Robert J. Bernhard: 2020 Graduate School Commencement Address

Author: Notre Dame News

Reverend Father President Jenkins, Provost Maziar, Dean Carlson, Colleagues in the platform party, friends and family, and most especially, the 2020 graduates of the graduate school at the University of Notre Dame, greetings.

To the graduates of the class of 2020, welcome back to campus to celebrate your graduation. We are so very honored and grateful that you have chosen to come back two years after your graduation to celebrate here with us today. 

I must say, I’m loving having this opportunity to address you. What a unique opportunity. I don’t have to use the standard commencement script! You have already commenced. 

But more importantly, since you have already made many decisions and experienced many challenges and disappointments, instead of talking about your theoretical commencement, this is an opportunity to stand back and reflect together on the many happenings of the last two years as a model of what is to come. This is an interesting opportunity to take stock in the role that values play in how decisions are made and to prepare for the 10 or so major future transitions you can expect to make during your lifetime while the experience of your recent commencing is fresh. 

Of any class, your commencing experience has been unique and challenging. 

  • Your plans to finish your graduate studies in spring 2020 were likely disrupted when the campus was closed and most of our operations were disrupted. I can imagine the angst of not knowing how you would be able to finish. 
  • Your post graduation plans were probably affected by the uncertainties facing employers in spring 2020. 
  • If and when you secured a position, you started work in a remote work environment physically separated from your colleagues. 
  • Then a year or so later, you were undoubtedly affected by the reopening, supply chain challenges and the “great resignation”. 

Putting on my “I love research” hat, what a great case study your experiences will make!

My avocation is the study of leadership, particularly higher education leadership. It’s pretty clear that managing transition is a significant part of higher ed leadership, both for the leaders themselves in handling significant transitions in their own careers, but also in leading others who are experiencing transitions. Imagine the department chair or dean that has to deal with faculty going through their mid-career transition. Or faculty facing the transition of retirement. 

By the way, is anyone behind me groaning or smiling? 

Along with leadership characteristics such as 

  • Authenticity, 
  • Self-awareness, 
  • Integrity and 
  • Inclusiveness, 

The understanding of transition is one of the primary challenges of leadership.  

There is significant literature about transitions that all point to how critical successful and complete transitions are. My own personal favorite as I contemplate my own personal transition to retirement is the book by William Bridges transitions: making sense of life’s changes. Bridges’ thesis is that the transitions of life, both personal and professional, are a three part process; an ending, an uncomfortable middle and a new beginning. 

Applied to graduation with a graduate degree, that three-part process implies an ending of your graduate program, an uncomfortable middle to find your next calling, and then an enthusiastic beginning of your new life. So how has that worked out for the class of 2020?  

The ending of graduate school is generally not the hardest ending that you will make in your life. Firstly, it’s voluntary unlike involuntary transitions you might face such as losing your job or the death of a loved one. And most of you are very, very happy to be finished. So that ending should be easy for graduates.

But not everyone completes this phase easily. Some people don’t want to leave their graduate programs. They seek another environment as similar to their graduate program as possible. Or they continue to operate like a graduate student in their new role and fail to launch. Or they attempt to maintain their identity as a graduate student.  

A young assistant professor told me just a few days ago that he would prefer to still be a postdoc working in the lab. He isn’t sure he wants the responsibilities of writing grants and advising students. 

How did this go for you? As you think about your own experience, did you have a successful ending? Are you still in the process of ending?

The uncomfortable middle is the part of the transition where I worry the most about graduate students. Many students I’ve observed at the end of their studies don’t put enough energy or thought into the uncomfortable middle. The simultaneous demands of wrapping up classes, exams, and a thesis on top of the time demands of doing a thorough job search generally mean that the really deep contemplation required of discernment takes a back seat. My own graduate students became pretty wild-eyed and obsessive in their last year. They were going to finish their thesis no matter what. In this crazy finishing mode, many were also trying to secure a job. 

  • I’ve observed students who took the first opportunity offered. 
  • Others that chose to do what others wanted them to do. 
  • And still others that chose to do what they dreamed about when they started their graduate program rather than what they were prepared to do at the end of their graduate program. 

A quick and easy decision often manifests itself in an unhappy first job experience. 

When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I was told that 90% of newly graduated engineers changed jobs within 4 years. I didn't believe it. But from what I observed, that number was about right. The retention statistics for second jobs was much better - it seemed like second time job seekers made better decisions. 

Maybe because of the pandemic some of you had an involuntary gap year. I’d be interested in how your perceptions changed as you navigated the uncomfortable middle in this forced gap year. And for all of the parents that worried about that gap year, or of the seemingly unhurried approach of your student not finding a job after “all of these years of being in school”, maybe this isn’t a bad thing. I’d be interested to hear.

For some of you that took jobs straight after graduation, I wonder how many think you might still be in that uncomfortable middle, realizing that the current job isn’t quite right and you’re not on the trajectory that really fulfills you. If so, you are not alone. There are many stories, including my own, where people come to the realization that while everything about this job is pretty much as advertised and it’s exactly what you thought you wanted, this is not what you are called to do. In my case, thank goodness that I stepped back and took another path. 

I have another example of the uncomfortable middle that you’ll all relate to, and this one includes parents and spouses. What are you doing with all of that extra money now that you have a salary and don’t have to worry about tuition?! I can only imagine how totally truly uncomfortable you are discerning how to transition your budget! If you are having trouble with the uncomfortable middle on that front, the Notre Dame development office will be in touch to offer you choices!

William Bridges and others counsel patience in the uncomfortable middle. Assume in major transitions that you on a path to ultimately be transformed in some personal or professional dimension. 

That transformation will take time and discernment. You have to detach to reattach. 

This uncomfortable middle is one time in particular when I hope that your Notre Dame experience will make a difference. Decisions in this uncomfortable middle are life changing and should be made based on your values. Let me come back to this decision-making process and the uncomfortable middle a little later.

Finally, the third leg of the transition process is the new beginning. The literature says, and my observations confirm, that if you are conscientious about your ending and the discernment of the uncomfortable middle, you will start the new phase of life with enthusiasm and commitment. 

Very early in my career I noticed that people who were still agonizing over whether they had made the right job decision tended to hedge on committing to their new role. Their success and their happiness in that new role didn't match those that were “all in” & committed. 

In my send off meeting with my own graduate students, I’ve always advised them to make a commitment to a job for some predetermined period of time, then stick their head up and assess whether the path they were on is the right path. 

While no job is perfect under the microscope of daily scrutiny, it is lost energy to be anxiously assessing every activity. You miss the big picture when all you see is the trees and not the forest. Set a deadline, and commit to the job. When you hit the deadline, stick your head up and make an assessment. If the job isn’t right, start a new transition. If it is right, put your head down and take another lap. 

So, back to that uncomfortable middle and Notre Dame. Whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve asked about the life story of people I admire - people that are accomplished, fulfilled and contented (sort of serene and self confident). I have yet to hear anyone say that things went anywhere close to plan. They all pretty much describe a sequence of transitions – 

  • Some involuntary, 
  • Some invited or enabled by a mentor, 
  • Some opportunistic, 
  • Some deliberately sought – 

That add up to an unplanned and unimagined life story. All of these transitions involved decisions. Many were difficult close calls. Option a and b seemed pretty similar at the time. Others are hard decisions of apples versus oranges; one value such as salary versus another value such as service. 

Those that have these magical life stories almost always refer to these transitions as close calls or difficult decisions at the time, but reflect later on how lucky or blessed they were that they made the right decision. And they generally have made a long sequence of right decisions. 

My observation of these highly successful and fulfilled people is that they didn’t make this entire sequence of correct decisions by accident - they were consistently making values-based decisions. They chose to work for a company with clear values and a culture of inclusiveness and support. They chose to work with selfless people with clear values. They consistently chose the option that used their god given talents or the option to which they were called. 

At Notre Dame I know you’ve heard over and over that this university aspires to be a force for good. I hope you’ve heard over and over that our greatest mechanism for being a force for good is you, the students we send out into the world. And I hope you’ve heard over and over that you matter. 

That calling for you to be a force for good is a difference maker. In the various moments of discernment in your life, if you remember that call, including the call to use your talents to serve, you’ll have the north star you need to make your own sequence of right decisions to live a fulfilled and well-lived life in service to those around you. 

By the fact that you have chosen to do graduate study, you’ve already demonstrated you have the emotional intelligence to defer gratification for a greater good. By coming to Notre Dame you’ve already been exposed to a values based education. These values are a great start. With experience and maturity you’ll grow in the breadth and depth of your north stars and values. 

Dr. Moniz said at the recent 2022 graduate school commencement ceremony, that commencement speeches have a very short half-life. So I tried to find a short pithy phrase that you could take away from today that would capture what you should seek when you face your major transitions; a reminder for you to live a value based life where you will serve others, avoid the temptations of instant gratification, and to find and follow your calling. 

I believe that when your aspiration aligns with your calling, you will experience a state of 

  • Happiness, 
  • Satisfaction, 
  • Pride and 
  • Well-being 

Regardless of how challenging the job might be. What would you call that? - the best term I can think of is joy. Joy seems like a good term for the combination of happiness, satisfaction, pride and well-being. 

So the catchphrase I offer today consist of 2 words: “seek joy.”

The path to joy is not the easiest path. It’s not a path of continuous happiness or the path that might bring the most fame. But I definitely believe that if you are truly self-aware, the path to joy will also not be the hardest path because you will be doing what you know how to do and what you are called to do. 

In the 10 or so major transitions you will face in your life, I urge you to remember the 3 step process of transition. Remember to be patient and deliberate with the uncomfortable middle. And when you are looking for the north star to help you make the right decision among various potentially good options, seek joy. 

Let me close by asking that you keep in your prayers 

  • Dean Carlson as she transitions to her new role as provost at the University of Delaware, 
  • Provost Maziar as she transitions back to her role as senior associate provost in July
  • Provost-elect Mcgreevy as he transitions to the role of provost of Notre Dame in July and 
  • for me when I transition out of the role of vice president for research at Notre Dame and enter my own uncomfortable middle. 

Thank you and remember …. Seek joy.

Originally published by Notre Dame News at on May 29, 2022.