Summertime sadness. See you Taiwan!
“So when are you graduating?”
One of the questions that PhD students do not like hearing is “so when are you graduating?”. In many programs, there might be a fixed duration, but the actual date of finishing stays unclear until the end. This often has to do with the progress of a PhD candidate within a program or the relation with the supervisor, but it can also be hard to answer due to unclear milestones that succeed one another rapidly near the end.
For me, I knew I hadn’t graduated when I delivered my intellectual baby (see part 2). The next milestone, the PhD defense, feels much more like an initiation ritual: you’re being asked questions about your research and essentially get the stamp of approval from your committee. And if all goes well and you pass, you become the newest member of PhD holders. But you still haven’t graduated. There is the official graduation ceremony–of which I am so glad that it could still happen in-person in this COVID-laden year in Taiwan– and yes that is also a milestone.
However, by then I still didn’t have my degree. So had I actually graduated? I kept asking myself this somewhat existential question from time to time during this year’s summer. This also had to do with the revisions that were needed for my dissertation.
As a quick note, it is very customary for PhD dissertations to pass with amazing grades and still need to undergo some revisions, ranging from minor things to major revisions or even being failed. Luckily mine did pass with pretty great grades (A+) but I still was asked to rework some parts substantially, which i happily did. As I have often heard
The only good dissertation is a finished dissertation.
The deadline of submitting this revised version (which should pass along your advisor) was 20 August 2020. And actually it’s earlier, as you also need to get your uploaded version accepted by a team of librarians, who probably are swamped with work around this deadline. My first submission into the system, which I had spent a few hours getting the right formatting for, came back a day later with notes for issues that they had not clearly outlined in their instructions. So I spent a few hours making the necessary changes and clicked submit again, hoping for the best. Yes, the second time it did go through and I could print–yet another source of potential stress within a week of the looming deadline. Luckily, the lady from the print shop was extremely friendly and professional, and within just a few hours (!!!! Belgium take note !!!!) I had my copies to submit to the library and the department–yet another milestone that is part of graduating (which I completed on the 20th of August). I should also make the side note that I had to provide 1 copy for NTU library, one for my department, and one for the National Library. Yes, you can check out my dissertation in the National Library of Taiwan. Here is a picture of the 20th of August, when I ran into my friend Amirah who incicentally went to submit her dissertation as well.
It was just a bit before this time that I heard that there is actually a checklist of stuff you need to do to leave school (離校), available in the online administration system. And this involved lots of trips around different offices. For instance, to leave my dorm, I needed three signatures and a trip to the office of student housing; for leaving Taiwan, I needed to let the office of international affairs know that I could be scrapped from the national insurance program (very good medical insurance program though!)… And so I rediscovered the campus I had spent five years, going from hot to her. A complication about this list in my case was that I could only finish the list at the end of August, because I was still under contract as a research assistant.
So the 28th I finally finished the checklist, went to yet another office, and FINALLY GOT MY DEGREE! My student card was stamped as invalid (this is a good thing) and I also was able to get my alumni card. Here is a picture of my invalidated student ID and my alumni card, both with an extremely old picture–nobody had told me during my application that the picture I sent in would be used for this purpose 🤷🏼♂️️️.
So, in conclusion, I think that the question of when you actually graduate a PhD program is manifestly multifold. For me personally, I felt most graduated (yes graduating is a feeling) in the aftermath of my defense, when I attended the ceremony, when I went to submit my dissertation to the library and when I got my actual degree. But the most nerve-wrecking is definitely the first of these.
Now, in the last weeks of my time in Taiwan, I also decided to print a more luxurious version of my thesis, with the older official formatting. I’m talking black hardcover and golden letters. Below you can see the four stages my pie of research went through: the Proposal version, the Defense version, the Library version and finally the Memorial version.
This fancy version I had printed 10 times, all about 600 NTD, so that means the price was extremely reasonable for an eventually 520 or so page-long document. Five were for my advisor and other committee members, 1 was for myself, and 4 were for interested parties that helped me a lot during my studies. Here is me handing it over to my advisor. I am grateful to Dr. Chiarung Lu for taking me on and the academic freedom in these years, and also all the advice she gave to me. 謝謝老師.
While these somewhat stressful events were playing out, I of course was also realizing that the end of Taiwan time was drawing near–an experience that must be similar to that of the Elves in Lord of the Rings, who are fading away into the West. That being said, I had a great summer, spending lots of time with CJ and going places, like Taichung or restaurants and cafés we loved going.
And as I booked my plane ticket – not an easy feat in times of corona – at the end of August, I also got a date of departure: 11 September (yes, that 9/11, but don’t worry, when I flew it was still 9/10 in America). This also meant lots of saying goodbye to people, like the other alumni of my department.
Or our friend Marco, who is also off doing a PhD.
Or a group of selected Belgians in Taiwan (we had mussels from Matzu!), including Ann, Rik and Zouk.
Or Iju and Emily.
Or Rik, Siaw-Fong and Taco.
Or the ladies from the international office (who I still know from my summer school).
Or my friends from the summer school in 2014: Snow, Franzi, Lucy and Laurence.
Or my buddy Wen-Lin.
Or my reporter friend Erin.
Or my (almost adopted?) Taiwanese family 💖️.
Or my colleague-classmate Alex.
Or my hairdresser for the past five years.
Or my coding bodybuilder friend Richard.
But a most magical evening was my goodbye party. It was not in a fancy location, but the people who came really made my day. I am so grateful for my time at NTU and want to keep in touch with these people forever.
I also needed to leave my dorm–that place with the amazing view that I might never get again. Discarding of most of my stuff, either to the other dorm people or by throwing it away, and storing some books at CJ’s place made my room suddenly feel so empty. I remember in the last moments of my last days, I went to the rooftop and sat with myself, taking this radical change in. By moving out, I really was saying goodbye to a part of myself: Thomas the PhD student. Here is a picture of me letting that thought get to me.
The Last Day
After CJ also had left (back to the USA for his PhD), I stayed a few days in a hotel, while trying to wrap up what needed wrapping up, mostly administrative stuff. On my penultimate day, I had a job interview (more about that soo). On my last day, I checked out and tried to use the city check-in. Unfortunately, due to COVID and a stupid rule concerning my trekking backpack, I couldn’t do it in the city, but actually had to travel all the way to Sanchong to drop my stuff off. They weighed my luggage, which of course was too heavy, so they had me transfer a number of books into my carry-on luggage. After losing way too much time, I had a hair appointment. That also ran out and I was also late for my next appointment: a lunch date with my advisor and student-colleague Adrw. I had a wonderful time and got a goodbye gift – Taiwanese facemasks and a Japanese handkerchief, which I really appreciate.
After my hectic day so far, I had a few hours in the eye of the storm. That meant I needed to go back to school and make sure my desk was empty. In the evening I had a great last dinner with Iju, who also escorted me to the airport MRT.
And when I got to the airport, I knew that I would be taking the same plane as the person who was in charge of the summer school I was into all those years ago, Jungchen. So in a crazy twist of fate, my Taiwan adventure had come full circle.
So yeah, then it was time to say goodbye to Taiwan, and hello to Holland.
And, finally, I was so happy to see my parents again. Home.