Chris M. Golde’s IST commencement talk
Version FINAL, June 29, 2018
Thank you. I am very grateful to be here.
I love graduations.
I am soaking up the feelings in this room. This room is full of proud families and friends, satisfied faculty members, and joy-filled graduates.
It is a delight to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
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Graduations are a special ritual that celebrate an uncommon accomplishment. This is a day to formally acknowledge all that you have done and all that you have become.
This ceremony officially marks the end of your time at IST. You are now looking forward to the next chapter of your career. It is the next chapter, but it is not the last chapter.
Being here takes me back to my own graduation – 22 years ago. I was excitedly looking forward to my future as a professor. For most of the time in graduate school, I assumed that I would return to some kind of university administrative position – work like Hania and Daniala do. But in my last year, I got swept up in the momentum of my friends, and I applied for faculty positions. I received a position at the University of Wisconsin.
My time at UW did not go well. I was very lonely. I discovered that I loved to teach, but I did not love research enough for it to be the centerpiece of my work. This was also obvious to my colleagues, and at the end of my fourth year, I was told that I would not be continuing. This was a shock. This was the first time in my life that I had really failed.
Now, 17 years later, I can report a happy ending. In that time, I have held three very interesting jobs. They are connected by a commitment to improving graduate education. I am happy and professionally satisfied.
I tell you this to illustrate that careers go in chapters.
My current occupation is a career educator. I work with with PhD students and I when I share my own career story, I tell them that:
The metaphor that I like best for thinking about careers – and lives – is a book with chapters.
CAREERS GO IN CHAPTERS
Each chapter is self-contained. Each chapter builds on the one before. There are themes and threads that run through chapters, and link them together. Sometimes a chapter has a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes a chapter ends with suspense and questions. Sometimes there are abrupt shifts and changes between chapters. But as the book continues, we see how the chapters are connected.
There are several reasons that I like the metaphor of chapters for a career.
1) It reminds us that we are the authors of our story. We have a lot of autonomy and can make choices. Particularly the people in this room who are highly educated.
2) Challenges the notion that a “career” is something that you pick once. That may appear to be the norm with a faculty career. It can be frightening for those looking beyond academia, because the stakes for making a decision seem huge. Thinking as life as a series of chapters, opens up the idea that you have the ability to make choices over and over again. Your first job after your PhD or postdoc is not a lifetime commitment.
If you are dissatisfied and disappointed, you can leave. Learn from your experience. And decide again. Make another choice. Move to another chapter. Indeed, the faculty at IST are excellent examples of that – each of them chose to come here and be part of the pioneering effort to start this university.
3) As you may have seen in the chapter of my story that I told you, you can’t know someone else’s story just from their job title or a short biography. That is like reading a book just from the chapter titles. You need to ask and listen to learn the details. To learn about the ups and downs. To find out what prompted the transitions from one chapter to another.
4) When someone asks, you get to decide how you tell the story of your life. Every time we tell our stories – Who am I? What do I do? What was my path? – we are framing our own narrative. You pick which themes you bring forward and which you put in the background. You help shape how you and others understand who you are, by how you tell your story.
5) Your story is not predetermined. It is not yet set. We don’t know what will happen in your chapters. In fact, you have many possible future selves in you. There are many possible paths and ways that your story might unfold. Many are interesting and meaningful. But you will only live one. That will be dictated by a combination of the choices you make and by circumstances you can’t control. This should give you the confidence to make, and acceptance that much is beyond your control.
As I was thinking about books and chapters and stories, I was reminded of the fairy tales I read as a child. In many fairy tales, in addition to princes and princesses, a common character is the Fairy Godmother. She often bestows wishes upon the princes and princesses.
Standing up here, I feel a little like a fairy godmother, and so I have three wishes for you.
First, I wish for you confidence — confidence in your expertise and skills.
Many students have told me that it is rare during the course of a PhD to be told how smart, creative, and hardworking you are. We focus on our deficiencies, not on our strengths. Today I hope you feel how accomplished and amazing you are.
When I wish you confidence in your skills, you probably think of the technical knowledge and skills acquired during a PhD. But you have learned and developed some skills that are less obvious, but very important.
I would like to list some of those skills.
- Resourcefulness/ingenuity. You have learned create things with limited resources, incomplete tool sets, and relatively little advice and supervision. That is almost the definition of a science PhD!
- Curiosity. Asking questions, being inquisitive, challenging assumptions. Curiosity leads to starting a PhD, and strengthens during your studies.
- Self learner. Throughout your PhD you have had to learn new things and you have taught yourself. From now on, remember you can teach yourself new things whenever you need to.
- Resilience and persistence. Able to bounce back and carry on. You have learned to handle adversity and failure. You press on undaunted. For years! You are persistent and resilient.
- Ability to ask for help. No one can do science alone. Science is a team sport. We all build on what has come before. We collaborate. Life is too hard to go solo. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. A lesson most of us learn during a PhD.
- The courage to start something even if you don’t know how.
Remember that you have mastered these skills. Be confident as you move into the next chapter.
STAY OPEN TO OPPORTUNITIES
My second wish for you is openness to surprises and opportunity. Do not go through your life spending all of your time looking down, and focusing just on the tasks at hand.
Turn your eyes upward, and look around. Say yes to opportunities when they are offered to you.
Say yes, even if you are afraid. Even if you don’t think you can do what is expected of you. Remember, during your PhD you learned how to figure things out and how to persist through adversity.
Many times, saying Yes to opportunities leads to unexpected connections and friendships, to new experiences and surprising plot turns.
YOUR VALUES MATTER
Third, I wish for you to take the time to fully understand yourself, and figure out what matters to you.
What are your core values? Your core values are the principles of behavior that are most important to you. What is the true north that aligns your internal compass?
My top 5 values, the ones that guide me in my life and work, are:
My third wish for you is to make decisions based on YOUR values.
Not based on what you are “supposed” to do. Not just with a “rational” assessment of pros and cons. Instead, be clear on what matters to you.
Keep your values front and center when crafting your profession and your life.
Those are my three wishes for you.
Today, I feel like a fairy godmother.
Since this is a day of ritual, let me do this the official way.
As your fairy godmother, I wish for you:
Confidence in your skills
Openness to opportunity
Faithfulness to your values
With these wishes to launch you, I am confident your life will have many interesting, surprising, and fulfilling chapters.
Congratulations on your great achievement. Best wishes for the future.