Rory Stern, PsyD, finished his doctoral requirements from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology in July 2006--a month after the school's annual commencement ceremony. That meant that he'd have to wait nearly a year before donning a cap and gown, so Stern initially decided to opt out of the graduation ceremony.
"At the time, I knew I would have a postdoc [position]," he says. "I was already taking the next step."
But as the year progressed, Stern's friends and family convinced him to take a step back and celebrate his accomplishments. In June, with his wife and daughter in tow, Stern returned to campus to reflect on his accomplishments.
Every spring, about 5,000 psychology students face a similar dilemma. By the time graduation rolls around, many have already moved on to the next stage of their careers and closed the chapter on their graduate student lives without fanfare. But those who choose to "walk" report that graduation ceremonies offer a rare opportunity to take a moment from their fast-paced lives and celebrate.
"It was one of the most moving and powerful experiences I can remember," Stern says.
At Northeastern University, about 40 percent of graduate students do not walk, says Luis Falcon, PhD, the school's vice provost for graduate education. Their reasons are frequently financial, he says.
"Many have moved away to begin appointments elsewhere, and they find it hard to get back to campus to attend graduation," Falcon notes.
That was the case for Chris Kaeppner, PhD, who was living in Ohio by the time he'd finished his graduate requirements. Returning to pick up a hood and gown at St. John's University in New York didn't seem worth the expense.
"Since then, I have occasionally regretted the decision," he says.
For instance, Kaeppner suspects that having that hood in his closet might have served as a confidence-booster during times early in his career when he felt unsure about how to address complicated client issues.
While he regrets not walking, Kaeppner, who just started a private practice in Cincinnati, doesn't think it hindered his career much.
Marco DiBonaventura, PhD, on the other hand, didn't walk and doesn't regret it, even though he was the first in his family to attend college.
DiBonaventura-who only lived about a mile from the Rutgers University campus-opted instead to visit his family in Connecticut.
"I am extremely proud of all that hard work that went into getting my degree, but I did not feel I needed an official ceremony...to provide closure to the experience," he says.
That attitude has been with DiBonaventura since he was a teen. As a track athlete in high school, DiBonaventura hated the award ceremonies. The joy, he says, was in the running.
The process of going through graduate school--at least, toward the end of it-brought little joy to Nabil El-Ghoroury, PhD. As a student at Binghamton University, The State University of New York, El-Ghoroury struggled to write his dissertation. That difficulty reached a peak when his mother died during his internship year.
El-Ghoroury's friends and family helped him cope with his grief and stay on track to complete his doctorate. To celebrate their support, El-Ghoroury took a road trip from Rochester to Binghamton, picking up his father, brother, stepmother and two friends on the way to attend his graduation. Before the ceremony, El-Ghoroury and his entourage toured the school, and he introduced his father to his thesis adviser. A photo of that moment now sits on El-Ghoroury's desk, and it serves as a reminder of the many people who are there to support him when times get tough.
Graduation also reminded Jeannie Fiumara, PsyD, of her personal cheerleading section. Fiumara's 13-person class at Xavier University in Cincinnati was the university's first clinical psychology cohort in which every member got matched to an internship. Their success came, in part, because they all grew to be friends, Fiumara says.
After the ceremony, Fiumara and her classmates celebrated together and invited their families. In the four years since graduation, their bonds have only strengthened, Fiumara adds.
"I got married in April, and they all came to my wedding," she says.
For his part, El-Ghoroury says he'll never forget when his mentor stepped up in front of the entire university community and pinned a hood to his gown.
He recently used that hood for a Harry Potter costume. And Stern lost his during a move. But their graduation memories will be with them forever.
"It was the first time in my life I just sat and embraced something fully, without thinking, 'Well, what is the next step?'" Stern says.