The Day After Graduation: From an Exhilarated/Exhausted Mentor/Prof – For Those Who’ve Made It, & Those Who Haven’t (yet).


As a former professor and current administrator, the day after graduation always leaves me feeling the same way – a combination of: excited, reflective, exhausted, pensive, and hopeful.

I am excited  for all of my students because so many of you have reached your goals. I recruited some of you as undergrads, and yesterday, you crossed the stage and were hooded – we now call you Dr.! The PhD is a long journey. You embarked upon it, and you’ve finished it.  Congratulations! Some of you decided that the master’s degree was your mission. You pushed your way through, synthesized and analyzed the knowledge, and completed your milestone. Congratulations! Some of you are finishing the bachelor’s degree. Whether you are or were one of my students who came back to school after tending to your family, or started the road to college as you tried to learn the ropes after high school, you are to be commended – you did it! Congratulations to you!

I reflect upon your collective journeys … yes, all of them. I run the algorithms in my head, and even if I try to rest, I can’t help but remember. I remember the tough times and how you pushed through the pain. I remember your uncertainties, your tears, and your disruptions, interruptions, and re-routed paths. The chair and sofa in my office are beginning to become a little bit worn now, and the tissue boxes continue to be re-stocked by my team, but despite the clutter, you are always welcome to come back and share. I also remember the triumphs: your first poster presentation, your first oral presentation in front of a strange audience, your first question and answer session! I reflect upon your triumphs as you took that deep breath to re-take a class, and you passed. I recall the courage that you showed by taking our advice and overcoming your shyness to meet with your faculty more regularly. I appreciate you enduring my “professor hat” lectures about successful practices, and I commend you for taking the steps and exercising the patience to complete the tasks, do the work, and get the results that you were seeking.

I am exhausted  because I want so much for you. I feel the pains … it’s difficult to dissociate, and I also feel the joys – which are hard to contain! I learned from my church, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn,” and it describes how I interact with you. I regularly underestimate the mental expenditure, but it is worth it to know that you are pressing toward your goals. In conferences and faculty meetings with others who serve in roles of mentor or professor or both, you should know that many of them care beyond what you might imagine. There are some people who may not have a role of “visible” mentor, but they are mentor-advocates for you. For some of you, there are professors whom you may never  call “mentor” because you don’t see them in a mentoring role, but they are solidly on your side. In most cases, whether the mentor is visible or the mentoring aspects of the relationship are invisible, these individuals have “poured into you,” albeit in different ways. Some mentors “mentor” differently, and some may not “mentor” with a smile. They may mentor through sharing knowledge, creating assignments to help you to learn, leading discussions, or providing opportunities for you to develop your skills. These acts of mentoring deserve appreciation as well as those that are more ebullient or externally expressed. Today, I am in an “exhilarated/exhausted” state because so many of you have validated the work that we do. “I did what you told me,” you said to me yesterday after commencement. “You taught me well,” you said.  All teachers want to know that they taught their students well, that they’ve assisted in moving them to the next stage, and that along the way … good relationships were forged, and there was good attention to physical and mental health. I am exhausted with excitement for you. I’m nearly without words. Literally. I think that the capacity of my energy for this week is now beyond audible words, therefore, I’m sharing in writing.

I am pensive, because I know that for some of you, the journey is not turning out the way that you’ve expected. You’ve hit roadblocks and detours, you feel like you’re stuck in the middle of the road, or you’re contemplating whether or not you will continue in your current direction. The message here is that we are still here for you! Some of our graduates took long and winding roads. Some left for a while. Some took a different path. We had several who came back. They came back after switching departments or advisors, after figuring out how to juggle the full-time job and family, and after the birth of children. Many of them finished, and some are still traversing the path. If your journey is in transition, and if you’re trying to figure out if you should continue, I want you to know that your mission doesn’t end just because you choose or have to take a different path. The easiest example that I can think of is your cell phone’s GPS system that re-routes you when you get lost, when there is an accident to avoid, and when there is traffic to navigate. Please know that your skills and talents are needed in many areas. I’ve had students who have told me that they were afraid to tell me that they weren’t going to pursue the PhD because they thought that I would be disappointed. I am not disappointed! My “job” might be to see you through your graduate program, but my personal mission is to support and encourage you to use your skills and talents to pursue your passions, and to make the kinds of contributions that you’ve wanted to make for so long. There are many trajectories that will lead you to such a worthy goal. I’m on the edge of my seat with anticipation as you continue to work toward those goals, no matter which road you take!

I am hopeful that each of you recognizes that you have so much to offer, and I hope that you will work with others to surmount any upcoming barriers that may be placed in your way. I hope that you will have confidence in yourselves, and that as you build self-efficacy, you will also recognize gifts in others such that you build good, strong collaborative relationships. Remember what we’ve taught you about having a community. Do not isolate yourselves, in any phase of your degree pursuit or career. I urge you to always cultivate mentors who will  support you, and I hope that you will continue to add to your mentoring team throughout your career. This past semester, I told my postdocs that they should always have at least five people (who are at least one level above peer-range) within their respective fields who know their work well enough to be able discuss it with vigor. I recommend this practice to all of you —  those who are graduating, those who are going to graduate soon, and those who are seeking other options. Yesterday, I spent time with one of our graduates (Dr. Huguens Jean) along with several of our students and fellows. His words of wisdom were that “the work needs to speak for itself.” He was talking about surpassing the subjective side of your packaging (gender, race, even personality) to be sure that your work and contributions are appropriate and exceptional. I hope that you remember the “fail fast” principle, which means that mistakes will be made, but you can get up and assess the issue and implications, consider a new strategy, and make meaningful connections with people who will help you with your goal. Then you can continue to move in the right direction with even more strength.

To all of my past, current, and future students, know that I am in your corner. I am not alone here in your cheering/skill preparation/competency-building section. There are many of us who are rooting for you. We congratulate you on your successes and applaud you as you endeavor to take your next steps. I wish you all the best and as you continue to move forward!

Best regards,

Renetta Tull

Photo taken at the Understanding Interventions Conference in San Diego, May 2015. There is a version of this photo with Dr. LaVar Charleston of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We thank  the Wisconsin Equity and Inclusion Lab (@WeiLab) and others (e.g., ShawnishaHesterPhotography.com, Piyush Waradpande, Amanda Lo)  for the various versions of this photo.

Photo taken at the Understanding Interventions Conference in San Diego, May 2015. There  are several versions of this photo that were taken, including one  with Dr. LaVar Charleston of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We thank the Wisconsin Equity and Inclusion Lab (@WeiLab), ShawnishaHesterPhotography.com, Piyush Waradpande, Amanda Lo, and unnamed others for the various versions of this photo and this conference session that have been showing up online.

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Understanding Interventions Conference, San Diego, CA, May 2015. Discussion topic: “Addressing the Intersectionality of Underrepresentation and STEM Identity Through Holistic Professional Development for Graduate Students and Postdocs” Photo by ShawnishaHesterPhotography.com

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