On becoming a doctor

One week ago was the Graduate Convocation at my university, where I got to wear some fancy robes and walk across a stage and shake the hands of some official looking dudes. This is seen as the for-realsies act of finishing my doctorate, and now for all intents and purposes people are supposed to consider me an official Smart Person Who Knows What He is Doing.™

Getting a Ph.D. means having a blue hood and upgrading your square hat into an octagonal hat.
Getting a Ph.D. means having a blue hood and upgrading your square hat into an octagonal hat.

I don’t feel particularly different compared to before I passed my defense.  There’s no sudden epiphany that makes you suddenly smarter. You don’t get your diploma and magically unlock a whole new set of skills. I guess it’s more accurate to think of the whole  process of graduating as the point when someone arbitrarily decides that your continuously changing knowledge set has now passed an equally arbitrary threshold that qualifies for what a doctoral level person should know. (Yes, I know this is literally the definition of what a graduation is, but much of the time people see the various academic degrees as levels of discrete, stair-shaped knowledge vs. time curve as opposed to a smoothly, hopefully upward sloping line.)

Now, the idea of being a perpetual scholar is not all that new or unusual, especially when it comes to thinking about how one fits into the nebulous field of academia as a whole. And indeed, the dean and faculty speaker both talked about the virtues of eternally learning, be it by recognizing that there will always be something you don’t know and stand to gain something by studying, or by simply acknowledging that the path of an academic necessitates one constantly challenging oneself to do more and be more.

This year, the convocation student speaker was a graduating Ph.D. from the Department of US History. She spoke at length about the interconnections between a doctoral candidate’s personal and academic spheres of life – in her words, how one’s work should help shape his or her life while his or her life helps shape the nature of one’s work. She framed this idea around her two ‘children,’  her dissertation and her daughter – both the products of hard work and persistence. It was an interesting talk, though I felt that her words, as valid as they may have been, were muddled by an overall self-congratulatory tone that undermined the intent of her speech. Yes, you are awesome, US History student speaker lady, and you have your doctorate to show for it. Just don’t forget that you’re talking to several hundred other people whom have also just completed their doctorates and presumably have gone through comparable amounts of struggle and personal growth, and probably don’t appreciate that you’re essentially offering unsolicited advice to them on the day designed to recognize that fact.  I feel like her talk kind of got away from the purpose of what a student speaker’s speech is, in my mind, supposed to entail.

So what is the speech of a student speaker supposed to be, then?

I don’t really know if I could have done any better had I been up there. It’s hard to put into words. In my mind, the act of graduation should be one of introspection and reflection on the events that led up to that point. No singular person has ever had a ‘typical’ doctoral experience because everyone has a different story that resulted in getting to where he or she is.  Maybe someone went into oncological research because a relative passed away from cancer. Maybe someone went into comparative literature because after going through a difficult time he or she found a book that really spoke to him or her and changed their entire outlook on life. Or maybe someone simply didn’t know what they wanted to do after their bachelors and just fell into something that he or she was good enough at and interested enough in to work on for eight years. One could go to town contemplating all the endless reasons for pursuing higher level degrees.

Regardless, there’s something to be said about that entire process, from that moment where one decides to go for a Ph.D. and actually getting said degree. The people and situations that a doctoral candidate actually encounters over that journey are just as important as the actual words in the dissertation. And to me, that’s what one should keep in mind when they move on once they’ve actually accomplished what they’re spent so long trying to actually do: Remember the difficulties that one endured when working for their doctorate, and cherish the good memories and the friends you’ve made in that journey. Every doctor has a wealth of knowledge, skills, and support that they’ve accumulated in their time, and appreciation for that wealth is something that can’t be emphasized enough.

So, at the end of the day, I’m a doctor now. The future looks just as uncertain as it did before I got my degree, but all I know is that I’ll do the best I can with what I’ve gained over the last five years. And that will have to be enough.

Let’s go.

Our research group always has each member draw on one of the bricks in the office to commemorate his or her work in the group. It’s serious business. I’ll miss them.