Outi Hakola: "There is so much to be curious about"

Outi Hakola dreamed about being a researcher when she was only a child. Now she is a media researcher specialized in issues of death in film and TV series and a lecturer in Area and Cultural Studies at the University of Helsinki. In this week's edition of Campus Celebrity, she tells us how she ended up with her dream career in academics, what inspires her to continue it despite all the uncertainties in the field, and shares her best advice for today's students wishing to land their dream jobs.


You have an M.A. in Comparative Literature and a PhD in Media Studies. What originally made you choose these fields? What motivates you to keep on researching media and literature?

I guess I’m one those people who are endlessly curious about everything. It was difficult for me to choose what to study in the first place. I started my university studies right after high school, and I was a great fan of all kinds of narratives. I started as a literature student, but ended up studying several minor subjects, everything from philosophy to economics, from sociology to cultural history, and from folklore to media studies. One of my passions has always been to understand why something becomes popular, why we want to see some movies more than others, read some books over others, buy some ideas or objects and not others. And why so often those things that are popular in our culture are also trivialized, especially if they are popular among women. Thus, I ended up writing my first MA thesis on the Harry Potter books, which had started to become a popular phenomenon at the time.

At the same time, I had already found out that even if written narratives were my first passion, my love for audiovisual material proved to be even stronger. I loved the addition of images and sound to the mix of the narratives, and decided that this field of study is my true obsession. I had already collected way too many study credits, and the faculty gave me a permission to divide my study credits into two master’s degrees. I wrote the second thesis on horror films and then continued my interest in popular and trivialized culture by writing my PhD on vampire, zombie and mummy films. The best part of media and literature is that they keep changing all the time, they react to the changing society, but they also cause cultural changes by creating new ideas, formats and technologies. The constant change, the constant challenge to understand our contemporary culture keeps me motivated. There is so much to be curious about, if only I would have the time to pursue all of my ideas.

In your own research, you have focused on questions of death in film and TV series. What makes this topic so significant to you? What have been the most interesting aspects of the research?

Originally, my interest in death was personal, as it is for many of those who study death and dying. When I started my PhD, my mother was terminally ill and she died during my doctoral studies. For me, trying to cope with the issue meant that I needed to find ways to understand death and dying. Research on the topic became a way to manage this. Since then, I’ve grown fond of studying death and dying, mostly because of the strong emotional reactions the topic invokes. At the same time, death and dying are an important part of our popular culture. Most films and stories include someone dying, and their deaths can function as the beginning or the end of stories, or experiences of loss can offer important psychological motivations for different characters. Thus, the importance of death and loss can’t be ignored in the narratives.

This research interest has also taken me into some unexpected contexts. I’ve had the privilege to work in an interdisciplinary field, with doctors from hospice care and gene researchers whose perspectives have made me understand the topic in new ways. I’ve also listened to several personal and touching life stories of dying and mourning people. Death is something that will sooner or later touch every one of us, and there are many people like me who want to understand the personal, social and cultural meanings related to these issues. It is rewarding to feel connections to other people, to other fields of study and to other perspectives through shared experiences.

Was it always clear to you to continue an academic career after your studies? What are the best and worst parts of working in academics?

At some level, I’ve always known I wanted to be a researcher. When I was a child, I forced my mother to listen to made-up presentations of various topics based on children’s science books. When I was in high school I asked teachers if I could write extra research papers on various topic ranging from Mayan cultures to the history of gospel. Already then I practiced using scientific reference systems and all the fun things I could learn from academic books. When I started my university studies, my goal was never to write a MA thesis, I always aimed for PhD. The main question was on which topic.

However, for a long time I’ve been shy to admit that this is what I want to do with my life. I’ve known this career to be very competitive and insecure. Therefore, I’ve had plenty of Plan B's on the way. I’ve considered and tried out options for being a journalist, a Finnish language teacher at high school, a research funding administrator, a conference and event organizer and so on. At the moment, universities in Finland are facing new challenges because of decreasing funding, so I can’t let go of my Plan B's. Therefore, for me, the worst part of working in academics is the insecurity of this career. You are only as good as your last presentation, article or lecture. This world doesn’t give you a break: you are forced to constantly overachieve and to push your limits mentally and physically. Occasionally, the feeling can be rewarding, but it is also stressful, tiring and makes it hard for you to enjoy things you’ve done, because things you haven’t yet achieved are already waiting in line.

Despite the feelings of inadequacy, I still consider the academic career to be my dream job. I love the academic freedom to choose your own research interest. I love the processes of learning, moments of insight, and feeling of flow when you are writing on topics you are interested in. In particular, I love teaching. It is a great way to react to different cultural phenomena, and I enjoy interacting with students. Often I feel like I have the best students in the world. They are bright, charming, motivated, and they are my day-to-day inspiration in this work.

Indeed - besides being a researcher, you are also an excellent lecturer who has been responsible for many of my favorite courses during my university years, with topics varying from comedy as a social commentary to gender and sexuality in popular culture, for instance. How much freedom do you have in choosing what kinds of courses to teach, and how do you choose the topics? Do the enormous cuts on education proposed by the government already affect the teachers’ decisions considering teaching and/or the general atmosphere at the University?

Thank you, it is always nice to hear that students enjoy taking my classes. So far, I have had a lot of freedom to choose my teaching topics. We have a number of obligatory courses, but the staff divides these responsibilities evenly so that everyone will have a possibility to teach their personally chosen topics as well. My inspiration for courses come from my endless curiosity. I choose topics I want to know more about. In this way, I’m there to learn along with my students. At the same time, I try to balance the needs of the department – what are the required topics for the students, what are topics that haven’t been discussed during the recent years, what are current issues that should be discussed, and then of course, can I include my own passions about literature, film, media, popular culture, or death and violence into the mix. I believe that as long as I am fascinated with the topic, students can share this sense of fascination and not only learn about certain cultural phenomena, but also enjoy this learning process.

The cuts on education are certainly a worrying issue. The atmosphere has been expectant, changing from resigned to hopeful, and from sad to angry. Certainly the situation has made it more difficult to plan the future as we don’t know who will be here next year. If the cuts will be as massive as has been planned, it will affect teaching as well. With smaller resources teaching will focus on obligatory courses and the chance to try out new ideas and discuss current issues might be limited. With less courses, we will have more book exams and more students within one class which makes it more difficult to plan interactive teaching and discussions. And personally, I fear that it will make it harder for teachers to get to know their students in a way so that we could be there for support and help when needed.

You have achieved a lot academically at a fairly young age. So, to finish off, do you have any advice or consoling words for today’s students who worry about the future work prospects (and future everything, really)?

My best advice is to go for it. Try to be honest with yourself and admit what you want to achieve. If you want to become a president – make it happen. If you want to win a Nobel Prize – work for it. If you want to open up the next best restaurant in Finland – learn to cook. The biggest limitations in life are those that we put on ourselves. We have a tendency to fear that someone else is always better than us, that someone else is always chosen over you. If someone is going to make it anyway, why can’t it be you? It might mean hard work, it might mean that you need to toughen up for example, if you are a woman trying to make it in a male-dominated career field and it might mean that you don’t end up exactly where you planned to, but you need to believe in yourself. And remember, if you got into the university in the first place, it means you are smart and intelligent. You already have it in you. At the same time, I want to remind that making it is not only about work, career and achievement. It is about making this the best life you can. To have friends, family and passions. They make the hard work worth it all.