Letter to My Self, Starting Graduate School

Historian Ryan Wilkinson, PhD finished and starting a tenure track job in the fall, writes a letter to himself at the beginning of graduate school. We hope it’s a great encouragement, wherever you are on your academic journey. 

Dear Me,

Well, congratulations—you’re going to graduate school!

So—this is your future self, writing from a decade ahead to let you know that you’ll have a lot of fun. On the other hand . . . it won’t all be easy. Hmmm? What do I mean?

Well, let me give you some examples. You’re going to spend an entire Spring Break working on a seminar presentation, and then discover that everything you did all week was wrong. Oh, and there’s the time when you’ll lose a month’s research to malware. You’ll get a paper back with three words of feedback: “Very disappointing, Ryan!” A professor will suggest that a misplaced diacritic accent in a foreign-language citation halfway through a paper casts doubt on your fitness for this career path. Your first article will be rejected when you first submit it. You’ll spend years noticing other students outperforming you, getting grants and jobs and praise sooner than you, and just seeming smarter than you. When it’s all over, you’ll spend years on the tenure-track market, wondering if it will all pay off.

Now, hang on; it’s going to be ok.

Many of these disasters will turn out for your benefit. You will have professional triumphs, and they will tend to grow out of earlier problems. You will do good work, and you will be proud of it. You will publish. You will accept a tenure-track job. But make no mistake: this path is not for the faint of heart. Think long and hard about why you’re doing this. There are plenty of things you could do instead, and you’ll need to know why you should keep going. A decade from now, you’ll be smarter, and you’ll be done, but you won’t be any more valuable than you are today—and you won’t be any more valuable than the bus driver who brought you in this morning. Graduate school will not make you significant.

The good news is that you don’t need it to. On the other hand, I’m really glad you chose this path. If you give up prematurely, you’ll be hearing more from me—and I won’t sound as friendly! The path ahead is a gift and a treasure worth all the pain. It’s the right path for you; you can even think of it as a kind of priestly service.

Now, I get that you don’t fully understand that yet. In fact, I know that you’ve been wrestling pretty deeply with doubt, even though you rarely admit it. You have a lot of questions about God and the Christian life. Frankly, you’ll find even more questions here. In coming years, your training will expose you to some disturbing things—things difficult to reconcile with old beliefs. That’s ok. You have questions; go ahead and ask them. God is big enough to handle them. Proceed carefully, and prayerfully, but don’t fear new ideas. Sometimes, you’re just going to have to be ok not having things figured out.

I think this may surprise you, but in the next decade you will find answers—answers that satisfy you deeply, that enrich and revitalize your trust in God. A decade from now, the biblical gospel looks bigger, more beautiful, more complex (sometimes, more terrifying), more powerful, more reliable, and more relevant than you know today.

In the coming years, you’ll have access to one of the world’s great theological libraries. Use it. Anabaptists and Arminians and Calvinists; Catholics and Eastern Orthodox; agnostics, atheists, etc., etc. They’re all in there. I’m going to challenge you now to engage your faith with the same level of rigor and energy that you pour into your academic studies. You won’t regret it.

But intellectual enrichment can be dangerous without balance. The only way to thrive in graduate school is to thrive as a human being. Ask God for wisdom. Stay in fellowship, no matter what. Engage the church off-campus; this will help correct the limits of academic vision, which are very real. Serve others. Cultivate hobbies, without guilt. Maintain spiritual disciplines. Take time to tend your heart in every season. Spend time silent and alone, and listen to yourself. Ask yourself what you really want in life, and take your honest answers seriously. You think that silence, rest, prayer, and reading scripture are duties; you’re going to learn that they are instead the way to cultivate the life you actually want. When you let business get in their way for long, you will always diminish yourself.

Look for God in your discipline, too. It offers insight into how God has ordered the story of his creation. As a historian, you’ll see the beauty of human culture in ways you never expected. You’ll see the scope of evil and suffering more clearly than ever before. Reading over two millennia of history in depth as you prepare for your general exams, you’ll choke on the horrors that men routinely visit on each other. You’ll weep—yes, weep—over the tyranny of death. You’ll learn to fear more deeply. But God’s remedy will loom larger, and give you courage. You’ll read the judgments and promises of the prophets with a new and urgent hunger.

Not all of your insights into suffering will be vicarious. For several more years, you’re still going to struggle routinely with deep anxiety. For several more years, you and your wife will bear the sorrow of childlessness. You will have children—wonderful children—but you’ll also face unusually severe sleep deprivation. You’ll wonder how to comfort your wife after a miscarriage during the busy first week of a teaching semester. And you’ll grapple for years with wounds that other people’s sinful choices carved into your family. In the coming decade, your heart will sometimes break more painfully than you ever believed it would.

But listen: don’t be afraid of the future.

A decade from now, you are happy and often joyful, weathered but okay with it, going places but somewhat content with sitting still. Christ values you and he will not abandon you. Life is going to hurt sometimes, and sometimes your graduate studies will only add to the pain. But you will learn and grow and become more whole through it all.

Put each thing in its proper place. Graduate school is a gift, and it will shape you, but it must not define or own you. Be present with yourself. Serve your family; strive for excellence in your work. Take lots of healthy risks. Be honest and vulnerable, and don’t be afraid to suffer or to fail. As you face the future, there is only one guarantee—but it is more than enough:

Christ will be with you in everything, and it will be well.

Image courtesy of Kaz at Pixabay.com

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Ryan Wilkinson

A scholar of ancient and medieval history, Ryan Wilkinson specializes in the history and archaeology of the “fall of the Roman Empire.” He received a Ph.D. in 2015 from Harvard University, and earlier degrees from the University of Arizona. Beginning in Fall 2017, he will be Assistant Professor of History at Ambrose University, in Calgary, Alberta. He is a husband and father; he has been a church elder, a Coast Guardsman, a writing teacher, and a confirmed nerd. Ryan became a Christian in the mid-1990s. He continues to discover that God is more surprising, and the Gospel richer and more satisfying, than he realized last year.

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One Comment

  • achterman@spu.edu'
    seaphotog commented on April 23, 2017 Reply

    Hi – love this, but just FYI – the typeface and color make it really difficult to read on screen.

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