May 17, 2014. That is the day when all the graduates from my institution will be attending their graduation ceremony. When I was a student there, every year, I would attend the ceremony, camera in hand, because another friend would be graduating. I would take their graduation pictures, cap and gown and regalia. On a hot May weekend, I would stand in the sun, watching the graduates parade the ground, listening to the guest speaker give their lecture, and feeling inspired for being a part of a top US institution (my university is actually an original Public Ivy League school). To me, it is a matter of pride, a sense of belonging, a way of life I have chosen for myself. I could be a school teacher or a sales manager or a PR person, but I voluntarily chose to be a researcher at an academic institution.
I always dreamed about what it would be like, attending my own graduation ceremony. I know people who never bothered to attend theirs, and I wondered why. I have even flown to a different city to attend someone else’s graduation ceremony, whose family was not going to be there, because I did not want them to feel alone. Yes, I have done things like that. Because to me, it is nothing short of a huge achievement. An achievement which is not celebrated enough.
If I had decided to marry in my twenties, or even decide to do it now, there would be a huge week-long celebration. Hundreds of relatives will breathe a sigh of relief that I have finally come back to my senses and a getting married, congregate from different parts of the country, eat and drink for days, and bless me. There would be good food and good music. Much to my dislike, I know that my father has a separate budget in his savings kept for the occasion. He is not going to give me the money (which is a substantial part of his savings). Instead, he will use that money to buy me expensive clothes and jewelry, invite a few hundred people and feed them, hire photographers and catering services, buy flowers and decorations worth many a thousand rupees, and marry me off. And what have I done to deserve this celebration? Just found myself a husband, nothing more than that. I did not clear entrance exams, did not ace competitive exams, did absolutely nothing. But I would still be worth the week-long, expensive celebration.
Now think about this. Almost nine years ago, I worked day and night to ace my GRE. I got into a top ranking university in Seattle. I worked harder, attended classes, learned my subjects, aced my exams, and the drill continued for two years, until I graduated with a master degree. Then I worked in the industry for a bit. And decided to go back to school again, and finish my PhD. This time, I moved to the other coast, joined a top university again, worked hard day and night, did everything one needs to do, and finished my PhD in a little less than three years. Now given the amount of celebration for a wedding, and the amount of celebration getting a PhD makes me worth, what do you think happens? Does my father buy me diamond jewelry, invite a few thousand guests, and throw a party? No. Actually, they would not even make it to my graduation event, because India is far away. So on a bright and sunny May morning, I would don my cap and gown, and receive my degree with absolutely no one to cheer for me. No one. Sure, a few friends might show up, and take me to a local restaurant. My adviser might tell me a few words of encouragement. But nothing more than that is going to happen.
This is what makes me so sad. That in my family, getting married is valued more than getting an education, being independent, mastering a subject, being a student of two world renowned universities, getting a PhD, and creating my own identity.
So I thought to myself, forget parents. Forget the celebrations. Forget the makeup person and photographer. I will celebrate my own success, alone, like I have done so many things in life. When my sister got married a few years ago, I was appalled at the amount of money that was spent on junk- flowers and unwanted guests and lighting and clothes and what not. My sister, who works and is financially independent, let my dad blow off a lot of money for the celebrations. Because she thought she deserved it, and it was my dad’s duty to do it. And my dad was happy doing that, marrying my sister off. And during the same occasion, I was harassed and bullied by God knows how many people, who did not understand why I am not showing any interest in getting married, and doing a PhD instead (note: I don’t see a PhD and a wedding as mutually exclusive events). I tried to let go of the hurt, and think rationally about why people had that mindset. Maybe because it is an age old tradition to celebrate marriages, while women during those days did not do PhDs, so getting an education was not valued. I don’t know.
Even now, look at the amount of celebrations that go for weddings and baby showers and thread ceremonies and engagements and birthdays of the little ones. And look at the amount of celebration that goes for getting an education, getting a degree, and being smart. The comparison is stark.
So even one year back, I was decided that I would go for my graduation (note: If you graduate after May, your graduation ceremony happens the following May). But a few months ago, I changed my mind.
Because I graduated, and I moved 1,200 miles away. That is roughly the distance between Kolkata and Mumbai, without direct flights. I would have to change flights at least once, if not twice. And it would cost me $500. Also, for a weekend ceremony, I would have to fly out on a Friday, and return on a Monday, which is taking out two vacation days from my 12 days/year vacation time. The time and money, I could not justify, not to mention the exorbitant amount of the graduation gown. You know, I have heard many people say that the honeymoon should be right after the wedding. If you wait too long, you would never end up going. And I saw the same thing happening. This year long gap had put my focus in different directions now. I was over my initial high of getting a PhD, and was sufficiently busy in my new job. But all these reasons aside, there is one big and only reason that finally convinced me that I will not go attend the ceremony. The money and time are resources that can be replenished. So I would have gone eventually. But something happened, that totally changed the way I perceived my graduation ceremony.
I decided not to go for my graduation, because I am convinced that my PhD has not adequately prepared me to find gainful employment. Eight months into finishing my PhD, I am desperately looking for my next job, and keep getting rejected all the time. The visa is a pain, an apt description of what it is. My adviser might have written me reference letters, but he has done nothing to connect me to the right people, or to reabsorb me in his group. I have had occasional supports from here and there, but overall, I have been on my own through this mess. Parents didn’t understand, adviser didn’t care, and another professor made fun of it and asked me to find an American boyfriend.
Which created a disconnect with the excitement I had of celebrating my very own and only achievement of this magnitude. It was my very analysis of the situation that perhaps my PhD has not prepared me well enough to find a respectable job in the field. Forget a faculty position, I am unable to find even a postdoctoral position. I mean, how hard can it be? It’s not that I am not looking hard enough. It’s not that I am not smart or do not know how to get the work done. Some things in life do not make any sense, and this is one of them. I finished my degree in record time, am actively publishing and presenting at national conferences. Still I am unable to find anything. It is a puzzle to me. Somehow, the pieces do not add up.
So May 17, I will be home. It was a hard decision, but a practical one. I think that I am better off saving money for the rainy day. Too bad, I cannot walk the ceremony next year. If I had a job by now, I would go back to attend the ceremony in a heartbeat. But right now, it doesn’t seem right.
It is one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. But I am at peace with my decision, because it seems like the right thing to do given the circumstances. The path I have chosen for me is not appreciated by a lot of people around me, and I will have to be okay with that. Perhaps in another life, I will get a PhD, and then my dad will invite hundreds of people and there will be weeklong celebrations, dance and music, good food and a lot of photographs. Not in this life. And in this life, when the situation is better, when I have some more money and lesser worries, I will celebrate by going backpacking somewhere nice. Maybe Alaska. Maybe Europe. Perhaps South America. I know that I will celebrate someway. Just that I will not walk my graduation ceremony.