Navigating Professional Uncertainty

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

Navigating professional uncertainty

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the Perk with a doctoral student who had just emerged from a conversation with her students—undergrads anxious about their career prospects. My advisee was obviously concerned about her students and had carried some of their anxiety into our conversation. From there we proceeded to discuss her (equally uncertain) career prospects.

Midway through the conversation, I was struck by how long the average late-stage doctoral student may have spent in a period of suspended animation, of waiting and wondering. There was a time (decades ago) when doctoral students who sought higher education faculty jobs could be reasonably sure they’d end up with one. Now, trajectories are less predictable and outcomes are much less certain. And for many, the waiting and wondering extends from the first year in college through one or even more postdoc years.

The waiting and wondering exacts a real psychological toll, one we may be too busy to acknowledge. In between my first and second year of a two-year postdoc, I recall showing up at a week-long professional development retreat feeling (I thought) pretty darn confident about myself and my place in the world. I was young, with a promising research agenda and a reputable postdoc position and a lot of ambition. Things were good.

Since this retreat was for young scholars interested in church-related higher education, it was at a monastery by a large tranquil lake, and it included the kinds of self-reflection exercises you’d never encounter in graduate school. I hadn’t factored those in, or what the cumulative effect of the lake, the nightly poetry readings (Benedictine monastics love poetry), and the group reflections would be.

One day, in the middle of a group meditation exercise, I found myself Staring into the Void. The market in my subfield was extremely tough (even pre-2008!), and I’d been aware of this for years. But only at that point did the full weight of what I’d been carrying sink in. I felt completely undone by my inability to control or predict the outcome of my impending fall job search—the one which, after a couple years of my “testing” the market—would have to yield a tenure-track job (or so I thought).

Confronted with this great chasm of unknowing, I had a strong emotional response, in front of my co-retreatants. It was kind of embarrassing. But later that day, one of the faculty mentors for the program presented me with a paperback copy of Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke (of course, the monastery had a fantastic bookstore). For those unfamiliar with Rilke and his works, this book is a collection of ten letters Rilke wrote between 1903 and 1908 in response to a 19-year-old army cadet and aspiring writer, who sought out the celebrated poet’s advice and feedback.

A single passage of Rilke’s had been highlighted:

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.

Obviously, that particular passage and that day has stuck in my memory ever since. That passage provided something critical for me at a critical point, and something shifted that day. The 12 months that followed were still challenging, but I was able to navigate them more peacefully until the day I finally did accept a tenure-track job.

So, what does it mean, to love the questions?

If this were a typical VH post, I’d explain what this means, and then provide some handy bullet points with relevant action items.

But leaping into action can contribute to the larger problem. It’s often our default response to difficult and unpleasant feelings—a habit that doesn’t always serve us well.

And when I reflect upon what my mentor gave me at that moment, it wasn’t concrete advice. More than anything, perhaps being urged to “love the questions,” gave me permission to stay in the present moment (rather than constantly guessing at what would happen the next year), and to feel curiosity and engagement about the transition, rather than fear.

What would “loving the questions” look like for you?

If I do have a takeaway observation, it’s that reflection is just as critical a component (if not more so) than anything else you do to prepare for your academic and professional future. And you don’t need to do it alone. Especially when you are feeling anxious, find a trusted friend or mentor with whom to talk through these issues.

As I’ve learned since that day at the monastery, the best mentors don’t always (if ever) give answers. A great mentor will give you space and permission to reflect and question. If you are very fortunate, they will love the same questions you do.

Both powerful questioning and powerful mentorship have a strong a ripple effect, like a stones cast into a lake. While you don’t yet know where you will be or what you’ll be doing far into the future, I hope that part of your success is defined by your ongoing engagement with the big questions (that never entirely go away), and the presence of people to share them with.