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to convocation and beyond (or beginning the autoethnography that is post doc life)

July 16, 2018

lisa hammershaimb

And now, it’s been just over one month since convocation. (Which conveniently can be viewed here! I appear around the 32 minute mark.) Last month I was in Canada, donning robes that would not be out of place at Hogwart’s, remembering to smile, remembering to breathe, doing all I could to be emotionally and physically present to every. single. second.

This was the fourth convocation I’ve been part of (three where I was a student and one where I was acting program dean.) The venues ranged from a chapel-like auditorium with distinctly puritanical decor to a massive arena which was built in the early 1940s as a livestock showcase, to a turn of the century art deco theater–heavy on the gold, to most recently a large multipurpose room in a sports complex, adjacent to a curling rink because….Canada. Though location, institution, and overall tone differed in pretty profound ways, I am convinced there is nothing quite like the magic of convocation. I know it is more a formality than anything–the hard work and deep transformation happens in all the mundane daily months and years leading up to it but still…there is romance in hearing your name called and walking across a stage to mark physically the identity shift that has been happening behind the scenes.

Before the big day I was 100% prepared to be an emotional mess and cry through most of the proceedings because this was legit such a big deal. Turns out, the only time I got even a little misty was during an acapella trilingual rendition of Oh Canada. It was equal parts joyful and haunting and, to my American ears, felt like a beautiful sign of inclusivity. Oh Canada indeed. Regarding my own role in the big day, I was number two of about three hundred graduates. As my name was called it was an out of body experience, floating from receiving my hood to a handshake to a photo to more handshakes to an exit stage right. I remember lots of lights, and lots of smiles from people in elaborate robes, and mumbling lots of thank you’s to said smiles and fancy robes. It was perfect.

The remainder of the event (because about three hundred graduates equals about three hours) was spent sitting on stage (in the second row) trying to chat discretely with my fellow doctors, regretting how much water I drank before the event, and repeating in my head “you did it Lisa!” Then the bagpipes began, the Mountie reappeared and I progressed off the stage and into the happy congratulatory chaos from my family (both biological and cohort). I 100% felt like a doctor. Also, it must have worked because I immediately stopped having panicked dreams that about the Faculty of Grad Studies telling me I need to redo all. the. things. Ruby appeared fully robed a short time later for a photoshoot and once again…it was perfect.

Since convocation I’ve been mostly on the move in the annual tradition of #nomadsummer. Last summer #nomadsummer meant I conducted dissertation research interviews throughout five different states and two countries and never stopped being thankful (and kind of amazed) by the power of the internet. It was logistically wild and crazy but I think in many ways the motion was catalytic in taking me out of my own mundane routine and helping me enter the worlds of my participants.

This summer, traveling is decidedly more low key. The only research question I am pursuing is a very personal “what is the experience of a newly hooded doctor transitioning from student to post doctorate identity?” (Yep…nearly five years of academic study mean I default to research questions for all. the. things. At this point I’m just accepting the quirky.) The frequent moves and general rootlessness in this season serve as a good embodiment of my internal identity shift as, metaphorically, home is no longer “student” or “candidate” or “hoping to be done in the next year.” Like this summer’s long term road trip that hasn’t been pre-planned, this shift is mostly exciting in its potential and occasionally deeply inconvenient in its messy uncertainty.

Just over two weeks ago we spent three days in the Pacific Northwest, at the edge of the continent. Though our house fronted onto an inlet, if you looked out over a certain side of the deck, you could see land’s end and open ocean. From here, the next piece of solid ground is Japan. I love big water and though it was ridiculously cold for being the end of June, I did my best to spend as much time as possible in close proximity to the Pacific. One evening as the Pacific and I drank wine together, I remembered another trip not so long ago where I was once again on the edge of the continent, realizing some unfortunate things.

Back in February we were in Florida, living about five hundred steps to the open Atlantic. Though the context was ideal it seemed as though everything was going wrong. The deadline for applying to graduate was approaching and my committee was dead silent (and had been for nearly six weeks) on final dissertation feedback. The process was in an indefinite holding pattern. I was trying to be more patient and philosophical than bitter about it all but…the waiting was taking its toll. On that trip the ocean taught me about mutual dependence and letting go. I sometimes am a terrible student but I did try my best to learn.

Reflecting back on those times in a place that was both different and similar provided a wonderful synchronicity. I told this to the Pacific. The waves applauded me in celebration and delight, glad I was on this end of things. I also told the Pacific about my summer research question, noting I was a little hesitant about the future…and, though I knew I couldn’t go back, slightly nostalgic for the identity I had acquired the past many years. I confessed that making the transition was harder than I anticipated. No doubt I felt like a doctor in many ways but also in many ways….not so much. This instability was vaguely concerning to me. The Pacific too is a good listener.

I was hoping the Pacific would have some magical answers about how to actualize all the way to a doctor, preferably in three easy steps.┬áTurns out, instead the Pacific told me actualization is overrated. It manages to balance constant motion and flow in the immediate with clockwork regularity in the long term–one extreme holding the other in a dance of beautiful tension. The waves change minute by minute but the tides can be mapped months in advance. This both/and tension admittedly baffles me. And yet, this both/and fluidity is enough to nurture so much diverse life. For the sake of the world, this both/and fluidity is indeed very very good.

Which brings me back to my own highly myopic research question. It seems the experience of a newly hooded doctor now transitioning to a post doctorate identity is messy and changeable. I recently learned I was accepted to present my research at two different conferences this fall. This made me feel exceedingly doctoral. I also recently was in yet another work meeting trying to devise yet more strategy to help our students better persist and succeed. The problem is beyond complex. Needless to say, I felt far from doctoral.

Against this mercurial landscape, I like the ocean view of things. In the long term, I know I am now a doctor…this process has marked and transformed me in profound ways and there’s no going back. In the minute by minute pace of life, constant motion and flow reign supreme. More often anything goes and the long term is often obscured. There is solid ground regarding identity but perhaps it is something meant to live out of rather than grasp compulsively. This is exciting in its potential and deeply inconvenient for someone who likes to orient toward actualization. And so here is what I am learning in this season…if motion/flow along with grounded regularity can coexist in ocean, perhaps they can coexist in me too….perhaps this can indeed be very good.

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