Crossing the Void: Uncertainty and Self-Doubt vs Finding Joy in Research

Ana Belén Martínez García talks about the difficulties of a self-funded PhD, marriage, and the road to tenure. She refers to the importance of mentorship and her turn from medieval literature to the study of human rights life narratives of young refugee women. In a beautifully reflective tone, Ana shows why this kind of life writing matters to her, both in relation to her role as an academic and beyond it.

Life as a young scholar is full of questions: “Is this the right choice for me? Am I prepared to handle the pressure of a scholar’s life?” I believe many of us start our career course with these unanswered questions in mind, and given the nature of the PhD they intrude in our thoughts every now and then. I asked myself similar questions while writing my PhD but I could not find anybody who was able to provide any answers. I therefore pushed forward on my own, but had doubts that I would have liked to express at the time. Now, I feel I ought to share them with colleagues in a similar situation. This blog series presents me with both an opportunity to voice a little bit of that story, but also a challenge – it is quite a personal story. As such, readers beware – digressions and flashbacks are inevitable.

I am currently working as a PhD Assistant Professor at the University of Navarra in Spain. I finished my PhD in comparative literature at the English Studies Program at the University of Oviedo (Spain), in 2010. Entitled “Clothing Acts in Castilian Romances and Anglo-American Ballads,” my PhD was an attempt to compare and contrast two still living oral traditions in Europe and America, and covered literature from the Middle Ages onwards. I aimed to find out whether there were some paradigms related to gender and social class, which could be seen as performative acts relating to how we dress and affecting the way we behave up to today. It was a highly ambitious project, and one that has yet to be turned into a book, but life has taken me in a different direction.

Since I started working at the University of Navarra in 2013, where there is no faculty of English Studies, I had to find my own place in academia. I was hired by ISSA, the School of Management Assistants, as Head of the English Department. Obviously, with my specialization in literature, teaching English for business undergraduates was not what I had envisioned for myself, but I was ecstatic to be finally teaching at university level. Besides, the Faculty Board gave me freedom to do research in whatever field I wanted. My research thus took a turn towards more contemporary literary genres with the hopes that I could join colleagues with the same background as mine – English literature studies – in their research activities. I did, and these experts in the study of narrative were doing research in life writing and actually became my mentors. This helped alleviate my stress to a certain extent. It meant that it was possible to be teaching English for business students but conducting research in a radically different area.

Rocio Davis, who specializes in Asian-American life writing, and Rosalía Baena, who does research on cancer and illness memoirs, are two of the people that have made it possible for me to have faith in academia and to survive the first rejected manuscripts – I am a bit of a perfectionist and rejections are always hard. I have gradually come to accept how academic writing works, and to share how I feel when faced with anxiety. Had it not been for their support, I doubt I would have had the strength to continue. Following their suggestion, I decided to pursue the same research pathway as them, and together we established an incipient life-writing research group, GRINEA, where each of us looks at life-writing texts in different contexts and languages. These include war diaries in French, African-American and Asian-American life writing, human rights life narratives, illness narratives, biographic mediation in Spanish journalistic texts, political performing arts, etc., with a shared aim to analyze the impact they may have on cultural and social life.

I started doing research in human rights life narratives back in 2014, with a focus on narrative empathy and discursive strategies deployed by young women activists whose first language is not English, but who use English as a human rights lingua franca to reach wider audiences. Most of these girls are now refugees and fight against the lack of knowledge about the situation in the respective countries they left behind and the ongoing atrocities they have witnessed. It is a subject close to my heart. Of course, it presents ethical dilemmas and I myself have been subject to some harsh criticism because of that. But I believe this is important work that can contribute to society at large and I have come to appreciate my research in a new light, as something worth exploring and sharing with others. It has been quite a big change for me, as this was not part of my PhD, and I had to read extensively on theory, methods, frameworks, history, law, etc. I had to learn about my subfield as much and as fast as I could if I was to join my colleagues. Nevertheless, my trajectory over the last few years, with conference presentations, guest talks, chapters and articles, shows promise and I hope my work can contribute to the field of life writing.

If I have to start from the beginning, I should refer to my undergraduate studies. I finished my BA studies in English Literature in 2002. I spent four years in my home university, Oviedo, and one year in the UK, at the University of Leeds, happily perusing Chaucer, I must say, without realizing the complexity of life in academia, which I was to discover later. Then came two years’ continued training for what was roughly an MA, and then I chose my doctoral supervisor because I was particularly interested in medieval literature and he was an expert in the field. Did I make the right choice? I have asked myself this question so many times. I remember those years as a race to the next grant application, always trying to sell a proposal and being disappointed by the result.

In the end, after having saved my parents from having to financially support my studies all my life, I realized the PhD would have to be self-funded. A pity, really, because it meant that the following five years I became a sort of hermit, either reading at libraries or at home, barely talking to anybody, particularly not to old friends who had decided to quit the doctoral race after similar letdowns. It is quite stressful to try to gain access to material you absolutely need but is terribly expensive, and to be unable to tell anybody in case they think it is silly. Also, you decide to start working more hours so you can help cover the costs, but then this leaves you exhausted and you cannot even read or write. Money is definitely a factor when you have to self-fund a dissertation and a career. In the end, most colleagues who were classmates at high school and then at university, ended up going abroad and working as Spanish lecturers, staying in Spain working as primary and secondary teachers, or setting up their own private schools in case they failed the public examination system to enter official posts. A whole range of choices for both those who completed their dissertations and those who did not, but these were not the paths I wanted to follow.

While I was preparing my PhD, something else happened to me – I got married in 2006 and moved to the US. On the one hand, this allowed me to have access to loads of information I would not have been able to attain otherwise. On the other, it further removed me from Spanish colleagues. This was totally unintentional and accidental. Who knew I would marry before any of them? I suddenly felt isolated, both in terms of distance, as I was living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, but also on a deeper mental and emotional level. To me marriage made a lot of sense, and family came before friendship. It was hard to keep in touch with colleagues who were leading such different lives at the time. When my husband’s postdoctoral stay came to an end in 2011, we decided to move back. But, who knew a process called “ANECA” had emerged in my absence? I had been thinking a PhD would grant me access to a permanent teaching position at a university. Then ANECA (the National Quality Assessment and Accreditation Agency of Spain) came to bite me: it is supposed to be an anonymously refereed accreditation process for university professors, both in private and public institutions, in Spain. What it really is, is a sort of process without which one is no longer hired permanently. Once you demonstrate the corresponding merits, you are eligible for a tenure-track position. Otherwise, forget about permanently teaching at a university. You have to publish research on a steady basis, in high-impact journals, and for prestigious publishing houses, and so on. Publish or perish? Totally!

Doing research in life writing over these past few years has allowed me to reflect on the process of writing a PhD from a more critical stance. Sufficient time has passed and so I can look at it fondly, instead of reliving the stress of it. Emotions undoubtedly shape the way we think, talk and write about things. At the same time, our research influences our most deeply held values and emotions. The PhD entails a whole range of emotions, such as fear of the unknown and of what lies ahead of us. Those years I recollect as full of anxiety, in both a positive and a negative sense. A blank page staring at you for ages would provoke only the basest feelings, whereas the day you suddenly overcame writer’s block and words poured out in a kind of quasi-magical fashion made you believe everything was possible. No wonder that was the time I got my very first gray hair strands – and wrinkles! Is there really a difference between those mixed feelings and the ones we experience in our current occupation as scholars? Not really. What changes is the level of maturity to accept those unavoidable ups and downs. The blank page is going to horrify you whatever your stage in life. The doubts, particularly self-doubts (“Is what I do worth it?”) will be your travelling companions; but the “what-ifs” are not worth your time – this is my best piece of advice for both PhD students and early-career scholars. Good mentors and good friends are important, and then of course the support of your family. Decisions about what to do in your life are yours to take – no one else can or should choose for you. Much the same applies to other life choices and careers. Is it worth becoming an academic? Only you can answer that question.

As for me, I continue to do research in the two fields I have mentioned: a sort of post-PhD project on folklore and cultural identities in Spanish and English (which may eventually take the shape of a life-writing project), and another project on human-rights life writing by young women who speak for social justice both online and offline. With the support of my group (GRINEA), colleagues, friends, and my family, I can say I look to the future and find it open to lots of possibilities. No challenge is insurmountable any longer, first and foremost because I have found a niche and I do not feel alone in what I do. Attending conferences and seminars, getting to meet other scholars who do research in similar fields, collaborating on bigger projects, seeing parts of my research being published are joys as well as learning processes.

Read more from the series and learn how to submit your own story to “Crossing the Void.” 

AnaphotoAna Belén Martínez García is a PhD Assistant Professor in the English Department of ISSA at the University of Navarra (Pamplona, Spain) and belongs to GRINEA (Research Group on Autobiography Studies) and to the Emotional Culture and Identity project at the Institute for Culture and Society at that institution. She is a reviewer for Oxford University Press and a member of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies (AEDEAN) and various international networks: IABA, the International Society for the Study of Narrative (ISSN), the Centre for the Study of Storytelling, Experientiality and Memory (SELMA), and Culture and Its Uses as Testimony, an international AHRC-funded network. Her research has focused on issues of identity, from the point of view of socio-cultural gender and performativity studies. She is currently writing on human-rights life narratives and the relationship between social justice and empathy. She is particularly interested in the role of mediation in texts written by young women activists in collaboration with native speakers of English and how their advocacy works both online and offline. She has been a research fellow at the Centre for Life-Writing Research, King’s College London (January–June 2017), and she has published in journals such as a/b: Auto/Biography Studies and Life Writing. She has profiles on ORCID, and ResearchGate.

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