How it feels to get a PhD

04 May

As someone who was a part of the academic world for a few years, it would happen that every now and then a diligent colleague or a friend would manage to defend their dissertation and get their longed-for PhD. Strangely, every now and then when I’d attend such events, I’d feel the formality and importance of it all. A side note, in the Netherlands PhD defenses are super formal. You have the committee all dressed in their garments, grilling you with allegedly tough questions for an hour in an open event for everyone at the university to attend, if they wish so. They address you with ‘dear candidate’ and you respond back with ‘highly (or very) esteemed opponent’.

The whole formality of the event does not contribute towards a stress-free and pleasant experience. But it does, however, make the event feel like a big deal. It is not just an ordinary day, you are after all this time, getting your title!

After the committee has made their decision to give you the title, you receive your diploma, with a red wax stamp on it, in a big tube-like container. Then your supervisor gives a small speech about you, which is supposed to contain a few anecdotes and a little bit of praise.

Usually such ceremonies move me. I am always able to sympathize with the candidate, admire their hard work and perseverance, and have always been a little bit dreamy, wishing one day, soon enough, I would be able to defend my own dissertation as well. Hell, I am not ashamed to admit I get goosebumps and a little teary every so often.

All until it was my time to defend. Stress aside, I felt mostly numb. None of the pride and emotions I expected to feel. I did not get goosebumps, I did not get misty-eyed. In a nutshell, it did not feel like a big deal. Maybe because I did not make a big fuss out of it. People sometimes have all their families attending, starting from distant cousins to their sister’s recent casual fling, all kind of friends —  from distant childhood to their recent drinking buddies. I had no family in the audience, only my boyfriend, a few people from the department, some of my PhD colleagues, and 2 of the colleagues in my recent job. There were people who said would make it to the ceremony, people I considered good and close friends, but who were not there. Perhaps this took away from the significance of the event for me, at least a little bit. Perhaps I just could not realize what was going on, or subconsciously had decided to toughen myself up so that I will not start weeping like an idiot the moment I get the longed for red-waxed diploma. Perhaps. Perhaps the reward was not in the ceremony itself and getting the degree. Or maybe the rewards came all in little phases. First you submit your thesis to the committee. Then they say yes. And you print the book. The moment you receive a box of books at your home having your name on the cover is in itself quite uplifting.

Or perhaps the joy doesn’t just hit you at once. Maybe the work itself, the grueling hours, late nights and weekends you spent on it and putting it all behind is the prize itself. The self-discipline, dedication and motivation  are a morale training like no other.

Or maybe all the literature I read about aspirations and their effect on our well-being was right after all. Some suggest that your own status not per se your is not what matters for your happiness but your state relative to that of others. And if you win a lottery, for example, you quickly adjust to the new fortune and soon enough aspirations kick in and you want more. You can imagine that someone driven enough to pursue a PhD would still be ruled by ambition. There is this very much ‘meh’ moment after you graduate. Especially if you quit academia and know that this is going to be the highest degree you will ever get.

Perhaps. Or perhaps I still need a few more days for the joy to kick in. In the meantime, I am still waiting.


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Posted by on May 4, 2016 in PhD life, Uncategorized


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