Anne Guarnera is a doctoral candidate in Spanish at the University of Virginia. You can find her discussing teaching and learning on Twitter as @aguarnera and learn more about her work on her website.
Graduation season is upon us. As I returned to Charlottesville last week to defend my dissertation (spoiler alert: I passed!), it was impossible not to notice that the entire city is gearing up for next month’s big celebration. Signs were up reminding students to collect their regalia at the bookstore, restaurants were advertising prix fixe dinners for graduation weekend, and much to the delight of my toddler son, landscapers were driving their tractors to and fro across UVa’s iconic Lawn, busily laying sod for the upcoming ceremonies.
Despite my relief and joy over finishing my doctorate, I find myself with mixed feelings about graduation’s approach and the major life transition that it represents.
Perhaps you are experiencing the same?
Jokes about graduation grief are more common in the undergraduate context, particularly for those students who viewed college as a four-year frat party.
But is it possible that graduation grief could be a very real phenomenon for some graduate students?
If you’ve identified as a graduate student for the past two, five, or seven years, letting go of that identity can be downright painful.
If you’ve developed a community of like-minded friends on campus, it can be hard to see them scattered to the professional four winds.
If you’ve grown to love the city where you’ve been studying, the thought of moving can induce dread.
These concerns may be especially front-of-mind if you are stepping out of academia, whether by choice or by necessity. And yet, the excitement of graduation means that it can be nearly impossible to articulate such losses, let alone confront them in any meaningful way.
If you are having difficulty processing your emotions about finishing, however, it is worth devoting some time and attention to the process of grieving well—you might consider it a way of practicing emotional self-care.
One practice that you might find helpful in dealing with graduation grief is to intentionally set aside time to deal with your feelings. This might look like a coffee date with a close friend, or a regular early morning journaling session. A professional counselor could also be a good resource to call upon during this transition. These questions may be helpful to your reflective process:
- What parts of yourself have you developed during graduate school that you can carry over into other areas of your life? Have you become an excellent project manager, learned to be more comfortable with abstract ideas, or sharpened your teaching and presentation skills? Regardless of your future career, those are all talents that you can take with you after graduation.
- What elements of your worldview have been informed by your graduate education? How have your core beliefs and values changed as a result of your studies—or even as a result of other parts of the graduate school experience (teaching, for example)? That’s a big question (perhaps the biggest question), and worthy of some thought.
- How might you share what you have learned in graduate school for the benefit of others? You don’t have to be on the tenure track for your research to make a difference. Think creatively about how you might share your work. Could you give a lecture at your local library? Write for a blog in your field? Do outreach to elementary school students? Start a Twitter conversation about issues related to your research?
- What practices did you adopt during graduate school that have brought meaning and joy to your life? Perhaps you began a mindfulness routine, or started volunteering with migrant workers, or even used coloring books to manage stress. Don’t discount these as tangible take-aways from your time as a graduate student.
Another idea is to choose a way to mark this transition that is meaningful for you. While I don’t recommend that you forego all celebration—since the point is not to ignore this life change, but honor it authentically—weigh carefully whether the traditional graduation festivities will feel right to you. You may decide to walk at graduation in full regalia, or to attend only certain portions of the ceremony, or even to eschew the ceremony entirely. One of the privileges of being an adult is getting to decide things like this although, candidly, I realize that this is much easier said than done. Friends and family members can fixate on seeing you walk and it may be hard to persuade them to skip the graduation ceremony. But perhaps you can plan a brunch or pizza party to celebrate, or go out salsa dancing with friends as your “real” party.
Finally, at the risk of repeating a cliché, I would encourage you to be patient with the process. Settling into your post-grad school life will take time. It won’t happen all at once, and you may find, as I have, that the emotions come in waves. The best description that I have heard of grief is that it is like river rafting: sometimes the river is smooth, other times there are turbulent waters, and the river’s course can be difficult to predict. But at some point, it does end, and you find yourself deposited safe on the riverbank. Maybe that image will be helpful to you on the difficult days.
If you’re currently experiencing graduation grief, what are you doing to cope? If you graduated recently, how have you adjusted to your post-grad school life?
[Image by Flickr user Brew127 and used under a Creative Commons license]