Something Called a Ph.D.

College campuses have been manicured to welcome proud parents; students are turning in their final projects; there’s excitement in the air, mixed with a hint of sadness. It’s graduation season once again. With 58 higher education institutions in the area, sooner or later (if you haven’t already) you will run into students walking around town in their gowns. Some students, you can tell, just pulled the gowns out of the plastic packaging that very morning. The deep creases and wrinkles would have made the old me cringe, as I would iron my gown and have it ready the night before.

Graduation from college (left) and from graduate school (right)

Graduation from college (left) and from graduate school (right)

But beyond the flowers and the diplomas, the speeches and the photos, I also think of all the life creases and wrinkles that we students had to iron out before walking across that stage. It was never just about the grades. The gown merely symbolizes the transformation that the student had to go through between orientation and graduation. The amount of growth through knowledge, relationships, and life experiences is something that graduates will continue to feel and reflect upon long after they’ve lost their tassels.

As the graduate student speaker at my mini-commencement ceremony, I had the privilege of addressing my peers and to testify to their own inspiring life journeys. Those graduates, soon to be called “Drs.,” were also my friends. Education is a human experience, and I wanted to tell the world not only how smart but also how strong they were.

But first I started my speech with my dad, the eternal student. Despite a premature end to his formal education, he has never declined an opportunity to learn, whether it was from books I brought home from school, the kids section at the (French) library, or now from the internet. That’s how he began to suspect that I might be working on “something called a Ph.D.” Over the phone, he was eager to share his findings regarding this bizarre degree. “P… as in Patrick”—Er, dad?—“lower case h… h as in Henri…”—Wait, dad. I know. I know what a Ph.D. is.

I mean, I think I do.

Trustees, faculty, family, friends and graduates, it is with great honor and pride that I address you on this very special day. I would like to thank the Chemistry Department for offering me this unique opportunity, and it is thanks to its wonderful faculty and staff that I am glad I chose Brandeis for graduate school. Of course, I would also like to acknowledge my family here and around the world, as well as my incredible in-laws for their love, support, and guidance. This hasn’t been an easy journey.

Let me start by telling you a little story. About six months ago, my father and I were talking on the phone. I told him I was writing my thesis. “Oh?” he said, “so you’re writing about things you discovered?” “Pretty much,” I said. A week later, he called me again. He had been doing some research online, and he was anxious to share with me some of the things he had learned. He said, “Tell me, have you ever heard of something called a ‘P-h-D’?” “Yes, dad, I actually have.” “Really?” he said. “You know, it’s funny because it’s called ‘Philosophy’ but it sounds pretty hard. From what I’ve read, you have to defend your work in front of a group of experts like professors from big universities!” When I managed to explain that I had been working on this Ph.D. for the past five and a half years, there was a long pause then he said: “I am confident that you will be successful.”

Although this story is amusing, there are two things that I should point out. First, my father and I had just reconnected after a decade of separation, and he was still trying to catch up on what he had been missing. Second, my father never finished high school. And so today I would like to emphasize the human, more personal side of our journey as graduate students.

You see, the world knows of our scientific achievements. It can read about it, and it can benefit from it. But beyond the expected Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results and Discussion sections, there are stories that only we know. For most of us, that includes those long nights spent in the lab and we wished it didn’t get so cold after hours, or that computer crash right before a conference deadline. We worked tirelessly to try and gather viable data, and then we worked even harder to figure out what that precious data we just collected actually means! We have witnessed the incredible sense of fulfillment when that first-author paper got accepted for publication. Sadly, we’ve also seen the devastation from finding out that another research group just published the work we had been working on. These are personal experiences that cannot be found anywhere among the hundreds of pages in our dissertations, and yet they helped us build the strength of character that we need to become accomplished scientists.

In addition, there is the obvious, although often forgotten, fact that life does go on outside of research. Some of us fell in love, and some of us fell out of love. Some of us became parents, and some of us lost a parent. Flashes of memories rush through my mind as I look back on my graduate career. I see the faces of all the friends I gained throughout the years. There was also the time when a lab mate called me from the hospital. While in labor with her first child, she asked me to remove her culture plates from the incubator. And there were weddings. A lot of weddings. In fact, I helped organize so many of them that I considered becoming a wedding planner! Then there was my own wedding, which took place at the Museum of Science last year. And, like some of you, I also had to say goodbye to loved ones. Graduate school in itself is a challenge, but to go through the entire program while still attending to all of life’s demands is something to be especially proud of.

So I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on your accomplishments, experiences, and lessons learned both inside and outside the world of research. We had the opportunity to work toward the highest degree in our fields. Let’s use the skills and knowledge we have acquired, while remembering the people we have touched along the way, to try and make our world a better place today, and for the next generation. You will not necessarily know how to use the newest and coolest gadgets that your children bring home, but at least, you’ll know what a P-h-D is!

Graduates, congratulations!


This post is for students of all ages, with or without degrees, with or without school affiliations, those who are curious, those who ask questions, those who have a passion for discovery. Live, love, and learn. (Also, I want to apologize to any philosophers we might have offended.)