I have been in academia non-stop for 24 years now and I have been to many a graduation. Here is some unsolicited advice for those about to get their diplomas:
1) Wear your graduation cap on top of your head. It does not go on the back of your head. Yes, your hair will get crushed and you will look ridiculous but that’s the whole point of the cap. It was wrong to wear them on the back of the head in the big-hair 80’s days and it is still wrong today.
2) Don’t wear ridiculous shoes. You will have to walk.
3) Don’t fake bake before graduation. Don’t fake bake, period. I know it is a special day but the specialness is your soul and the grey stuff between your ears.
4) Don’t throw some silly gang signs as you exit the stage. Your parents will regret having paid for your education.
5) Do put rebellious or anti-establishment slogans on your caps. Everyone loves it and there is zero consequence.
6) If you are giving a speech, make it short. Write your speech, chop it in half, and then read it to a 21-year-old. If s/he would trade a kidney to play with a smartphone instead of listening to you, chop the speech some more.
7) Also do not, DO NOT, say any variants of “We have made it!” “We did it!” “I can’t believe we are finally here!” in said speech. Those phrases pump no one up and every English professor, nay, every person over 20 ends up thinking “Kid never learned to avoid clichés. What kind of Mickey Mouse school is this anyway?”
8) Take your parents or whomever helped pay for your education out to dinner. It is the least you can do. If you took out massive loans to finance your education, take yourself out for a decent meal.
9) Don’t freak out if you have no job, no grad-school acceptance, or no plans period. In fact, move back home. If you have the means, take 6 months off to work at a low stress place, save money, and travel during the off-seasons. You will never be able to see so much of the world for so little again. These are your best days.
10) Don’t follow your significant other. You will end up breaking up with said person within a year. If you don’t, you will get married and then go through a nasty divorce and realize that you have put your life on hold. You will hate yourself for it and rightly so.
11) Remember that most of your professors really care about you and your education. We did not enter this profession for money or for glory (thankfully). We entered it because we think you can do better than us. I can’t solve the problem of free will but I hope you can.
12) Taking classes never ends. There are no course catalogs after school and no syllabi. You are the professor and you get to steer your class as you see fit. Everything that came before this moment is to prepare you for the learning that you will have to do on your own. To stop learning is to stop driving after taking driver’s ed.
13) There is no shame in changing your life trajectory. In fact, there is nothing but respect. You are doing what 99% of us lack the courage to do.
14) It is really hard to know what you love to do. The search can be frustrating and demoralizing and the draw to live a life scripted by conventions is powerful. However, to live someone else’s life is not to live at all. It is like the difference between being a cog and being a watchmaker.
15) The typical life course—school, job, marriage, kids, house, cruises, retirement, death—is a system that very few like. You spend the best years of your life working for soulless entities while having a foot nailed to the ground with a mortgage, car payments, and tuitions to repay. Our culture celebrates the success of the conventional (“Look at those kitchen cabinets!” “Oooo, leather interior!” “You are pregnant…again! Congratulations!”). If you were god, you would not create this system in which we live the bulk of our lives doing things we don’t want to do just so that we can squeeze disproportionately little joy and freedom in between obligations. Life is too short. Don’t create obligations just because everyone else has blindly undertaken them. Help change this lousy convention. At the very least, know that you don’t have to live it.
Dien Ho, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy and health care ethics at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. His research focuses primarily on the ethics of organ transplantation, reproductive ethics and the philosophy of science. He has also written on zombies and the meaning of life.