Academic regalia, Academic rituals, Academic Study, Academic success, Big Love TV Series, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Doctoral completion, Graduation ceremony, parenting and study, The Hero's Journey, Time management

Doctoral graduation: the rite of academic passage at last

Evelyn at RMIT graduation

There are two schools of thought about graduation. One is the “I am too cool for school and never attend any of my graduations” and the other is “I have earned this rite of passage, get me that academic gown stat!” I am in the latter school. I always intended to celebrate getting the doctorate.

Alas, what I hadn’t counted on was getting so sick before the ceremony I thought I might not be able to attend.

I have written about post doctoral malaise, and the lingering, debilitating lethargy that hit me once I had handed in. I expected to jump back from zero to hero once I have officially passed, but no – disturbingly, I had no energy. It was as if my body had said, enough is enough. But surely, I would kick up my heels come graduation night, and celebrate?

By the time I actually got to the massive Etihad stadium in Melbourne’s Docklands on 18 December 2013 to receive my formal doctoral degree at RMIT university’s massive evening graduation ceremony, I was so ill I could barely stand.

roof rmit graduation

I mean this literally – I came down with horrendous gastro only five days before the ceremony, and for days I couldn’t get out of my bed except to vomit. I felt this was a fitting visceral metaphor for purging all those years of doctoral study, for those long, long nights and early morning starts of burning the candle at both ends as a mature age student, worker and mother.

In the worst of those days of illness, I honestly thought I’d be a no-show at graduation. It was bizarre how hard and fast the illness hit me. I have blogged that the key to academic success is brutal self focus, determination and time management – in short, it’s all about organization. So in true form, I organized my parents and children to join me the weekend before the graduation ceremony for the official photographs. And just as well I did. At least I have photos where I am smiling and actually look healthy!

At that point, it all felt exciting – graduation was finally feeling real. When I successfully wrangled my parents and kids into the city to pose for the group photo, it was the first time I had slipped on the doctoral regalia – the gown, the hat (velvet) and the scarlet hood. And it was the first time the “special status” of the doctoral graduate was made apparent.

I needed my gown ironed – someone nearly knocked over a lowly masters graduate to do so. I was suited up, the hood placed correctly, the velvet hat arranged, while undergraduates looked on, possibly queasy with the thought of how many years it would take them to earn the right to wear such academic dress.

I’d like to say I took a moment to savour the end of the journey that began about five years ago, but in honesty I was preoccupied with whether I could get my sons to brush their hair, stop fighting and fidgeting and look up from their mobile devices – and to stop the impressive doctoral hat from falling into my eyes. I should have tried it on when I hired it and picked it up on collection day. Oh well.

At some point, as the kids stood next to me, smiling happily that mummy was no longer doing doctoral study, I must have telegraphed some element of smugness to the fates. Because I was about to be taken down a peg. Big time.

In what seemed to be a sign from the universe about being too proud of my achievements, I promptly came down with crippling gastro that very evening. Thankfully, I had already bought my graduation dress, and the dazzling electric blue patent pumps to match, and had been given the most amazing necklace to wear from my parents as a graduation gift – I was set.

Sick I might have been, but I was also determined and on the big day I staggered out to the pharmacy for over the counter tablets that would make me functional for the event. And just as well, because if the doctoral journey required stamina, so too did the graduation.

The special position of the doctoral graduate was apparent from the minute I was ushered into the VIP room before the ceremony. Separated from the herd, I got to mingle with the other Chosen People – the same academics from the university who previously looked through me as a mere student, were now greeting me warmly as One Of Them. This is part of the doctoral rite of passage – your initiation into the group of academics with whom you are now on equal footing.

There was copious amounts of sparkling wine, yummy catering and much hugging and clinking of glasses. Dr Tsitas! Dr Tsitas! I was greeted by academics I worked with on exhibitions at RMIT Gallery, and those I knew from my sessional teaching. It was a cross between a speed networking event (“Send me your CV!”) to a love-in (“I am so happy for you! This is fabulous!”)

It was reminiscent of that penultimate scene in Ira Levin’s SF novel This Perfect Day, where protagonist Chip storms the bastions of Uni (an all encompassing computer system that controls the utopian world and all its citizens) only to be greeted  as a newly anointed peer by those scientists and leaders who program Uni – and who used to program his life . Chip was smart enough to evade capture, and find his way through the maze to grab the holy grail in an attempt to end the dictatorship. He passed the test. He was allowed into the inner sanctum. The punchline is, of course, that he now gets to program the masses, having proved himself worthy of the task. Someone has to rule, right?

This is what the doctoral celebrations are all about – you, the student, have found your way out of the doctoral maze, and returned triumphant with the prize.  Joseph Campbell would approve. The masks are taken off (them and us) and you are one with the power of the academy. Your doctoral journey is a hero’s journey, after all.

One thing I noticed at this pre-ceremony event is that academic dress is very diverse, something American geologist Evelyn Mervine discusses about in her blog. She writes, “I think it’s wonderful to celebrate academic dress. In these days when students and professors are more likely to wear jeans than a tie, I find the academic dress a fascinating throwback to times when dress was much more elaborate. Today, academic dress looks delightfully ridiculous… as if all the students and professors are dressed up for a Harry Potter movie, perhaps.”

Here is a photo of me with my Handle With Care co-author Dr Caroline van de Pol, who graduated from the University of Wollongong with a doctorate in creative writing, but is wearing different style academic gown (I think it is from an American university). Caroline lectures in public relations at RMIT and had to stand in for a colleague at the ceremony.

Evelyn  & Caro RMIT graduation

The pain of the past four years – those doctoral hurdles, deadlines, papers and most of all, the gruelling paperwork and administration – fell away. I was now part of The Club. Fittingly, this took place in the glass walled VIP room overlooking the stadium – all the hoi poli – the great majority of those without a doctorate, the location seemed to be implying – are below. Here you are, with the Chosen Few. It was so highly ritualized, I was reminded of the HBO TV drama Big Love and the controversial scene where Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) goes into the Mormon Temple’s Celestial Room so she can undergo the endowment ceremony. Just as those in the Temple are dressed in ritual garments, the academics in the VIP room were fitted out in their ritual gowns. No outsiders, please.  Like Barb, you must pass the ultimate test before you are allowed in.

Let us pause for a minute to reflect on my use of the phrase “chosen few” for doctoral graduates, because it isn’t exactly true, is it?  According to Dr Les Rymer (University World News 26 January 2014) “one issue stimulating debate about PhD education is the view that, at least in some disciplines, universities are producing too many PhD graduates and the huge increase in doctoral candidates means there is now a much more diverse PhD graduate population than in even the recent past.”

But, on this night – my own doctoral graduation – we can ignore the facts, and concentrate instead on the fantasy. I sipped on sparkling water, well aware I had to be on stage, in the middle of the stadium, for several hours, so alas, no champagne for me. More to the point, I was gleefully informed by all the academics that I would be sitting for hours on a stage that would rotate, like a giant gyros, basting me and the other doctoral graduates in the sunny glory of success. And overhead lighting. And roaming video cameras. I could not afford to pass out.

I have to hand it to RMIT University – more than 6,600 students gathered at Docklands Stadium to collect their certificates in front of more than 27,000 family and friends in the spectacular ceremony. And, cliche time, everything went like clockwork. At every turn I was marshalled into this line or that line, told when to sit, stand, move to the right or left, and march. Oh yes, there was an entire Magellan like circumnavigation of the oval at Etihad Stadium, which put my new heels – and my somewhat wobbly post gastro gait – to the test. I am pleased to report I made the circuit with no incidents.

During the long, long haul of sitting on the stage while every other single student graduated from the university at the same time (the doctoral students were first, of course), we were supplied with bottles of water and bowls of sweets to keep up our energy levels. Finally, at the conclusion of events, there was another glass of champagne. This time, I took one cautious sip. I felt I earned it.

champagne RMIT graduation

My 12 year old bided the time by opening a Twitter account and sending me a congratulatory message and by the time I located my kids and parents after the ceremony, they were full to the gills with the sandwiches and snacks wheeled onto the oval for the crowd to feast upon. It was nearing midnight as we finally took the last of our informal photos, collected my framed doctoral degree, and headed home.

Like Cinderella, I didn’t get to keep the academic finery. I had to dump the carefully pressed gown and hat in one of the large bins placed around the stadium – squashed in along with all the other gowns.

disgarded gowns rmit graudation

It seemed a sad but appropriate farewell to the fantasy night of graduation – what lies ahead is now up to you, after all. No more university holding your hand.

How odd, after 12 years of university study.

What I know now about doctoral graduation

Go to the graduation –Thank your support team. Honour the moment and dress up and get photos taken. Everyone around you wants to celebrate – and they want closure too. Make sure you organize ahead for seats for family. If you have children, they really, really want closure.

  • Yes, it is more special graduating with a doctorate – you do get ushered into the door of those who have stayed the distance, and it’s all champagne and accolades. Enjoy it while it lasts. You are now one of them – the group of people with PhDs. Share a glass of champagne with these guys who are now your peer group. Smile. In the “real” world, no one actually cares… 
  • You don’t have to know what you will do next. From this point on, you will be asked “what now?” In truth, I don’t think we can ever know just how much higher education changes everything. It’s not the final research or project that you produce, either. It’s the way you approach information, assess and amass knowledge, cast a critical eye over information and learn to think, analyse and argue.
  • Be grateful: You stayed the distance, you passed the test. Take a moment to congratulate yourself and be grateful you had the opportunity to do post graduate study in the first place. Finally…

Do not listen to old applause: Once the graduation ceremony is over, you actually have to start again. A doctorate isn’t an end it’s just a beginning. Maybe you don’t know what it is the beginning of – that’s okay. Just don’t rest on your laurels.

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Return with the Elixir: The Hero’s Doctoral Journey Concludes

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As the large official stamp went down with a thump on my form, the woman wielding the object at the School of Graduate Research looked up at me and said “So, feel any different – now you are a doctor?”

“No different from a second ago,” I said. How can that be? This is something I worked long and hard to achieve for the past four years. Now I had the literal seal of approval in my hands. I just felt exhausted.

Dr. Evelyn Tsitas.

Yes – it’s official. I have now jumped every hurdle.  I have completed, submitted, been examined, made the minor amendments, and handed in the ADR – in Australia, that is the Appropriate Durable Record. At my university, an impressive bound copy of your thesis is no longer desired – rather a few files on a disk that can be uploaded into an Electronic Thesis Repository.

Maybe not as pretty, but certainly global.

I was handed the stamped form. “You may now call yourself Dr Evelyn Tsitas, how does it feel?”

My senior supervisor who was there as I submitted all the signed forms – from the Head of School, the Dean and everyone else on the academic food chain – insisted “You must feel different – it does feel different, doesn’t it?”

Did I miss something? Did I suddenly get sprinkled with gold dust? Did the earth suddenly open up and a chasm of light rise from the centre, did a mass choir burst into song and the seas part? Well, of course not. But I’ll be damned if some sort of secret handshake didn’t almost get enacted amongst those in that office, and there was some sort of respect that hadn’t been there a mere thirty seconds before the official stamp sealed me as Dr. Evelyn Tsitas.

This doctorate has been the mythic hero’s journey – Joseph Campbell’s metaphor for the deep inner journey of transformation. In his book Myth and the Movies, writer Stuart Voytilla says this path leads the hero on predictable movements of separation, descent, ordeal and return. The final stage on this quest is Return With the Elixir, where the hero comes home and shares what has been gained on the quest, which benefits friends, family, community and the world.

Don’t we hope our doctoral research does just that?

Using the example of Woody Allen’s film classic 1977 romance Annie Hall, Voytilla says that the end of the movie finally shows the ability to look back on the good times in a relationship and acknowledge the elixir. He writes “relationships are irrational, crazy, and painful, but we keep going through them because we need the good times.”  That sounds a lot like a doctorate – it’s not all bad. People keep doing them because there are rewards, and some good times. And there is something within us that drives us to complete the enormous task – that quest for knowledge.

As I diligently went through all the corrections required by my doctoral examiners – such as formatting and editing (para 2, page 86 It’s (Its), Page 83: para 3, unclosed quotation marks, etc….I wondered if the final remark from one examiner – that I should have done nothing but the exegesis (and the novel) in the four years – no conferences, papers, certainly no ‘extra curricular’ writing as I am want to do – much less a full time job – was correct.

But what’s more important – handing in a pristine exegesis, devoid of a single typing error OR – making some sort of impact with your research, reaching out to the international community, having the guts to publish your research and make your name in the field? And actually trying to squeeze in a bit of life in those four years as well? Have just a little fun along the way?

This is the dilemma every doctoral student must face.

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Let’s talk about perfection – especially perfection in print.

I have spent most of my career as a journalist, on everything from suburban weekly newspapers, to magazines and daily newspapers as well as freelancing and blogging and here is the thing – there are teams of sub editors to read through and check for grammatical errors that sneak through even the cleanest copy. As writers, we read what we expect to read, and the only way I can see around having to do any minor corrections of formatting and grammatical or typing errors is to pay for several stages of professional editing before handing in the thesis.

Yet this is the real world, where you work until the last nano second on your doctorate, you don’t have a lot of cash to burn, and you do your best, but just like with daily newspapers and published books there are errors.

As long as they are not errors of fact, we accept them. Just as I accept that the doctorate is not a perfect finished and polished gem, as one examiner said it should be, at the expense of everything else.

Another academic suggested a doctorate should be ‘fit for purpose’. It is, after all, the springboard for a research career. No one publishes an exegesis as is. The day of the monograph is over. You use your work to create a series of journal articles, you also turn your thesis into a book, but not without going through a major edit with a publisher.

And as for the Doctorate in Creative Writing, the novel you submit will go through many changes after it has found a commercial publisher. These are the realities.

In hindsight, should I have done less as the examiner suggested, and handed in a ‘perfect’ exegesis? I wasn’t asked to change any of my arguments and my research wasn’t questioned, so I can live with correcting typing errors and formatting problems.

Looking back over the past four years, what would I have changed to ensure a ‘perfect’ rather than ‘fit for purpose’ result?

Some things I had to do, such as be a full time worker, mother and doctoral student. Others, such as teaching post graduates, blogging, writing, and editing outside the doctoral structure and presenting my research at conferences around Australia and internationally as well as submitting to academic journals, were all extra curricular.

But would I end up a better academic if I just simply focused on just doing the exegesis? No, I think I would have ended up insular and timid.

Especially in this competitive time when the academic environment has changed so rapidly, it is now crucial to get your research out to a wide audience, and to start making your name with your research as soon as possible, and prove you have a strong network in your field. I went to Oxford last year to present at two conferences, and am back again in September, to present the last chapter of my exegesis. I would rather have those experiences and the connections I made rather than a perfect doctorate without one little error.

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And so it comes down to this – the CV or the minor amendments on the exegesis as requested by the examiners?

I chose the later. And now I have done those pesky changes, I have the stamp on the official form that says I am Dr Evelyn Tsitas, as well as an impressive academic resume and two and a half years of tertiary teaching experience under my belt.

In the meantime, I have lost a lot of sleep, any social life and what little cooking skills I had. Even my microwave reheating techniques are a little dodgy. My kids have become a lot more resilient, though if I want to scare them into behaving I just say the magic words ‘mummy will do another PhD’. That subdues them.

It may contain a grain of truth, in fact. After a break of about nine weeks from the intensity of the doctoral deadline once I had submitted, I didn’t cope with the post-submission limbo very well. I was like a runner, swimmer or any endurance athlete after the finish line – exhausted but flat after the high of competition.

But plodding away at the minor amendments, I started to get the doctoral high again. I enjoy the peace of writing and studying long into the evening after the children are in bed, the dog is quiet and the words start flowing. It’s hypnotic, really. For me, writing is like my favourite scene from Jane Campion’s wonderful 1993 film The Piano.  Just substitute being at the piano keys for the computer keyboard. This scene so beautifully captures the rapture of creativity, when you can totally immerse yourself  in your art, so that nothing else matters; the children amuse themselves, others wait patiently, the light fades, but you are not forced to move on until you are done.

The doctoral pain dissolves, and I can feel that urge again…maybe I’m not quite finished yet? I wouldn’t be the first person in my immediate family to go back and get a second Masters after a doctorate. I wonder…is this Higher Degree Stockholm Syndrome?