L. Maren Wood earned her PhD in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the co-founder of Beyond the Professoriate.
Dear 2004 Maren
Advice to My Past Self
Dear 2004 Maren,
It’s the beginning of the academic year. You are excited but anxious to be starting your PhD at UNC Chapel Hill. Last week, you arrived with a U-haul from Ottawa, with your dad and friend Paula. You are on the adventure of a lifetime — you’re two Canadians moving to the big ol’ US of A to complete your PhD.
You survived your BA and your MA. Nobody else that you know has gone to graduate school. You have worked so hard, sacrificed so much, to be here, at this moment.
As you step onto campus to begin your courses, you feel so energized. It’s the first real taste of success, of ambition come true. Savour that, because that ambition you feel now will be important later. We’ll get to that.
You feel energized. This. Is. It. This is your ticket — out of the small town that you grew up in, full of dead-end jobs and no future. This. Is. It. Your ticket to success. Your ticket to Mattering. And it is. But it’s not going to be quite like you imagine at this moment. And that’s o.k. In fact, it’s better than o.k.
Over the next 5 years, you’ll meet amazing people and make life-long friends. You’ll meet Harry in that critical literature class you can’t stand. You’ll become dear friends, and for years, you’ll call and write and text.
You’ll hang with Paula, and Robin, and Phillip. They will shape your life in important ways.
You’ll meet Martin. He’s important. Meeting him will change your life in ways you can’t even image yet.
You’ll read, and teach, and write, and learn.
You’re doing all of this because you want to be a professor. You want to follow in the footsteps of your mentors — the people who saw what a talented, smart, capapble woman, you are, at moments when you coudn’t see that for yourself. To become a professor. That is the dream.
Over the next five years, you’ll teach amazing students. You’ll have the opportunity to design classes and syllabi. To grade and mark and advise and mentor, as you’ve been mentored.
Savour these moments.
You will travel to archives and discover interesting documents. You’ll geek out on theory, gender and sexuality in popular culture, literary theory, and the history of sex and gender. You’ll love your topic and your discipline. You always will.
But, what you don’t know at this moment is that this time you spend in your PhD, plus a few years post-graduation, will be your academic career. This dream that you have right now, as you walk across the campus at UNC Chapel Hill, this won’t happen for you.
And that’s o.k. It’s not going to feel o.k. when you don’t land the tenure track job. It will feel totalizing and depressing. You’ll feel like you lost your sense of self and your place in the world. You’ll lose contact with friends who remain in academia because you won’t have that much in common. You’ll feel unmoored.
But the truth is, the reason why you feel so lost is that — academia is the only thing you’ve really know. The only thing you’ve really tried is teaching. From the time you were 5 and idolized Anne Shirley and Anne of Green Gables through to the time you earned your PhD, you idolized teaching. It’s all you want to do because it’s all you know.
There is an enormous world full of opportunity. And you will thrive as an entrepreneur and CEO of a small start up. You’ll discover how challenging marketing and sales can be, about customer support and success. You’ll coach and mentor and write. You’ll lead a small team of passionate and committed people as you build something from scratch — a business.
That sounds horrifying to you right now. But that’s because you don’t know, and have never been exposed to, the world of business and start-up life. But it is so fun.
You’ll spend your time identifying problems, and then trying to solve them. You’ll spend hours talking with new friends and mentors about how to solve these challenges. People like Asia, and Martin, Michael, and Malisa. I know. You haven’t met them yet. But they’ll help you. And you’ll be energized by your conversations with them. Just like you geek out now about gender and sexuality in popular culture, you’ll geek out about business strategy, marketing, SEO, customer support, and engagement. It’s sounds so science-fiction, but it is true.
It turns out, what you’re actually interested in is high level strategic thinking. You like solving problems. You’re a creative thinker and problem solver. You love helping others and empowering people to be their best selves. These are things that matter to you. You’ll want to spend time living in cities you want, being with your partner, enjoying the challenges of running a business. You’ll travel, and drink great booze, and eat fantastic meals. You’ll remain intellectually engaged and challenged. In fact, most nights when you head to bed, you’ll be exhausted from all the intellectual challenges and problems you’re working on.
So, get the PhD. Love every minute of it. Just know that you are more than your degree. Your interests are not confined to your discipline. You’re not an historian; you’re someone who is interested in history.
Have so much fun over the next five years. And know that when you don’t land a tenure track job, it’ll be o.k. In fact, it’ll be more than o.k. It’ll be fantastic.
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