Today I graduate from the University of Maryland with a doctorate of philosophy in information studies. My college is hosting a 30-minute virtual ceremony followed by a reading of graduates’ names. This graduation is different for obvious reasons—no donning of regalia, no gathering in a campus auditorium, no handshakes, hugs, or hooding, the tradition of an advisor awarding their student an academic hood to signify the student’s attainment of the highest academic degree and their transition from student to colleague. That’s fine; 15 months of pandemic life has accustomed me to virtual events, and I’ll attend the College’s in-person ceremony this December.
This graduation is different because of its un-intensity. My previous two graduations were finish lines for grueling marathons. The last few weeks of the semester were a frenzy of final papers, projects, and exams, including thesis research. I just had to make it to graduation, I told myself, and after that I could collapse and take a break. In both cases I had taken on so much schoolwork that I had no time or mental energy to search for a job, which meant I had no idea what was coming next.
Both times were also emotionally chaotic. As undergraduate graduation loomed, the pressure cooker in which I’d caged myself began to crack. The thing I excelled at—school—was ending, and there was no syllabus to tell me what to do next. Five years later, my master’s graduation was one of a confluence of life changes: ten days after graduation, I moved 500 miles, and ten days after that, I got married. In both cases, graduation felt like stepping out of a busy landscape onto a blank canvas, and the void agitated my professional self.
This time, graduation is a formality. I defended my dissertation in March and submitted the final draft in April, so my degree requirements have been complete for a month. The last course I took was in Spring 2018, and I haven’t felt like a student for years. I’ve felt much more like an academic. With the exception of teaching, I’ve been doing the same work as academics: conducting research, leading projects, applying for funding, working with students, peer-reviewing studies, and serving on college and university committees.
This time, I do have a job lined up. It’s a faculty position, which means I’ll get to continue what I’ve been doing, albeit in a new institutional environment. That’s the biggest reason why this graduation feels like a mark rather than a break. Undergraduate me was confronting the reality of adulthood, and master’s me was adapting to a partnered adulthood. Unlike both of those times, I finished this degree with a clear sense of what I wanted next professionally, and I feel extremely fortunate to have found a position that lets me do that work.
This graduation is also different because it’s the end of my formal education. When I finished undergrad, I knew I wanted to attend graduate school. And when I finished the master’s, I sensed doctoral study was in my future. Now, there’s no higher degree left to earn. I won’t say I’m done earning degrees; I half-jokingly told my spouse I might one day use my tuition remission benefits to get an MFA in creative writing. But in terms of professional advancement, yes, I’m done studying.
Of course, this year is not how I envisioned wrapping up doctoral study. I relished my routine of commuting to campus, writing in my shared office, and chatting in the common areas. I presented my dissertation proposal in a classroom full of colleagues, and I presumed I would defend the dissertation in the same room. Instead, I wrote the dissertation at a dining table in a small apartment while a deadly virus circulated outside, and I defended it over Zoom, at the same table.
But if I learned anything from my undergraduate experience, it was that life does not work according to plan. Things happen, circumstances change, and you make your way through the world accordingly. The gift of rituals like graduation is that they prompt us to pause, to reflect, and to give thanks for what we have and what has brought us to the current moment. I recorded a speech for today’s graduation ceremony, and that was its theme. (Here’s a link to the recording and text of my speech.)
Doctoral study has been the most fulfilling experience of my life. To everyone who had a hand in making that so—thank you.