Should You Purchase Academic Regalia?

regaliaFor many of us (most of us?), the semester is almost over. That might mean several different things for different readers. Likely among them are exams and evaluations, grading and graduation. Graduation with all of its pomp and circumstance often raises the question of regalia—namely, should you buy it?

The answer to this question depends largely on your circumstances. One of my favorite parts of graduation is seeing the procession of many-colored robes and hoods. As a student, I loved to try and guess which robes signified which universities and to try to decipher what the different colored velvets might mean. Little did I know then that such splendor and academic finery actually cost a small fortune!

And yet, even when I learned about how expensive academic regalia would be, I still found myself wistfully imagining the day that I too could don a velvet hat with sparkly tassel. For me, it was probably much like a bride-to-be imagining her wedding gown. Nevertheless, when the time came for my own graduation, deciding whether or not to actually write the check was not as easy as you might expect.

For most of us, the major obstacle to such a purchase is the cost. Doctoral robes and tams (the fancy hat!) often cost several hundred dollars. My own alma mater lists the price for its official Ph.D. regalia package at $695 (plus tax). That’s no small amount, particularly for those of us who have been living on a graduate student stipend for however many years.

So how do you decide whether or not to spend the money? There are several factors to consider.

  • First and foremost: Do you have an academic job lined up? If not, can you afford this purchase, which could possibly be a one-time only splurge? Even if you do have a job in academe in your future, hold your horses.
  • Does the college or university where you are employed expect faculty to attend graduation? Some do; some don’t. Do you have more than one graduation to attend per year? Are there other occasions which require faculty to don their regalia (Baccalaureate or Opening Convocation for example)?
  • Does your college or university rent regalia for its faculty? In the recent economic downturn, this perk might have disappeared at some institutions, but others will make arrangements and pay for faculty to rent their robes.
  • Will you be responsible for rental costs otherwise? If your employer does not cover the cost of rentals, these fees can add up quickly at $50-75 per occasion.
  • Does your institution have a tradition of passing down regalia through its ranks? At least one poster on the CHE forums has written about such a tradition at their school, which sounds lovely to me.

Ultimately, I ended up buying mine, and I’m very glad that I did. My alma mater has a distinctive robe and tam (they’re blue and gold rather than the standard black), and the college where I teach has four different occasions throughout the year which involve faculty processions, so I’ve now worn my regalia a dozen times, and I’ll wear it twice more before May is over. I enjoy seeing my colleagues in their colorful attire, and I’m proud to represent my alma mater as well. Of our college, my navy robe is distinguishing, but it is still rather conservative compared to the peacock green and yellow of some of my colleagues’ regalia.

It is also worth pointing out a few additional things:

You need not purchase your regalia in one fell swoop. You might decide to buy the tam and hood now and wait to buy the robe. Or you might buy only the tam or only the hood. Most campus bookstores will offer a bit of a discount if you purchase everything together, but they will also sell you individual articles.

There may be less expensive ways of acquiring your regalia, even if you attended a university with its own custom colors. Jostens, the company which sells regalia for many institutions often has sales in the “off-season,” so if you are graduating in a few weeks, you are out of luck but if you are thinking ahead to a future purchase, you might keep your eyes open (or ask at the bookstore). In addition, there are also companies who will sell, how to put this, replica regalia—that is, robes, hoods, and tams that look like the real thing but are less expensive. These can range from very impressive knock-offs to cheap imitations, so I would be careful here. Friends from grad school managed to get really good prices on quality robes, but in the end, I was too unsure about the different options myself and was afraid of choosing the wrong company or ordering the wrong size, so I went to the bookstore and got fitted.

And this last thought: if you have the option of getting pockets, do so. You will be glad to have a place to stash your keys, a couple of cough drops, and whatever other miscellaneous items one carries in pockets these days.

Have you ordered your regalia or do you plan to do so? Does your alma mater have a distinctive color scheme for its Ph.D. graduates? Or does your current school have its own traditions and/or practices for academic dress? Please share in the comments section below.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Poldavo (Alex)]

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