The Mighty Ducks: GPS’ quirky tradition

When students have their ducks in a row, GPS marks the occasion.

Rubber duck wearing a graduation cap and holding diploma on a green lawn surrounded by daisies

Graduating? Have all your ducks in a row? Sign up for a pickup time May 13-15 here.

April showers bring more than May flowers - they also bring ducks. Lots of ducks, of all different professions and fields. Throughout the year, you may spot the ducks on campus, but the real flock tends to come in April with thesis submission deadlines.

Before the pandemic hit, master’s and doctoral students turning in theses to the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies were awarded a tiny rubber duck or owl of their choice. You may have seen newly minted doctors celebrating at Valhalla with champagne (and duck) in hand. We are excited to announce that the ducks are BACK! Students who have submitted their thesis in 2020 or 2021 can pick up their duck in a socially distanced manner May 13-15 before they duck out of Rice!

But how did this tradition of receiving a duck upon thesis submission come to be?

Let us explain.

In 2011, Paula Sanders, then Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, heard her staff member Anita Smith say something that would bring the ducks to life. Smith was meeting with a graduate student who was turning in his thesis.

“They were so nervous. So, so nervous,” said Smith. “I was just reassuring them as I went along, piece by piece, looking at everything. And I finally said, you know, it looks like you don’t have a thing to worry about, your ducks are all in a row.”

Just like that, a Rice tradition was born. Dean Sanders heard the comment, praised Smith for her care and support of the student, and then immediately went online to order hundreds of rubber ducks in an assortment of colors and styles.

Smith thinks “ducks in a row” popped into her head as the right thing to say because she knows getting a graduate degree is really a process. To get your ducks in a row means to organize your tasks and schedule so that you are ready for the next step.

“I think for that student it really clicked because they realized, you know this is a pretty long string of ducks and this didn’t just happen in a day or two, or week or two, or a year or two - this took time and effort and I had to be paying attention. That was the most difficult part and still is, I’m sure - students are so far into research that if they are not paying attention, one deadline could slip past. I think this tradition really held on because they realize the importance of each and every step along the way.”

Souptik Barua '19 with his ducks at convocation

Postdoctoral Researcher Souptik Barua ‘19 agrees. “You get one duck when you finish your M.S., and two when you finish your Ph.D., so I definitely felt that the ducks are symbolic of the two major milestones in a grad student’s life,” he said. "The ducks are a nice little souvenir to mark the completion of your Ph.D.”

Smith said the tradition was immediately embraced by Rice students. “They were so excited! Absolutely so excited - ‘this is just the best!’,” she said. “They would take their time in choosing a duck, and would say ‘I can’t believe you have a duck with cap and gown, because for me this is what it’s all about!’ They worked so hard for their degree.”

Ph.D. graduate Logan Bishop '20 said rubber ducks have an additional special meaning in the computational community thanks to the idea of 'Rubber Ducky Debugging'.

Logan Bishop with his new sous chef

"This is when a programmer explains their code in the simplest terms to a rubber duck on their desk," said Bishop. "Reducing a problem to terms that 'a rubber duck can understand' usually highlights where an error is occurring. While I have always kept a stuffed duck on my work desk, I figured that a rubber duck would be more appropriate to bounce ideas off of and looked forward to picking out my ducks at the completion of my Ph.D."

The office tries to have a variety of ducks on hand, representing different professions, passions or even backgrounds.

“It was kind of about culture for some students, but they really all just said, ‘This is fun! This is cool!’ and it was. We just had a great time with it,” said Smith.

Students wishing to pick up their ducks and laptop stickers can do so May 13 - 15, 2021 in the Sewall Hall Courtyard next to the Welcome Center (and R-C-E letters). Hours for May 13 & 14 are 9 a.m. - 4 p.m., and students can also grab ducks on May 15 immediately following commencement, through 2:00 p.m. Sign up for a pickup time here!