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What Advice Would You Give Your Past Academic Self? I Asked. They Answered.

In this special edition of my Transitioning PhD Blog Series, I asked contributors, friends, colleagues, and readers of the series a salient question:

What advice would you give your past academic self?

Here are their powerful answers. (Hint: You might want to bookmark this for future reference when life gets you down!) 

Dear (2003) Steve,

As you finish up your dissertation and stress about what’s to come, I’m writing to offer some insights and a recommendation based on the next 15 years of your (professional) life.  (Insights from your personal life should probably be reserved for another time, over a beverage and with no outside audience.)

First, you should know this: you will be FINE.  In the long(ish) run, you will not be hindered in your professional path by (1) the narrow focus of your graduate work, (2) your sense that your professional compass should be more fine-tuned by now, (3) your desire to move away from academic research, or (4) the fact that you defend next week and you still don’t have a single lead for a job that would enable that escape or avoid a significant relocation.  In fact, all of these obstacles and concerns will only benefit you in the future, as they will enhance your ability to deal with uncertainty, adapt to change, and look ahead with excitement and optimism.

With that out of the way, I should also tell you that even 15 years down the road, you will still have questions and doubts about where you are going and whether you’ve taken the best steps along the way.  There are usually no right-wrong or black-and-white answers to these kinds of soul-searching questions.  And your experiences over the next decade will not change that reality.  However, you will be successful in the steps you do take—even when they are not the ones you have anticipated or planned.  And each one will help prepare you for the next—even if your development along the way sometimes goes unnoticed or seems insufficient.

Finally, to wrap these comments into overarching advice as you look ahead to the next phase of your professional journey…be opportunistic and open to new directions, take risks when they fit with your life circumstances, and remember the importance of people and relationships along the way.  Just as your personal life tends to revolve around family and friends, your professional life and the rewards it can bring will depend in large part on your interactions with others.  Yes, your individual work products and contributions do matter, but they won’t get you far unless you take the time and make the effort to truly engage those around you.  You should view your job as an opportunity to assist, enable, and advance the interests of others.  They won’t always appreciate or reciprocate your efforts, but in the long run, you will discover that the people around you are the keys to maximizing your professional experiences, development, and satisfaction.

Along those lines: as you consider new professional opportunities throughout your journey, you should focus more on the people, teams, and organizations involved than the nature of the work outlined in the job description.  If you’re successful, that description will likely change within the first 6 months, but the influences and impacts of the people will stick with you much longer.

I wish you the best on your journey.  Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to write the future you again, with more insights gained from the paths you take and the choices you make down the road.


2018 Steve

—Steve Greenbaum, PhD, Vice-President, Life Sciences, Biodefense, and Homeland Security, BAI, Inc. (PhD in Immunology)

What advice would I give my 28-year-old past self as she walked out of her dissertation defense feeling utterly deflated, lost and unsure, like she had just collapsed over the finish line only to realize that what she just killed herself to accomplish was only the first lap?

I would say, first of all, sit down and have a cold drink. [It was October in Texas, and about 110 degrees outside, and inside.] Take a deep breath. Say something kind to yourself. Listen to the congratulations people are giving you, and let them soothe your anxiety for a minute. Your life is not a race, or a series of boxes to be checked, or an inquisition where you are required to present evidence that you deserve to exist. If you think you’re trapped and doomed to failure right now, that’s because you are looking at this entirely wrong. The truth is that the tyranny of the CV—and of every other made-up system for measuring human accomplishment and value—has no real power over you. The real power lies in the discontentment you are feeling right now.

You are someone who has never been, and maybe never will be, deeply satisfied with the work you have accomplished. No matter what you’ve created or completed, there is always something more to make, and to be. That’s because you were built for struggle and aspiration. You weren’t made for sitting still. And yes, you have a lot of work ahead of you, to figure out how you’re going to make a living post-stipend and take care of the child who you are going to give birth to next month. But there is also a lot of work behind you, and that work is pretty amazing. Which makes me suspect the work ahead of you is amazing too. But its amazingness is not even the point. The point is whether you can know and remember that it is the work you are on this earth to do. And that there is value just in the doing of it, not only in the completion of it.

My one piece of advice for you is this. Realize that the danger you face is not that you won’t work hard enough or accomplish enough. The danger for you is that you will forget to be present in your own life. That you will get distracted trying to prove you deserve to exist, and miss hearing the voice inside you that is trying to say something that has never been said before.

—Margy Thomas, PhD, Founder, ScholarShape (PhD in English)

Keep talking to people, online and off. Keep thinking about what’s important to you. Keep living. You’ll work this out, eventually. Take risks. Quit. Start. Try. You’ll wind up doing things you never conceived of, and it’ll be amazing and hard and incredibly meaningful and frustrating. But it’ll be better than the PhD, because you don’t ever have to do that again. Ask for help. Listen. Ask questions. Really ask. Really listen. You will develop into a much more you version of yourself, and that’s something to celebrate.

—Jennifer Polk, PhD, Serial Entrepreneur: Beyond the Professoriate, Self-Employed PhD, From PhD to Life (PhD in History)

If I could give my past self a single piece of advice, it would be to have made the leap from academia to industry sooner. It’s easy to say that looking back, but at the time, it was a tough and scary decision for me. It wasn’t in my “life plan” to go to industry. I had set goals to achieve within academia, and by making the move to industry, I was admitting failure. But in hindsight, what I was really doing was failing to capitalize on opportunities. It took a dream job essentially being dropped in my lap for me to realize that maybe, it would be ok to go a different path than I had planned.

I would tell my past self that I did a lot of things right. I went to lots of career seminars, prepared and practiced for interviews, understood my value and how to negotiate a job offer, and even got an internship to gain some experience. One thing I found that was missing once I got the industry job, though, was having a good understanding of business. So one additional piece of advice I would give myself would be to gain an understanding of general business structures and practices. There are many free introductory business courses you can take online. Lastly, I will say that yes – you should wait for good opportunities and good fits for positions to apply for, but don’t wait on preparing so you’re ready to go when that opportunity presents itself.

—Erin Glynn, PhD, Principal Scientist, Beachbody (PhD in Muscle Protein Metabolism)

Dear about-to-leave-a-tenure-track Chris,

I agree: you are a good match for this job. And there’s really nothing wrong with that. Given that fact, let’s think very carefully about your next steps. Knowing what I know now, my advice to you would be to slow down. 

Someone will eventually hire you to do most anything, given professional retooling and investment on your side, something that you are very capable of affecting. This includes even very prestigious employers and doors that you would have never thought could be open for you. You have a tendency to underestimate your power to manifest your destiny that needs to be kept in check here. But don’t let yourself feel so desperate for a job that you’ll take work that will end up being boring. Resist the urge to act without considerable contemplation; don’t be motivated by the pressure that others put on you to speed up your timetable for deciding on a new direction!

—Chris Stewart, PhD, Analytical Linguist, Google (PhD in Linguistics)

Dear Grad Student Shweta,

Do you remember that one night at 1 a.m. when, frustrated out of your mind reading papers about RNA degradation, you went looking for a distraction and finally opened that video your dad sent of Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement speech? Jobs said and I quote, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” Do you remember how oddly reassuring that was in the dead of the night? That even though you weren’t quite sure where you were heading, you would someday smile looking back at it all?

Well, I’m here and I’m smiling. Read on.

Never have you regretted getting your PhD and spending those hours in the lab for six years because you realized that this degree gives you so much more than a fancy prefix and the delightful acknowledgment of having contributed to your field of choice. It gives you resilience and makes you thick-skinned. Defending your hypothesis and data at lab and committee meetings to gulping down failed experiments and figuring out how to move on really makes you stronger in the so-called ‘real world’, even if you don’t know what that means yet.

And believe it or not your weary attitude toward that magical skill—networking—did not ruin your ‘networking karma’. You managed to inadvertently network your way into your job today, which you could not be more grateful for. In fact, you even wound up back at Duke! Can you believe it?

All those little things you tried out—from taking a business class to securing a technology transfer internship to that insane semester you tried to teach yourself the programming language R—not only added lines to your resume but also your ability to feel like you were doing something, anything. It helped you develop that elusive faith in the universe that it will at some point return your offer of friendship.

It’s important to try—the more you do the more you’re opening yourself up to a real opportunity. At some point, the Gods of probability will take notice! Finally, it was one of these attempts (the internship) that set up the stage for the Duke job.

You did do a short post-doc but eventually quit cold turkey to move back here when the opportunity came up with the faith that something will just have to work out. You now know that sometimes in order to get the right break it is important to take a calculated risk and gently yank the rug from under your feetthere is no bigger nurturer of inertia than the cushion of the comfort zone. I know right now you hate that feeling of not having a defined career goal after graduation. But being lost for a while is ok; you can’t always be in control. All you can do is keep trying to go beyond the norm with what makes sense at the time, and just trust in Jobs’ wisdom that the dots will indeed connect.

—Shweta Krishnan, PhD, Licensing Analyst, Biological Sciences, Duke University Office of Licensing & Ventures (PhD in Pharmacology and Cancer Biology)

What advice would I give my 32-year-old past self as she walked across campus one last time, with fear, anxiety, and longing roiling in her gut, knowing that she was literally leaving it all behind to return to her home country?

It’s so hard to figure out what to say, because everything that is ahead of you, both the good and especially the bad, are going to shape the amazing professional woman that you become in a field that you haven’t even heard of yet. It will be okay, but it’s going to hurt. Your family and friends are not going to understand your decision to leave academia, and the people who understand will be in a different country. You’re going to feel isolated, and alone. Those feelings are valid, and they’re understandable. I remember, and I wish that I could spare you, but every bad thing and nasty remark is going to help you to help others through their tough times. Yes. You will have a career that lets you help others. You’ll guide and shape them, just as you would through teaching, and you’ll be great at it because you will understand and remember what it was like to walk in their shoes.

Your confidence is going to take a beating until you find your way. Surround yourself with positive people who think you’re great, and tell you so on a regular basis. Volunteer. You will feel so much better about yourself when you are contributing to something bigger, when your skills, perspectives, and actions are valued. It makes a big difference for you. Ask for help. This is your hardest lesson. You’ll feel embarrassed about not being able to figure out where you’re going and what you’re supposed to do. I remember that, too. You need someone else whose perspective isn’t colored by where you are to help you see and sort through your options. You won’t reach out until you don’t have any options left. (I know, we’re stubborn.) When you do meet her, try to be nicer to her than I was at first. She’s going to be one of the most important influences you will have in your life, and she can see so much more for you than you can. She sees me, long before I do.

Time has a funny way of racing and lagging. The next few years are going to seem like decades, and then the next decade will go by in a blur. Just breathe. Remember all that you have accomplished to get to where you are. You are smart, kind, funny, and you will make the world better because you are here. Always remember that.

—Catherine Maybrey, PhD, Catherine Maybrey Coaching Services (PhD in Public & American History)

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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