Graduation frustration

4 minute read


Graduating from my PhD was an incredibly frustrating process. I’ve been complaining to my friends about it for a while, and have been meaning to write up what exactly was so infuriating about it. One of the trickiest aspects of this whole thing is that while I knew that the graduation process is stressful and frustrating, I had no idea what all the relevant moving parts were until I was in the middle of it. Hopefully this can help graduating students maneuver their process, and give student leaders some insight to advocate for improvements.

The most difficult part of this process is that it’s not clear when we stop being students. Some offices care about student status, others care about the degree list. And when you ask different admins these questions, they aren’t able to tell you which of the following times are the relevant one. Here are the time points that matter, and which could all mean “when you stop being a student”:

  • your defense
  • when you turn in your thesis paperwork to your department’s academic office
  • when your student status is terminated by your department’s admin
  • the degree list you sign up for
  • Commencement

Here are some of the questions I struggled to get answers to.

When do I stop being a student? This is the most frustrating question, because there are multiple answers depending on who is asking. If it’s MIT Medical, they only care about your degree list. If it’s about your tuition, then it’s when your student status is terminated. And if it’s your heart, then it’s the defense that means most!

When do I stop getting paid? As far as I can tell, this is when your department administrator terminates your student status.

When do I stop paying tuition? As far as I can tell, you pay tuition up until your student status is terminated. How this worked for me was that the full spring tuition was charged to my account, and then pro-rated for just the one month I was actually a student after my status was changed. So overall I was only charge a few thousand dollars instead of the full semester’s worth.

Do I need to pay my student life fee? As far as I can tell, the deadline that matters for this is your degree list. So if you’re on the June degree list, you have to pay for the Spring semester student life fee even if you defend in January or February. Oh well, guess you’ll have more time to use the gym after you’re not scrambling to write your thesis!

What classes do I need to register for? This one is less important, but still would be nice to have a clear answer to without needing to email your department admin.

When does my health insurance stop? The MIT Medical website gives deadlines according to “December graduates” and “June graduates,” but does not clarify what happens if you are on the February degree list. This was an especially frustrating process because neither my department admin nor the people I talked to at MIT Medical could give me confident confirmation that I would have health insurance until Aug 31 despite defending in January and being on the June degree list. Part of it is that I’m extra paranoid because I’m unemployed for a few months during my road trip and travels (and so having insurance is very important, just in case something happens), part of it is that I’m extra annoyed that something this important isn’t straightforward, and an even larger part of it is that I had to chase down the answer to this very important question after getting conflicting answers from multiple people.

Overall, I find it mindblowingly unacceptable that graduating is such an unclear process. When you start trying to figure out answers to your logistical questions, it’s as if MIT had never graduated a single PhD student. I feel even worse for the students who are having trouble graudating: I can’t imagine dealing with all of this crap on top of the stress of convincing your committee to let you graduate or not knowing exactly when or if you were graduating. It must be even worse for international students, who have serious consequences tied to their student status.

I’d love to see all the relevant MIT offices get together and write a concise guide or FAQ to PhD graduation, with all the answers clearly delineated with respect to the dates that matter to PhD students, not vague words like “when you graduate.” Any takers?