesting, unorthodox approach to studying. You would read plays, watch movies as well as study academic literature and they had a really diverse student cohort. There is no question, had I not gone (to London) I think my career path would have been quite different from what it is now. It was just this fantastic combination of awesome academic staff who were interesting, engaging and charismatic and had great connections with the student body.

I think if you are studying international affairs, go overseas! There are lots of places to go and different perspectives to see. Naturally, Australians will gravitate towards the UK or the US but they are by no means the only places to go. Wherever you go you will see the world differently from where you are. In the US, you could go to somewhere like the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton or the Maxwell School at Syracuse. The debate would be very different and American- centric and you will be talking a lot more about the Middle East or about Russia than you might see in Australia. It is important to see different ways of viewing the world and how priorities are different in different parts of the world. If you are studying the world and its international politics and economic relations, you have to get out there and see it in different ways. So, if you have done an undergraduate degree here, go somewhere else to study for your post graduate qualification.

2. You have had a fascinating career, both in Australia and abroad. Could you tell us about your career path leading up to today and what your current role entails?

After finishing my PhD, I went on to enter the academic labour market and got a job at the University of Reading. It was a fortunate job to get because Reading had quite a different approach to how it did things. As a young academic in a British environment, you all of a sudden had a lot of autonomy to run classes the way you wanted to do it which you certainly wouldn't have been able to do in a big institution (like Oxford or LSE). We then moved back to Australia and I was lucky enough to get a job at Deakin University. I was there for a few years and then moved to Monash University for a couple of years and have been at La Trobe since 2009.

When I first came to La Trobe it was very much a conventional academic role, I then became the head of the department after a university restructure in 2012. Three years ago I was asked to set up and establish La Trobe Asia, a university wide initiative where I oversee our academic engagement in Asia that covers everything the University does in relation to the region that is not recruiting students. This includes promoting research and collaboration, holding public events, promoting Asian based research and being a public face of the university’s activities in Asia.

3. What influenced you to pursue an academic career in international affairs and what are the benefits?

Intellectually, what I find most engaging about international relations is the way in which you draw on lots of different disciplines. It is at the intersection of political science, economics, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, psychology and a whole range of different disciplines that you are drawing on at any one time. I think that it being multidisciplinary is super appealing. For some people the frustration of it is that you're grappling with a world that is always hard to grasp, that your command of it is always going to be imperfect. We have to come up with ways to make plausible and rigorous conclusions that are useful to other scholars and other policy people. The other interesting thing is that it is always changing. Each year you have to respond to the rapid changes in the world. A first year class on international politics is going to be really different this year because of the orange man in the White House. That makes our life a little tricky, you have got to be a bit more on your toes and be constantly updating your powerpoint slides but that is also what makes it interesting.

4. As a professor at La Trobe University, what advice would you give to both current and future students looking to complete their post-graduate studies and pursue a career in international relations?

If you want to be an academic, the advice is to have a plan B. The international academic labour market is really saturated. It is an unfortunate fact but wherever you look in the world, certainly in the OECD side of the world, there are far more applicants for jobs than there are jobs to go around. It is generally a global labour market and good people miss out through no fault of their own. The flip side is, if you want to work in international affairs, whether that be in foreign policy and government behaviour or whether that be non-traditional stuff in what NGOs do, what lobby groups do, or what international organisations do and you are prepared to move and you have the linguistic fluency, it is a big wide world that will reward a degree of intellectual entrepreneurship. If you are keen to work for the Australian government, there are a lot of branches that have an international component to it. You are doing international policy work whether you are in education, treasury, the attorney general’s department, foreign aid, defence, intelligence and the like.

5. You have significant teaching and research experience in Asia's international relations of the Asia-Pacific. What do you think will some of the leading issues in regards to Australia/ China relations over the coming year? This year, the obvious one will be the South China Sea dispute and the extent to which the US and China do or do not get increasingly fractious about that and the extent to which Australia will be able to position itself in ways that reconcile interests with the US and China. I think particularly given Trump and his hostility towards China and certainly the hostility of a small group of fairly ideologically driven folk around him who are very hostile towards China. If they gain the upper hand in influencing what America does, well then, first thing hold on to your hats because things are about to get really interesting, secondly, for Australia because we are so closely aligned to the US, managing the cost of all of that will be tricky. When you think about where the crises are going to come from in the relationship, that is an obvious one, the South China Sea and then relatedly the link that the US has and the extent to which we get caught up in any of those frictions. I think what everyone is waiting to see is where Trump lands on a policy or otherwise. That's the big one.

The other interesting thing will be the continuing politicisation of the economic relationship (between Australia and China). Last year we saw quite a few high profile investment decisions go against China and they were not necessarily handled as effectively as they could have been. That is where Chinese investors in Australia will want to buy something that will be thought to be sensitive for whatever reason and working out whether or not to allow them to invest and what cost that would have on the relationship will be another one to watch. I think the way we set up the Foreign Investment Review Board gives the treasurer an enormous amount of leeway to make very political decisions and the perception that some of the decisions against Chinese investment have been very political and would not have gone that way had the dollars been associated with an American business or a British business and that investment in Australia for that reason, from a Chinese point of view is a risky proposition will be the second issue.

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