Mary Laura Philpott Answers May's "Ask An Author": I'm About To Get My Degree From Grad School — Now What?

Alexey Kuzma/Stocksy.com; Photo of Mary Laura Philpott, courtesy of the author

In the third installment of Bustle's Ask An Author column, I Miss You When I Blink author Mary Laura Philpott answers a letter from a reader who isn't so sure about how to face the uncertainty of a "fresh slate."

Each month, a different author will answer one of your questions about love, work, friendships, mental health, and more. If you have a question, submit your letter anonymously to Bustle for a chance to have it answered next month.

Dear Author — 

I’m a woman in my late twenties. I came to the U.S. for grad school a little less than a year ago, and I’ll be getting my degree next year. For the longest time — since early high school — graduate school was my ultimate goal, and I worked really hard to get to where I am. But as my time here comes to an end, I’m facing a lot of uncertainty about the future for the first time. I feel very anxious about this. I also feel embarrassed, because, at almost 30, I should have a better perspective on life and because I know I’m extremely privileged to be having this issue. There are a number of questions that I will be facing soon — to stay in the U.S. or not, what kind of career I want to pursue, etc. — and I feel very ill prepared to face them and face the uncertainty that comes with a "fresh slate." Any advice as to how to handle all this?

— Not Sure About My "Fresh Slate"

Dear "Fresh Slate" —

OK, it’s time for a pep talk in two parts. Ready?

Pep Talk, Part One: First, ditch the embarrassment. When we feel embarrassed or ashamed, we tend to clam up and close down, which only makes us lonelier. And loneliness compounds every problem. Look, I know what you mean: When you have the kind of privilege that allows you to even consider these questions, it comes with guilt. But it’s OK to want mental and emotional peace. We all want that. Every human being deserves it. You can put time and energy into sorting out your future and put time and energy into big things outside yourself like climate change, famine, racism and misogyny, our healthcare system’s many failings, the next election, and…. on and on. It’s not either/or.

"Let me assure you: It may look like everyone else has it all together, but they probably don’t."

Second, understand that you’re not alone in feeling spooked by the end of your twenties. Google "30th birthday anxiety" — see? I hear you saying "I feel like I should have a better perspective on life," but does anyone? As somebody who looks like I have my act together on the outside (behold my neatly organized suitcase!) but is actually a disaster on the inside (read my book, I’m a mess), let me assure you: It may look like everyone else has it all together, but they probably don’t. So please know you’re in great company. It’s totally normal to be 30 — or 20 or 40 or 60 — and not know exactly what you’re doing.

Now put your shame on a little metaphorical paper boat, set fire to it, and push it out to sea. Goodbye to that.

Pep Talk, Part Two: This is where it gets interesting. Actually, this is where it already is interesting. You mention that finishing grad school gives you a "fresh slate," and I love that image. But I’m concerned that you’re putting too much pressure on yourself, that you’re looking at that transition from one phase to another as a finish line followed by another starting line. I get the idea you feel that whatever you do next matters a great deal, because it will mark the official beginning of your real life. But look at you: You’re going to school; you’re exploring a new country; you’re working hard; you’re thinking about interesting things. You’re living now.

Goal-oriented people (hi) love checking things off a list, which makes the tidy path of school, with its prescribed steps year to year, so comforting. When you get out of school, that structure disappears and the freedom to make your own choices about what to do next can feel dizzying, even paralyzing.

"Reinvention can happen anytime, many times, and in all sorts of small and medium ways, for them and for you."

So when it comes to your specific, immediate decisions — stay in the United States or move? Take this job or that one? — I recommend you get a copy of the book Decisive by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It’s a business book that’s also really helpful for making personal choices. Among their helpful advice, the Heath brothers recommend asking yourself, "What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?" — which I’ve found to be a really calming and clarifying approach. (We have a way of treating our friends with more empathy and confidence than we treat ourselves.)

While we’re at it, may I recommend some more reading? Take yourself on a trip to a library or a bookstore and browse in the memoir section. Grab a few autobiographical books and read a little bit every night before you go to bed. Soak up how many ways there are to live. Look how many people have started off on one path, then zig-zagged into something else. Reinvention can happen anytime, many times, and in all sorts of small and medium ways, for them and for you. My point here isn’t to overwhelm you with how many options you have. It’s to say you don’t have to be afraid of making your next step because you think it has to be permanent. If you’re a planner by nature, try to resist the urge to extrapolate every choice all the way to old age. You don’t need to know where you’ll be or who you’ll be in twenty years or even ten. All you need to figure out right now is what you want to try next.

"Uncertainty means you’ve got a brain big enough to contemplate multiple options at once. It means you’re human."

(Sock this tidbit away for future-you, too: Should you reach a point when you no longer wish to work in this field, don’t feel like you’re obligated to stay on this path just because you got the degree. This career can be the right dream for now, and you can have a different dream later.)

Uncertainty means you’ve got a brain big enough to contemplate multiple options at once. It means you’re human. Start by accepting that much. And the next time someone asks, “What are you going to be?” gesture at your brilliant self with a dramatic flourish and say, “This. I already am.”

— Mary Laura

Mary Laura Philpott is the author of the new memoir-in-essays, I Miss You When I Blink, and her writing has been featured by The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Washington Post, O The Oprah Magazine, and other outlets. She's the "book enthusiast at large" for Parnassus Books in Nashville, as well as an Emmy-winning co-host of A Word on Words on Nashville Public Television. Mary Laura also loves traveling around the country to speak with people about creativity, reinvention, and the ups and downs of perfectionism. Learn more at marylauraphilpott.com, and find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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