Join us in welcoming recent University of Washington PhD grad and new professor Will Mari, who will be sharing reflections on transitions and life after graduate school this summer. Photo: Columns, Sylvan Grove, University of Washington
You stand in the Quad, surrounded by empty chairs and the sound guys talking down the stage. It’s an early June day in Seattle at the University of Washington. A cool wind is blowing paper programs lazily through the air. Rain is misting down, as it does in the Northwest, between brief sun breaks. You’re wearing your long-awaited “wizard robes,” and you’ve been hooded by your shy, gray-haired adviser.
Dissertation’s uploaded, paperwork’s filed and you’re a doc. Just like that, you’ve crossed the invisible line that marks the end of the road. You are in the midst of the disorientation of doneness. And like the astronaut Alan Bean, who walked on the moon with Apollo 12, you wonder, “is that all there is?”
You know in your mind that the answer is “no,” praise the Lord. There’s lots of life before you. You’re getting married next week. You’re blessed with a good academic job. You have students again in the fall, papers to write, a dissertation to turn into a book. Life IS good.
But in your heart, in your gut, you still wonder, and you are processing your PhD. Is that all there is?
It’s been such a long road, years in the making. From community college to undergrad to a master’s degree overseas to a PhD program with coursework, a general exam, a prospectus defense, and, just a few weeks ago, a dissertation defense, it’s been nine years altogether. It’s hard to know what to feel, really, with finishing something like this. Unlike your first “big” graduation, where you had dozens of classmates and friends graduating with you, here at the end, it’s just you. You have a few friends finishing with and near you, of course, and your family and non-academic friends. They love and honor you, and you are grateful.
And yet the thing that strikes you and others who are done or almost done is the solo-ness of finishing a PhD. There’s not a lot that gets you ready for that sensation. There’s nothing in the brochure. You’re done and that’s all she wrote, right? It’s almost like climbing a mountain alone, high in the sky, the silence expansive and broad before you.
Of course, it’s good to place this act in perspective. Plenty of other pinnacles are similar and individual, from ritual shifts like becoming a doctor, nurse, pastor, or lawyer to moving to a new city and starting a new job. It is good to make these steps across the threshold. It’s part of what makes them special and impactful. After all, even Abraham had to leave his (extended) family to start God’s story for the people of Israel. God calls and sends, out away and far from comfort, at least at first. He eventually plants us in community, of course. But even the Benedictines cannot bloom where they’re planted without leaving someone, something or someplace else.
I want to embrace the strangeness of the solo act of being done. I also want to reflect on it, the newness of it, the mental and emotional birthing of it. I’m a junior scholar and teacher, and that’s OK. I encourage you to feel the same, to appreciate the interregnum, the interstitial spaces that remind us that our home is in heaven, scholars and non-scholars alike.
Join me as I write about this process for ESN, and as I reflect on my first full year of full-time teaching. Thank you!