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An Open Letter to My Grad Student Self

This is the introduction to my Transitioning PhD Blog Series, which was written for PhDs by PhDs. I launched this series in January 2018 and collaborated with colleagues who have transitioned away from the academy to address the key challenges most of us faced—and you likely will, too, if you’re contemplating a transition. 

Dear Grad Student Heidi,

Hang in there. Grad school is difficult and challenging, but you’ll get through it. I know you’re worrying about quite a few things beyond your research: whether you want a tenure-track job (and, truthfully, whether you want to quit grad school) and whether you could ever have the side business that you’ve always wanted. And then there’s that other thing: you very much want to bring a child into this world but feel like you can’t until you are closer to graduating.

Well, I’m here Ghost-of-Christmas-Future-style to ease your concerns and let you know that everything will turn out okay. Because you’re likely busy working on a chapter—and trying to keep the procrastination at a minimum—I’ll keep this short and sweet.

You will never regret finishing your PhD. Yes, it’s been difficult, and right now it feels like you are revising your dissertation again and again. (And, it doesn’t just feel this way. Your process really will involve many revisions, and you still have a few more coming.) But guess what? You’ll defend and not be required to make revisions before submitting to the Graduate School. So, you’ve got that to look forward to. Also, you’ll be better for having gone through the process. You’ll become a better writer and editor, and you’ll be empathetic to your clients because you know from experience just how hard the writing process can be.

Clients? Yes, clients. That pipedream idea of having your own consulting firm has worked out quite nicely. You’ll put many hours of work, preparation, and thought into the firm, but the eventual payoff is how much satisfaction you’ll get from running your own company. You love it. You learn something new each day, and you’re thrilled to be able to help people when they are navigating a transition or working on something important. Would you believe you will be the editor for a New York Times best-selling author? Just wait. This is fun!

Remember when you heard a professor say that she thought having children in grad school was a good idea because you can absorb your time off without having to take a formal break in your career? You agreed with her, and you’ll soon decide to take this route yourself. You’re going to be so thankful that you had not one but two kids in grad school. Your kids have made you a better person and inspire you to work even harder.

It is all worth it. You won’t regret your decision to not pursue a tenure-track job, and you’ll find that your PhD is instrumental in your success for multiple reasons—just maybe not those you initially started out with.

You’ll wonder a few more times whether you should quit, but you’ve never backed away from a challenge and this time will be no different. You’ll be better for this experience and your gratitude will only grow with time.

Much love,

Your Future Self

Heidi owns and operates Career Path Writing Solutions, a communications consulting firm dedicated to helping individuals and businesses communicate when it matters most. She delights in helping job seekers navigate career change and guiding business owners to present their value proposition persuasively. Heidi earned her PhD in history from Duke University and teaches professional development for various university programs and organizations. She holds certifications in resume writing, interview preparation, and empowerment coaching, and sits on the Certification Committee of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches.

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