Problems of Place: It’s Me and My Circumstances

It was a year ago that I became a doctor. I remember that day pretty vividly, the weather was already becoming a bit cooler in Coventry, UK. Yet it was nonetheless sunny. I put on my new clothes, especially bought for the occasion, and walked the short distance from my house to the university campus. I had been eagerly awaiting that moment for at least two months, but in the wider context, that was actually the culmination point of a four-year period throughout which most on my life had been centred on my research project.

I went inside the room where my two examiners were waiting for me. I was nervous, but strangely self-confident as well. The viva (thesis defense in the British academic vocabulary) went really smoothly. I was very lucky in having two sharp, but also very human examiners, who gave me insightful and encouraging feedback on my work and awarded my degree after a one-hour conversation. I couldn’t be happier. I felt so good about myself. In Spanish we have a saying that can be roughly translated as “I was touching heaven with my hands,” which means to achieve your most wanted goals.

Happiness, though, only lasted a few days. Five days after the viva, I moved to Mexico City. This was an arrangement I had with my boyfriend, who had started a postdoc in Mexico two months before. We wanted to live together, instead of trying long-distance. I also wanted to move back to a big, Latin American city, as I lived most of my life in one: Buenos Aires. We rented an old apartment in the Roma neighbourhood, and decided that I was going to spend my time trying to publish and sending out applications, preferably to Mexican universities, so we could stay together. All this seemed wonderful: I was going to have spare time to get published and find myself a place in academia.

However, very soon after my arrival, I started to feel extremely uneasy. Looking back, that feeling prevented me from enjoying the good bits of my life. First, not having an office, or a library access card, or an institutional email account made me feel disoriented. I had spent most of my life affiliated to academic institutions, so not having that support made me feel out of place. Moreover, although my supervisors continued being very supportive, it felt inappropriate every time I had to ask for a reference letter or for advice, as they were no longer my tutors. Second, not having a source of income also made me feel extremely worried. Although my partner was covering our expenses without problems, I had been fairly income-independent since I was nineteen years old. This situation, added to the fact that I stayed most of the time in the house, made me feel extremely anxious, so I decided to find a part-time job as English teacher. I didn’t have my work permit yet, so I was hired without a contract at an English school, which paid very little. Lastly, most of my postdoc applications were rejected, as well as an article that I wrote during my first months in Mexico.

This was, I think, the hardest. It is extraordinary how strong you have to be to cope with rejection letters. I wasn’t. Every time I received an email with the heading “Thanks for your application. Unfortunately…” I tried to keep calm, but in the end, I always ended up having an anxiety attack and repeating myself that I wasn’t fit for academia, that I was losing my time and energy filling up applications, and that I’d better tried doing something else with my life. Moreover, social media was also affecting me negatively, every time someone posted something about their successes it felt like I was sinking a bit deeper into my frustration.

Throughout the year after getting my PhD, I thought about a hundred different jobs that I could do besides academia—from opening a restaurant (because I really love cooking) to becoming a yoga instructor (I also like doing yoga). I became interested in the climate crisis, which prompted me to change much of my lifestyle—from eating almost no meat and travelling less to become extremely thoughtful everytime I bought something. These two apparently unconnected issues, climate change and my academic life, made me think a lot about academia’s self-enclosure and the difficulties in connecting academic work with every-day practices and the possibility of working not only for myself, but also for others.

I haven’t been able, however, to reconciliate these two problems and often these thoughts were, however, tainted with a grain of frustration about not being able to succeed academically. My general anxiety made me jump from the thought of one profession to the other, without really being able to decide whether I wanted to quit academia or not. Additionally, little academic tasks kept reaching out to me—from a journal asking me to review a book, to a friend asking me to write an article for a special edition of the journal he edits, to an offer to deliver a paper at a conference in London.

Still, the sensation of anxiety wouldn’t go away. I would wake up everyday in the morning before the alarm sat off, checking my emails on my phone while still in bed, hoping to get good news in my inbox, which never arrived. Many days I felt hopeless and completely disoriented. Many times I thought that working in academia was such an ungrateful job: it takes a toll on your mental health and provides very little reward in exchange. In the meantime, I tried to cope with things by doing what every anxiety manual indicates: exercise, go out with people, talk to your friends and family, find a hobby. I even wrote a list of good and bad things in my life, so I could appreciate better (and more fairly) my actual situation. Even though all those things were helpful, the underlying feeling of frustration wouldn’t go away.

Things only changed a few weeks ago. As Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher said: “it’s me and my circumstances” or, in other words, things not only depend on ourselves, circumstances change and make us change as well. Although teaching English wasn’t bad (I actually enjoy teaching very much), I was feeling increasingly frustrated with my job because it paid very little and it wasn’t something I could add to my CV. I therefore asked for a raise, which my boss didn’t accept and he played tough on me by getting into my classes and giving me bad comments about my teaching, with the only purpose of making me feel diminished (students actually liked my classes very much and they expressed it when I left).

Facing this situation made me realise that I wasn’t thinking my situation correctly. Feeling undervalued at the English school had the paradoxical effect of making me realise that I had to value my academic achievements myself, regardless of the rejection letters I had received. I had put so much effort on my research, which I actually enjoyed doing, that I wasn’t willing to let it go to waste. I realised that I didn’t have to lose my time anymore, I had to start working towards publishing my thesis as book (which was something I always had in mind when writing up the thesis). I had sent the book proposal but the publishing house was (and is) taking a lot of time to review it. I decided nonetheless to get my hands into the thesis again, pretending that I was getting paid to do so.

What I basically realised is that I had such a valuable asset in my hands. That is, time. I was wasting it by feeling bad about myself and by working on a job where my efforts weren’t valued. When my partner no longer has the postdoc, I’ll probably have to get any job I can find, but in the meantime, making the most of my time is the best investment I can make at the moment. Two weeks ago, I quit my job in the English school, I began working towards my book and I’m happier and sleeping much much better. I also deactivated my Facebook and Twitter accounts, which has also been a good decision, as I’m feeling much less anxious now.

I don’t really know if there is a big conclusion to get from my experience. It would be easy to say: “you have to have clarity in what you want and go for it.” I’ve tried to illustrate that making decisions after the PhD is very difficult, and knowing what we want might take more effort and time than expected. I don’t know, for instance, if I could have made the decision of working on the book any time sooner. My conclusion is that there are moments where the circumstances are difficult and hard to overcome, and maybe we simply have to accept that we will inevitably go through bad moments.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is to go through these situations as calmly as possible. Having a job outside academia also made me realise that we are used to highly competitive environmentsas academics, where achieving success in the form of publications, scholarships, and networking is seen as the main goal. And social media, of course, amplifies this, where the downsides and depression of failure to achieve these goals is not often visible.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself when saying that it would have been useful if people would share their stories of failure from time to time. I remember that, when I was finishing the PhD and many of my friends and myself got rejection letters, I used to say that it made more sense to celebrate failures than achievements—those are the moments when you need (more) support.

*Cover Image: Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach (c. 1912).