“Studying Comparative Literature is about being curious and confused, together”

With extensive experience in academic teaching and research, JULIANNE YANG 楊秋凌 (BA 2010; MPhil 2013; PhD 2018) is a Hong Kong-based career coach and HR consultant from Norway. She designs and runs career workshops for organisations in Hong Kong, and offers one-on-one career coaching. She also consults small to medium-sized companies on all things related to hiring. Her story shows us how a curiosity and interest in people can become a career motivation. Website: www.julianneyang.com


Julianne still remembers the excitement she felt when she took Comparative Literature courses during her first semester at HKU. In a course on postcolonialism taught by Dr. Mirana May Szeto, they examined Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Annie John—a novel that helped Julianne grapple with postcolonialism as a phenomenon. Other courses, such as “Ways of Reading” taught by Dr. Esther Cheung, also introduced her to inspiring thinkers, such as Susan Sontag. “I could see a woman writing with confidence, and I felt then that, as a woman, perhaps I can write like that, too. That was invigorating.”

While the training in Comparative Literature equipped her with useful thinking tools, Julianne recognised that applying these tools to humans was complicated. “Critical thinking is like a knife. With it, we learn how to pick things apart, but that is not always the point. Besides making a critique, it is also important to ‘lift things up’, to look at them carefully and talk about why they are the way they are.” This belief in seeing and listening without necessarily judging also informs the way she interacts with students.

She recalls a memorable episode in 2014, the year the Umbrella Movement took place. At the time she was working as a tutor at the Department, and during an optional tutorial, two students—a Hongkonger and a Mainlander—came and they ended up talking about politics. At first they held very different opinions, but after a long, constructive conversation they eventually reached
a common ground. “That reminded me of how teaching is a process of facilitation, where you create a safe space for different voices and people to meet and understand each other.”


In many ways, Julianne’s current role as a career coach and HR consultant is built upon her prior teaching experiences at HKU and the University of Oslo. To her, teaching has been like taking a “crash course” in people. It exposes her to students from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds, each with their own needs, goals and potentials.

She often encounters clients (including university students) who have impressive CVs, nevertheless struggle to see their own achievements. “Like a therapist, I give them the space to talk. And when you listen carefully to how people talk about themselves, you can often learn not only what they think about themselves, but also why they think about themselves in a certain way. My role is to help them become aware of what they are saying and doing, and
encourage them to recognise their own potential.”

While working as a PhD researcher in Oslo, she observed how fellow PhD researchers struggled with how to transition out of academia into other industries. “Some people may gravitate towards academia because of the fear of the unknown. When on top of that they lack support in how to transition into other fields, some end up staying in academia, even though they feel very unsure about their job prospects there.” It was after noticing this problem that Julianne chose to steer her own career towards career coaching.

“When I coach PhD holders in how to develop a non-academic career, it’s a process of collaboration. And a key step is to help them throw their ‘academic identity’ out of the window and dare to rethink their identity. It sounds dramatic, I know, but when someone has focused on their academic identity for a long time, it can be difficult to see that you are more than your academic title or discipline. I remind people that they can remake their identities.”

Whether working with clients in academia or beyond, Julianne’s work involves helping people to find support, recognise their resources and apply their skills in creative ways. “I see myself as a tour guide who walks with you. I’m your ally and support, but it is ultimately you who determines your own path.”

The notion of “seeing” the world from multiple perspectives, as emphasised in Comparative Literature, finds its unique manifestation in Julianne’s work with
people. “Everyone wants to be ‘seen’. My work is all about that, about letting people know that they are seen, that they are not alone. Another really meaningful part of my work is that I try to enable people to see something in
themselves. Now, that can be hard. But it’s worth it.”