I was warned by another academic on leaving Ireland: ‘You’ll never get back in’

‘In Asia I was respected for having a PhD, something I hadn’t experienced in Ireland’

Michael O’Sullivan was born in Dublin and grew up in Cork. He has had a very varied academic career, studying chemical engineering at Cork Institute of Technology and Fine Art at Coláiste Stiofain Naofa in Cork, before completing a doctorate in English at UCC and at the University of California, Berkeley.

He is currently an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Did you set out to pursue a career in academia?

I finished my PhD in 2004 and couldn’t find a job in an English department in Ireland, so I followed a girlfriend to the UK and lived there for about a year, working for the Open University. It was difficult finding well paid work in universities in the UK, so I returned to Cork and worked for Apple for about six months on technical support.

I think I’ve applied for every job in my field in Irish universities for the past 15 years, but I never managed to get an interview for a lecturing job with the National University of Ireland, my alma mater. I remember being warned by a senior academic when I was leaving Ireland: “You’ll never get back in”.

What took you to Asia?

My brother had been working in Japan and suggested I apply to the universities in Asia. This was before Asian universities had become as high up the rankings as they are today. I got an interview straight away for a university in Nagoya in Japan, got the job, and arrived in Japan in April 2006.

Was it difficult, moving to Japan to live?

It was tough at first, but expats help each other out in Japan. Nagoya is a huge city of about 2.5 million people, but it's in the industrial heartland of Japan, in the Aichi province, so there are relatively few gaijin or foreigners.

I taught language and literature there as an assistant professor, and the salary was something I had only dreamed of while working in Apple. I was treated with respect for having a PhD, something that I hadn’t experienced in Ireland or the UK. They also allowed me to apply for funding for research.

How did you end up in Hong Kong?

I wanted a new challenge after two and a half years. I saw a job in Hong Kong and applied for it. I’d heard the universities were better there. I went for the interview and got the job. I met my wife here and we got married five years ago.

Did moving to Asia to work have a significant influence on your career?

Education and qualifications are taken seriously in Asia, and they respect hard work. I’ve published about 10 books and many articles since I started working in Asian universities. Asia has been extremely good to me and it has allowed me to develop my work and my career in ways that would never have been possible if I’d stayed in Ireland. I don’t know of any friends or classmates who were able to get permanent work in universities in Ireland after their PhDs.

Do you have any regrets about leaving Ireland?

I miss Ireland. My parents need some of us around now and I want to be there with them. All of us have emigrated. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. My grandfather emigrated from Dundalk to enlist in the British Army in India; my father emigrated from West Cork to work in London, where he met my mother, and my mother had to move to Ireland from her hometown of London.

But finding work now in universities or education in Ireland is almost impossible, in my experience.

What have you gained through working in Asia?

Travelling and working in Asia have given me some of the most wonderful and most enriching experiences of my life. I have a broader understanding of culture and of East-West relations. I’m working daily on my Mandarin and Cantonese – but reading characters is another matter.

Will you continue to live abroad?

I read recently that 18 per cent of people born in Ireland live abroad. It’s the highest percentage in the world. Surely it’s some kind of national tragedy. For a country so grounded in the family, the untold damage to family life in Ireland must be immense. But since it shows no signs of changing, we go on writing our expat stories of discovery, growth and longing for what we recall of Ireland.

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