• August 29, 2015

Advising the Dissertation Student Who Won't Finish

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

A former graduate student wrote me a note a few months ago to thank me for helping him drop out. What's wrong with that picture? Nothing, except that we don't see it often enough.

Not every graduate student will finish a dissertation. We know that truth to be self-evident. Nor should every graduate student finish. Some would be better off doing other things with their lives. Others simply can't complete the project.

The problem is that academic culture doesn't credit the decision to stop writing a dissertation as legitimate. In fact, leaving graduate school has a reputation a lot worse than that. I've met many people over the years who have dropped out as ABD's, and not one has ever presented the decision better than apologetically. Many see it as a personal failure—like the student who confessed, "I haven't lived up to the investment that the university made in me." Graduate-school administrators collect untold fortunes in "open file fees" from people who pay to keep their student status alive for five, 10, even 20 years after they've left the university, all in order to say (mostly to themselves) that they're still at it.

They stay because the unfinished dissertation is like the wound of Philoctetes in Greek mythology, a festering sore that never goes away. No mere albatross, it stigmatizes its owner in ways that usually leave permanent scars. Philoctetes himself was ostracized, and he became a suffering hero of tragic theater.

The sociologist Erving Goffman describes stigma as when a person "is disqualified from full social acceptance." Graduate students are already marginal by virtue of being apprentices, but a foundering dissertation compromises their status even further. With stigma, says Goffman, "shame becomes a central possibility."

No wonder struggling graduate students rarely consider leaving. Watching someone tread water in Lake Dissertation (as one clear-eyed student aptly put it) is one of the more painful sights in academe, but it will remain an all-too-common spectacle given the stigma attached to the alternative.

The good news is that Ph.D. completion and attrition rates have gained more attention in recent years. The bad news is that the problem is being viewed almost entirely in administrative terms. A 2007 study by the Council of Graduate Schools showed, among other things, that most attrition from doctoral programs occurs in the first few years, not at the dissertation stage—a disturbing finding (because the dissertation stage is much longer) but an important one. The related subject of time-to-degree has also come under deserved scrutiny. In one of the more polemical contributions to that discussion, Harvard University's Louis Menand recommends revamping the structure of the dissertation to make it shorter, more practical, and less research-driven.

We can only benefit from examining our degree-granting practice, but let's not forget that this is foremost a teaching issue. Graduate students will never see leaving a Ph.D. program as a viable choice unless we honor that choice ourselves. Right now we allow—and through our passivity even promote—the sense that someone who doesn't finish is a quitter.

These are our students. All of them, including ones who are stuck. We have a responsibility to teach them. That means it's on us. Most professors recognize when graduate students won't finish, but mostly we do nothing. We need to talk to our struggling graduate students, not treat them as though they were invisible. We need also to start a conversation about them.

How then should we teach the students who are destined to run aground? Students who aren't going to finish have certain specific needs that we can identify and try to meet. Here are a few suggestions to start.

  • If you love them, let them go freely. Our job is to lead students toward the finish line, but it's also to let them choose their own finish line. (How to help a struggling graduate student actually complete the dissertation will be the subject of the sequel to this article, next month.)
  • But let's assume that you and your student have done all you can, and that the dissertation is still foundering. In that case, it may be time to ask, "Are you having trouble hanging on, or letting go?" I've asked that of students more than once in my career, and the initial response is usually, "Wow, good question." Indeed, it is a question many graduate students should consider, and it can serve as the proverbial mustard seed.

  • Advise the student, not just the dissertation. Most graduate students are young grown-ups who are still making major life choices. Some of those choices, such as the need to support a young family, may lead away from dissertation completion.
  • Sometimes I have to remind myself that it's the student's dissertation, not mine. We can often help students navigate past research or writing problems, and we should always try. But if the dissertation is not going to get done, the adviser needs to let go of it, no matter how significant a contribution the work might make if it were ever to see the light of publication.

  • Understand the power of your approval. "Who's your dissertation adviser?" is one of academe's FAQ's, but its outward benignity conceals the assumption that if you work hard and all goes well, you will be prized one day as your adviser's scion. Graduate students seek their advisers' approval all the time, and invariably believe that if they leave the program without a Ph.D. they'll be letting their advisers down personally.
  • I once sat a student down and told her that I would be as proud of her if she left the program to work full time at the nonacademic job she loved as I would be if she stayed and finished her thesis. She looked stunned. When she recovered herself, she thanked me profusely. She hadn't felt free to choose before.

  • ABD does not equal failure. All graduate students embark on the dissertation with the idea of finishing it, but sometimes it's better for them to cut their losses. Erasing the stigma attached to the unfinished thesis starts with us. If we accept that leaving school can be a better decision than staying, we need to treat it that way.

There are plenty of good reasons for putting a dissertation aside. One student might be unable to cure himself of perfectionism, while another might so dislike research that she can't make herself do it. Another might be put off by the terrible academic job market. Many students make those self-discoveries during the dissertation phase, but the insights can take a while to sink in.

Faculty mentors (particularly of fully funded students) sometimes compound the problem by choosing not to discuss with their advisees the signs of possible problems down the road. "Time to degree" imperatives push us to say, "Onward, onward," no matter the cost or consequences, but we should check that impulse. Talking to students about their work can include asking them if they're having trouble doing it. Those conversations may give them their lives back, sometimes after years of unexamined suffering. If we teach students that leaving graduate school is a decision and not a failing, we can start to erase the stigma that so wrongly attends withdrawal.

Most of my advisees finish their dissertations and get jobs. I'm proud of that. But some walk away—and of that I'm just as proud. Not everyone gets a Ph.D., but everyone who tries deserves our attention and respect. Teaching students how to leave graduate school is a task every bit as noble as shepherding them through it.

Leonard Cassuto teaches at Fordham University, where he has twice served as the English department's director of graduate studies. In Part 2 of this series, he will focus on how to help a struggling graduate student actually complete the dissertation.


1. cmcclain - October 04, 2010 at 08:15 am

Overall, I think that this is a good article worth reading. In particular, I agree with the focus on the adviser's responsibility. Just as a failed dissertation defense is often a failure of the adviser (the student should have been advised that (s)he was not ready to defend), the forever lingering student is also more of an advising failure than if the student leaves ABD.

I am confused by one point, however:

In one of the more polemical contributions to that discussion, Harvard University's Louis Menand recommends revamping the structure of the dissertation to make it shorter, more practical, and less research-driven.

Ph.D. equals original research, period. Even if the recipient of the degree has no plans for future research, the degree reflects some ability and experience with research. There is a big difference between a Ph.D. recipient who makes an informed decision to refrain from research, and someone who never actually tries. The familiarity, and the humility that develops with it, can play a very important role in both academic and nonacademic positions.

If a student does not wish to do any original research for his degree, there are other degrees besides the Ph.D., including the Master's and other doctorates.

2. cmcclain - October 04, 2010 at 08:19 am

A clarification of a sentence in my previous post:

There is a big difference between a Ph.D. recipient who makes an informed decision to refrain from additional research, and someone who never actually tries.

3. dotdidit2010 - October 04, 2010 at 08:21 am

Mr. Cassuto:

I enjoyed your article, however, there is at least one major point you missed, i.e., the dissertation adviser who could care less, or who does not know how to complete a dissertation, or who uses the college as his/her personal piggy bank to advance their career and consulting work, or who is swamped by over committing to serve and do more than is humanely possible or professionally appropriate. This do-it-all adviser who hugs the camera or spotlight does not have the time or may not give the student the time of day to help him/her progress towards understanding what goes into finishing their study. They are there to serve themselves and not the students. I just completed my doctoral degree and know from diret experience the horrors associated with incompetent, uncaring, narcissistic advisers who sabotage a student's progress in more ways than I can count. Attending grad school is a learning partnership or at least it should be. At least 50% of students do complete their degrees but something else is driving the failure rate of the 50%+ students who do not finish. There should be enough shame to go around for all stakeholders in the degree when a student does not finish. Thank you for discussing this topic and I look forward to your next article.

4. dotdidit2010 - October 04, 2010 at 08:39 am

In response to the points by cmcclain, I believe that Harvard University's Louis Menand's ideas seek to dilute the doctoral degree to junk, which is the same path businesses are on today. It sets up an "imposter syndrome" via the attitude of "just hurry up and do some mediocre work and that is sufficient for success or to pretend like they know something." That attitude and approach has failure written all over it. A doctoral degree is very hard work for many years. If students do not want to embark on completing the arduous work of advanced research, they should take a different path to get their professional needs met. Colleges should do more upfront prep work to test and communicate with grad students about the rigor involved in the research as well as the time and financial costs involved. Failure shows up when grad students choose not to be honest with themselves about their abilities and potential, and when they lack a vision of what they hope to accomplish with the dissertation besides getting an expensive $100k to $150K degree. I believe the degree is one stepping stone on to serving the greater good. Students, advisers and colleges fail when they do not have honest discussions about vision and purpose of the time consuming, life-changing, expensive journey ahead. So in conclusion, I think that the beginning of the admissions process into a doctoral program is a good first place to have a frank discussion about finishing and failure. But the idea of diluting the doctoral degree and stripping it of its knowledge creation through research is counter productive. I hope Harvard will be smart enough not to implement Louis Menand's ideas.

5. peggy875 - October 04, 2010 at 09:28 am

Well, I am one of those ABD doctoral students who has chosen not to finish. My decision has been based upon the impossibility of juggling doctoral studies, working full time and family committments. It has taken me a while to come to the conclusion that I can't do it all, and in the big scheme of life, for me, that PhD does not place additional value -- career wise or otherwise.

There was no advising at the university I attended. Although we had assigned advisors, they were nowhere to be found. An honest discussion with an advisor would have been refreshing, but you could never find one when you needed one.

I think a bigger discussion here should be -- what is the real value of a Ph.D? Does industry and higher education truly value the Ph.D. or is it just another hoop to jump through because others have had to in the past?

6. theblondeassassin - October 04, 2010 at 09:29 am

Great article. I took over a doctoral programme where over half the students were overstanding (some to the point where no one recognised their supervisor's name!).

I gave all of the really lengthy students three months to come back or submit a chapter.

Anyone who did not make some positive progress was removed from the programme, but with the proviso that they could re-enroll if their circumstances changed.

It was a bit rough, especially as I submitted my own thesis just at the do-or-die date, but for the reasons listed above I am convinced it was the best for those students.

Plus, we ended up in the world top twenty that first year!

7. 22228715 - October 04, 2010 at 09:33 am

To chime in on the Menard quotation... without sacrificing quality or the nature of the dissertation itself, most doctoral journeys could be improved by adding more structure to the dissertation process. The course work phase is more structured than life in general, and then BOOM the dissertation phase relies almost entirely on the impetus of the student. Finding ways to spread out the structuring responsibilities in the dissertation phase might help many people while maintaining the integrity of the learning and product.

Good points. I wonder if some of the same points could be made about undergraduate work. Currently, institutions are judged by retention and graduation rates, and every departure is a failure. But students who chose to begin for the wrong reasons, or who change life direction, or who just have more important things going on have very good reasons to leave their studies. To push them hard to continue at their own detriment (and to collect tuition while doing it) is just unscrupulous, but when the funding of your institution or program depends on their continued enrollment...

8. laker - October 04, 2010 at 09:41 am

I am a fellow traveler in the ABD, working full time, having a family, and trying to do it all. I left my first doctoral institution having been alternately embraced and rejected. When I started, the dean spoke to a group of us extolling our virtues as practicing professionals who would add immensely to the classroom experience of our younger, inexperienced classmates.
I walked into classrooms where I was told "you don't spend enough time in the library" (which I read as, "You don't do any research for me") and questions about how serious a "scholar" I was. This from a professor who seemed to beleive that there had been no serious scholarship in education since Socrates.
I was too stubborn to walk away, and I suffered silently, and paid fees, until at last I relented.
I am now in an executive doctoral program that encourages us to pursue useful, applicable knowledge. I don't intend to teach at a research university, and my program has been designed as truly practitioner oriented.
My advisor at the "University" had no interest in me, or my topic other than what I could do for him. I find my new situation much more amenable to my goals and aspirations, while the standard of doing quality scholarly writing has not been lowered.

9. rosmerta - October 04, 2010 at 10:31 am

Thank you for this article. As someone who left a graduate program for personal reasons, I felt years of shame for not having followed through. Thinking back on it, I do see that my department was not supportive and my decision was definitely the best one for my circumstances, but it took me a long time to conclude this. Ph.D. candidates need to know that other choices may often be legitimate.

10. tuxthepenguin - October 04, 2010 at 11:01 am

Don't most universities have time limits? They existed both when I was in grad school and at my current institution. Both also cut students off five years after starting the program - no office, no funding - and (at least in grad school) the advisor would recommend kicking you out if you took too long. I thought this was standard.

11. missoularedhead - October 04, 2010 at 11:09 am

To be quite honest, it's not about not wanting to finish. I do want to finish. But there's this little thing called 30% fee hikes in the UC system that, when working on an adjunct salary as a single mother, is nearly insurmountable. Which means I have another job, which means I have zero time to work on my dissertation.

Oh, and yes, please, can we make the dissertation relevant? I never wanted to be at an R-1. I wanted to teach. Why couldn't my dissertation have some of that in there, instead of proving I know a dead language and obscure points of theology?

12. tuxthepenguin - October 04, 2010 at 11:38 am


Then shouldn't you be asking employers why they demand a PhD? The dissertation is not a teaching credential. It is a demonstration of your ability to do original research. It makes no sense that we would change the meaning of the dissertation because some people don't want to write one. It's not for everyone.

13. captainmurphy - October 04, 2010 at 12:16 pm


Your comment that dissertations are "not for everyone" betrays a heightened sense of self importance. Graduate students are rarely in a position to put together a 200+ page equivalent of a book manuscript, which is increasingly what PhD programs are requiring. Many have to take on extra classes to pay rent, etc. Those with families have even more responsibilities to balance.

The inherent problem with doctoral programs is that the requirements for completion are out of sync with the time given for completion--especially when some departments cut significant funding after a fifth year. All of this for entrance into a profession with dwindling job prospects. I think missoularedhead's point is that too much emphasis is put on the dissertation as the culmination of a graduate degree. Don't conference presentations and article publications show one's ability to research?

We have come to privilege the book of scholarship so much that we are in danger of becoming poor teachers. No one becomes interested in literature, for example, because they come across a post-structural analysis of a text. Sub-sub specialties and compartmentalization are causing English programs, especially, to lose their appeal. We should be researching how to teach better, and how to keep students enrolled in the humanities, instead of proving to each other how clever we are, or how artful our prose is.

14. ameslaw - October 04, 2010 at 12:41 pm

I left my doctoral program after taking my doctoral exams but before submitting a dissertation proposal. It took me a while, but I knew I wasn't motivated at that point to start writing, and I wasn't sure I wanted to stay in academia.

I took a year off, did a lot of soul-searching, and eventually contacted my advisor about getting back into the program. And I did finish the degree.

One thing I would say to anyone who is going to write a dissertation is this: you must be motivated for yourself, not for anyone else. Love your topic because you'll be living with it for a long time. When I decided that I did want to finish, I chose to do so because I had an idea that I was passionate about and wanted to explore.

And whatever you do, don't embark on the dissertation because you want to get an impressive degree, or even because you want to get a job -- in this job market, you may or may not find a job in your area. So unless you can say to yourself, as I did, that the work of researching and writing is worth it in and of itself (regardless of what other benefits it may or may not lead to), you shouldn't bother. And in terms of impressing other people, I found that people are impressed by a Ph.D. for about 10 minutes by a Ph.D. And the opposite is true -- most people don't really care if you finish or not, and aren't thinking about you enough to look down on you if you don't finish.

So do it because you want to and you find the research and writing, however arduous, to be worthwhile.

15. droslovinia - October 04, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Thanks, captainmurphy. I truly loved the article, as it raised questions about my "scions" and what to say to them when they are working on their dissertations. It also takes me back to my dissertation days, where we had an absolutely brilliant colleague who would show up at meetings and dazzle us with his insights. He had a truly phenomenal mind, but never graduated because, as he would frequently lament, he could not put his thoughts on paper. This article would have helped him so much!

I had to laugh at the notion of "diluting" the degree when I remember the people who were allowed to "complete" their studies because it was the easiest way for the faculty to remove a known irritant, rather than because they contributed anything useful to their fields.

Mostly, though, I have to acknowledge the logic behind so many of the people who choose to go the "ABD" route. I liked my dissertation, but who else is going to read it? Moreover, given the difficulty involved in getting a position that actually requires a Ph.D., who's to say that you are well-served by putting yourself and your family through such things?

16. dpn33 - October 04, 2010 at 12:55 pm

@dotdidit2010 (item #4), it's attitudes like yours above that the article is trying to address. You write, "So in conclusion, I think that the beginning of the admissions process into a doctoral program is a good first place to have a frank discussion about finishing and failure." Failure? Poor word choice. Not finishing something does not necessarly equal failure. Diluting the dissertation research is not the answer, but sometimes well-intentioned, intelligent, talented students enter PhD programs and learn on the way that this goal isn't for them. I was definitely well-intentioned when I entered a PhD program. I thought this was what I wanted to do. I finished the coursework & prelims and then left. I didn't want an academic career and no one could tell me what I could do with a PhD if I wasn't an academic. It wasn't a failure, it was a realization. Perhaps it was the department's failure. I didn't appreciate the faculty member who tried to make me feel guilty for "wasting" their money. I did walk away with an MA which has been professionally helpful to me, so it wasn't a "waste" from my perspective and shouldn't be from theirs, either.

17. dpn33 - October 04, 2010 at 12:58 pm

I should clarify my comment above that I *learned* through my participation in the program that I did not want an academic career. I was in my mid-twenties. Is it such a surprise that I learned I was on the wrong path? Should I have stayed there because others wanted me to even though I didn't?

18. jfetter - October 04, 2010 at 01:01 pm

The real problem, I think, is not that the vast majority of departments treat as failures those who fail to finish their dissertations (though this is indeed a problem). the real problem is that it is virtualy impossible to leave and reenter the academic career track. If, for example, a grad student has to get a paying job, right now, to support his family, he should not be forever precluded from finishing the dissertation and pursuing an academic career, once his family's needs are met or even while they are being met. It is also possible for graduate students to be too immature to manage their time properly or too attached to perfection to get the thing done, but perhaps after a few years of working a meaningless job as a drone in some large corporation or government agency, they will figure out that there are far worse things than being hung up on a paragraph and be better prepared to finish. At that point, however, they may as well give up on an academic career, because most places will not even look at someone who has spent several years outside of the academy supporting themselves, even if their time away from academe has given them a set of life experiences or a fresh perspective on their discipline that some who go straight from undergrad to grad school to an academic job--I fall into this category--may lack. Also, tough love is underrated in this piece. Loss of funding and fear of failure should be effective motivators, and some grad students are, not to put too fine a point on it, out and out failures who would not succeed in any career or aspect of life. This is the case in every profession; why should academia be any different?

19. ajkind - October 04, 2010 at 01:38 pm

Also, in some majors, tell the students how difficult it is to get a job after they complete PhD. These students are wasting 5+ years of their life.

20. tuxthepenguin - October 04, 2010 at 02:13 pm


"Your comment that dissertations are "not for everyone" betrays a heightened sense of self importance."

I find it interesting that you follow up with reasons that it is tough to finish the dissertation. Specifically, missoularedhead said, "can we make the dissertation relevant? I never wanted to be at an R-1. I wanted to teach. Why couldn't my dissertation have some of that in there, instead of proving I know a dead language and obscure points of theology?" I am curious why he/she would want to engage in an uncompensated activity that is of no interest.

21. sdorley - October 04, 2010 at 02:19 pm

I'm ABD. I've been that way since the year my grad director asked 3 of us (all post-comps and working on the dissertation while teaching) to leave and get jobs. The university was in a financial position where they could only support students who were still taking coursework. I panicked about money and got 2 jobs--both in community colleges teaching 3 courses each--to make up the money. From that point forward, I was hooked into heavy teaching hours and little dissertation time. When you add to that problems with a director who was still finishing her dissertation when I was assigned her, and you'll understand why I never got back to it. I was too busy teaching.

I agree that the true ABD should be given more credit as a real teaching academic. We may not have written the big paper for a whole bunch of reasons that were valid at the time--and mostly dealt with not being able to keep putting ourselves first. But we are still doggone good academics who know our stuff and can teach. I am still teaching today, 30 years after beginning my MA and PhD, at a community college where I run the program in technical writing. And I still wish I had been able to finish . . . if only because it seems to be the only measuring stick we're allowed to use.

22. dank48 - October 04, 2010 at 02:20 pm

What employers outside academia "demand" a Ph.D.?

One reason people leave doctoral programs ABD is that at some point they wake up and realize that they're doing something they really don't want to do, merely because that seemed to be the next logical step.

At whatever level, school isn't everything. It isn't everything when you're five years old, and it isn't everything when you're twenty-five. And, yes, I was thirty-eight when the light came on for me, slow learner that I am.

23. more_cowbell - October 04, 2010 at 02:45 pm

The best way to advise a student who won't finish?

Easy - send them the link to The Chronicle and have them read through all the archives on the job market and the realities of adjunct work, especially the Thomas Benton articles. Also, stop promoting the notion that an incompleted PhD is akin to failure. It's not. In fact, seems to me that the smartest people out there are the ones with the foresight and courage to quit a program that leads to nowhere. Surely, their professors aren't ever going to be that honest with them.

24. hnsawyer - October 04, 2010 at 03:08 pm

"All graduate students embark on the dissertation with the idea of finishing it, but sometimes it's better for them to cut their losses."

In my case, this is a lot to walk away from since I have a boat load of loan debt. At this point, I have no choice but to finish and at least walk away with something of which I paid for.

25. 22097984 - October 04, 2010 at 03:37 pm

"All graduate students embark on the dissertation with the idea of finishing it, but sometimes it's better for them to cut their losses."

If students enter graduate school to get a Ph.D., then yes, leaving with an ABD is a failure and any effort to rephrase it or make it sound better is avoiding the issue that the student failed to achieve their objective. This does not mean they can't live happy fullfilling lives, but please stop acting like not completing what you set out to achieve is anything other than a failure.

Again, students that do not know the sad shape of the job market are foolish and their resulting unemployment is their own fault. When they are unemployed, yes, they are failures in the job market and saying they are victims of their family structure or of working too many hours covering too many classes to make ends meat does not take away from their failure in the job market.

The way this group changes the meaning of words makes me think of 1984!

26. writual - October 04, 2010 at 05:04 pm

I finished a Ph.D 4 years ago at the age of 50, 16 years after I first entered the program--and truly regret the wasted time, painful struggle, and hopeless debt that it cost me. I was too enamored of my dissertation topic, refused to let it go, and stubbornly kept on hanging on. All the while, I sorely needed academic guidance that was, frankly, outside the expertise of everyone on my committee. In retrospect, they probably never should have approved my topic. For years, I struggled with the material on my own, with absolutely no help from either of the 2 advisors who served in name only. When I finally finished and "defended" (which was more like small talk than a defense, because by then they all wanted me gone), it was perhaps the most diappointing experience of my life. I had failed to even learn what I had set out to learn, and took no pride in the mediocre study that I'd eventually produced on my own. Perhaps worst of all, 4 years later, it seems there is no way to make myself attractive to hiring committees who can clearly see that it took an astounding 16 years to complete my degree. Today, looking back, I wish I had cut my losses and chosen another path while I was still young enough to begin anew. Since graduating with a Ph.D., I have cashiered at Wal-Mart, K-Mart, PetSmart, and a local grocery store, while buying my groceries on food stamps, as the rejection letters keep coming in, from both inside and outside of academia. I hope someone out there may benefit from my experience.

27. more_cowbell - October 04, 2010 at 06:12 pm

#10 Tuxthepenguin - many depts do have time limits but from my experience, they are meaningless unless faculty collectively agree to enforce them. There were two MA graduates in my old dept who graduated, having taken 7 years each to do them. The rules for the dept specify 2 years. Nobody made a whisper of it.

28. mjohnso9 - October 04, 2010 at 06:13 pm

This is certainly an excellent article that points out a variety of competing and complex dynamics associated wtih the completion of the Ph.D. across the US. What has went unmentioned, ironically, is that despite the many competing and important factors which inhibit student completion is the role of admissions. I am ABD and I just started my 3rd year. While that is unusual, it also is indicative of a combination of factors, the least of which is student motivation. And while my personal experience might be anecdotal, student selection and admission is in my mind excruiatingly important. I attend an NRC top 10 S-ranked interdisciplinary program in the Humanities. We admit 3 people a year and in the year in which I applied there were over 150 applicants. Doesn't selection @ admissions influence the probability of program completion? I had to think that it must have some weight in the final calculus of graduation rates. Nevertheless, I think this is one component that hasn't been addressed in this discussion that is important. I wholeheartedly agree that once a student determines that the Ph.D. is not for them, for whatever reason, their decision should not be branded with the social stigma of inadequacy that so frequently happens inside and outside of academia. But why put students in the untenable position of having to undertake this journey of self-discovery when they could have pursued other avenues during the admissions process. Of course the flaw here is the measures of predicatability but I offer this criticism as a means to suggest that other factors must also account for students who linger in limbo...

29. mjohnso9 - October 04, 2010 at 06:16 pm

**That should be "I have to think that" and "Of course the flaw here are the measures"...I was in such an excited rush...lol.

30. literatureandart - October 04, 2010 at 08:05 pm

I am one of those "unfortunate" ABD students who studied in the Greater Toronto Area. As a community college teacher of English Literature, I was accepted at the only university in the Greater Toronto Area that allowed part time doctoral studies, as long as candidates finished their part time studies in the same amount of time it takes a full time student. I foolishly accepted the challenge. It has been more than a decade since I have completed all field exams, language requirements and the bibliography component. However, I couldn't get past my supervisor's insistence that my dissertation be either Marxist or Feminist in slant. Neither could I get another supervisor. Other supervisors of my preference were semi-retired and were not allowed to take on a graduate student. I was not allowed to pursue the author of my choice: D. H. Lawrence. Period. So I attempted pursuing other authors with the intent to "fake" an affinity for Feminism. My numerous attempts failed. I was advised by fellow graduate students and post-doctoral students that a married woman in her forties, who was pleasing in appearance, would have no hope whatsoever with credibility at the graduate level. Since deciding to become a statistic I have been teaching English Literature at the college level, at the high school level in a prestigous private institution and have in the last three years been teaching High School Art am have undertaken studies in Academic Drawing and Painting. Perhaps one or two of those who have failed me in either support or friendship might come upon my reply to The Chronicle.

31. 11161452 - October 04, 2010 at 09:28 pm

I think one major factor in not finishing the degree is the common practice of leaving the university with ABD status, getting a job, and not having adequate time to work on the project while on the daily real-life treadmill of preparing lectures, grading, service work, etc. I was eligible for another year of financial support as a graduate assistant, but I was done with coursework, and there was a change of command in my program that would have made staying around awkward at best. So I left, got a job, and finally finished the degree six years later. It ended well...but in those six years I passed over applying for better jobs because I wasn't done with the degree, and I believed changing jobs would only exacerbate the delay in completion. By tenure, I was labeled a small-college person, and I think potential employers at other types of institutions ignored my applications accordingly. At least that's how it seemed to work in my field.

In hindsight, I should have stayed in residence and finished the paper no matter what the cost. Failing to do so had a major impact on my career, and in fact I am no longer working in academia.

32. 22214511 - October 05, 2010 at 12:46 am

This is a beautiful, much needed, and well-written piece. Thank you for sharing it.

33. johncross1789 - October 05, 2010 at 05:07 am

Dr. Cassuto is obviously right. A full Ph.D. may not be relevant for many students. However, the essential problem is that our system essentially gives the student almost no credit for doing Doctoral Coursework unless the dissertation is completed. The designation "ABD" is entirely unofficial, although some institutions in the past did give a "C.Phil" (candidate in philosophy). In itself it is still not quite appropriate, since it still implies a suspended status (being a "candidate" implies that things are not complete).

If more Universities adopted some kind of intermediate degree status (perhaps after completing the comprehensive exams) another benefit might be to prevent the deterioration of Ph.D. programs into simply a teacher training program, which some of the comments seem to imply it should be.

The next question would be where they would fit in the job market, and that is where a lot of debate would take place. But once the category is in place the job market should shake itself out. "C.Phils" might be quite appropriate for teaching-focused institutions where original research on the part of most faculty is not necessary. Obviously, students who feel that this is too restrictive would finish their dissertations. But many Ph.D. students may feel this is quite sufficient, and thus allow them a viable option for not completing a massive project that, as one commenter notes about, has little relevance for their actual career goals.

34. tartiflette - October 05, 2010 at 05:26 am

After having started a phd at an American university some years back and leaving ABD for personal reasons, I recently decided to finish at a UK university. Now I look back at the time I spent in an American program jumping through hoops like language requirements and the like, and can't believe I wasted my time.

UK universities seem to be the logical answer to Menand's (otherwise ill-conceived) suggestion of 'revamping' the dissertation process. I agree that shorter can be better if the student comes in motivated and is well-advised. My current program is entirely research-oriented; I meet regularly with my advisers; there's a system of regular feedback to the department and the grad school so that students are far less likely to go astray. The program is three years start to finish, which, in and of itself, makes the idea of an intensive research degree seem less like an insurmountable task and more like the intellectual exercise it's meant to be.

35. jungianscholar - October 05, 2010 at 08:55 am

Dr. Leaonard Cassuto's article does bring forth a few of many variables that effect the completion rate of Ph.D.s, especially in the context of dissertation completion. While he acknowledges that there are a certain number of doctoral students who either may be out of their league, or unable for various reasons to complete their dissertations, we need to remain well aware, as dotdidit2010, that many committee chairs and members fail in their responsibility and duty to their students, in assisting them in developing their dissertation topics, and in working as a collaborative team, to seek the student's successful outcome through writing a meaningful piece of research that will both illustrate the student's mastery of scholarship, and provide the field with new, meaningful work.

I went back for my Ph.D. at 52 years of age, and participated in an innovative Ph.D. in Leadership & Change through Antioch University. I was a member of our first cohort, and our faculty was outstanding in their own scholarly backgrounds, their willingness to sharpen our critical thinking skills, and evaluating how to choose an excellent chair and committee. My work background for many years was the people side of enterprise, organizational development and education. One of our faculty members lead a workshop in creativity and change, and it was so overwhelming, it brought me back to the arts, one of my passions, that had been sublimated for years. Another faculty member asked what I knew of transformative learning. My inquiry down that road lead to working with a world class scholar in transformative learning from Penn State Harrisburg, who later agreed to serve on my committee, chaired by our professor of arts and indigenous studies, and my other committee member, my advisor. For my outside reader, I asked another luminary in the field of transformative learning, from Michigan State, who agreed to be my outside reader.
My work was difficult, but once I had a clear conception of where I wanted to go, I was able to put together an excellent dissertation, using a methodology that played to my strengths and the kind of work I was doing, that is, Portraiture, in the phenomenological area. My lifelong interest in Jungian psychology and individuation fit with my topic, and two years later I was done. I must say that my chair, and all of my committee members, including outside reader, were extremely collegial, collaborative, and supportive. I know I have been fortunate compared to many other students. On the downside, like w.ritual, I am only able to find part-time teaching jobs, cobbled together to eke out the lowest income. It is discouraging after incurring $150,000 in student debt, to find myself in these straits. Had I earned a Ph.D. in Psychology, and sought license, at least I could earn $80,000 and possibly student debt relief!
My heart goes out to literatureandart for what she endured in one of my favourite cities, Toronto! Why her supervisor and committee wouldn't let her chose who she wanted for her topic, and insisted upon a "slant of Marxism or Feminism" is ridiculous! Who are these idiots? They should be reported to the governing body of higher education in Canada!
So while many of us have completed, with no where to go, and nothing to do, there are many jobs in our society for which degrees and the "educational system" are not required. Plumbing, electrical work, and carpentry are based upon the old apprenticeship system, as are many art programs.
We need alternatives in our society to the traditional Ph.D. takes all, and we need to reflect upon why our Western world is so out of balance with technology and concretization, (all masculine in the Tao, or in Jungian psychology) while we undervalue the arts and intuitive side of the feminine.

36. engdept - October 05, 2010 at 10:08 am

Just for the record, since Professor Cassuto's characterization of my views has gotten some response, I have never advocated that the PhD dissertation be "more practical and less research driven." I don't know what that would mean. The dissertation is all about research. I do think, in the interests of reducing the time to degree, that we might consider requiring a research project that is not the equivalent of a a monograph. If there is some better way to reduce time to degree, I would be for it.

Louis Menand

37. bfrank1 - October 05, 2010 at 10:50 am

Of course, there is always THIS solution:

38. drgarysgoodman - October 05, 2010 at 10:58 am

"You quit this and you're going to quit for the rest of your life!" my junior high coach bellowed to me as we were the last two standing on a basketball court in New Mexico, a brief stop we made during summer camp, at which he was a counselor and recruiter.

I was mortified, in tears, feeling dejected and worthless, as he stared down at me, all 6'8" of him, and 5'4" of me. (He didn't disclose he was set to earn a fat commission if I prolonged my stay at camp beyond the two or three weeks I had found to be sufficient.)

From that point, I took his advice too well, vowing to see things to their ends, earning five degrees, taking the bar exam and passing it, despite having a flourishing consulting career and feeling no strong impulse to practice. I stuck to commitments of several kinds, far too long.

It wasn't until I studied with management sage Peter F. Drucker, that I heard his term, "systematic abandonment," which promotes quitting, relinquishing those activities that aren't yielding a proper return.

And not quitting, occasionally, or reluctantly, but regularly and enthusiastically as a path to success!

There is satisfaction in persevering, and not all of it is neurotic. Indeed, for some, hanging-on long after exhaustion and cynicism have taken over, is test of one's mettle and a path to self-realization.

Whether it is worth making a dissertation the central drama, or trauma of one's life, is a matter each candidate must evaluate.

The Ph.D. has delivered the most pleasure to me, and it has opened many doors, far beyond academe.

39. dotdidit2010 - October 05, 2010 at 11:26 am

To 22097984: Thank you for your honest feedback.
To Louis Menand: Thank you for your response on reducing time to degree as opposed to dumbing down the research process. While I misunderstood your original point, I now agree with your clarification. And, I have taken steps to create a special project to make that happen - as well as increase the meaning, relevance and financial benefits of completing advanced doctoral and master's research to serve the greater societal good in stimulating the economy, and solving critical issues - including not burdening students with horrific debt while they finish their degrees. So if you are interested in working with me to advance a unique forum on these matters, let's work together. You can reach me at dcg20@columbia.edu or dr.dorothygorbe@gmail.com

40. dotdidit2010 - October 05, 2010 at 11:38 am

To all those doc students who for one reason or another were not able to finish their dissertation and graduate, may I suggest that you contact the chair of your dept. or the dean and have a discussion with him/her about turning your doctoral work ABD into a second master's degree? This is one alternative to not wasting your time, money and experience. If your college never offered you this option, then they failed. I would be interested to hear of your success in obtaining your second master's degree, therefore, please send me your story at: dr.dorothygorbe@gmail.com
I am in the process of creating a special project to deal with the issues you have mentioned in your comments and would like to follow up with you to address them through my forum.

41. cphipps - October 05, 2010 at 12:26 pm

This is one of the most humane and responsible pieces that I have read in this publication. Thank you!

42. texasguy - October 05, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Reading the comments written by ABDs confirms my belief that many doctoral students drop out because of uncaring advisers. Let us face it. Many departments have one or two star professors who either do not care about their students or have too many of them to care for anyone but the best.

In reality, most of the victims of these star professors failed to do their due diligence when selecting their doctoral adviser. All doctoral students owe to themselves to learn as much as possible about potential advisers by listening to the grapevine and talking with students who are at a more advanced stage of their dissertation.

Last but not least, people can change their adviser. I can assure you that it can be done in a painless way.

43. dotdidit2010 - October 05, 2010 at 01:04 pm

to drgarysgoodman: Thank you for sharing your story. I started my doctorate degree in 1999. In 1996, I started a training and consulting business. All my clients worked down in the Wall Street area and when 9-11 happened, I lost everything. My business, my home, my finances, my credit, my peace of mind, and my mid life identity crisis decided it was time to kick in. How convenient! Thank God I had my doctorate degree to throw myself into to anchor me. My journey was miserable to say the least but there were experiences I had in meeting people that I would never have met if not for my field research. I also discovered a part of me that could survive when ALL the chips were down and still write a good dissertation that was worthy of sharing with others. The difficulty and miserable process of the dissertation, the abandonment I suffered from busy advisers, and the panic of meeting deadlines I thought were insane all gave me more than I ever imagined was possible and it has opened up a whole new way of seeing the world and the opportunities I have to serve in making it better for others. While my life was not easy before I started my doctorate degree, I am very glad I finished, notwithstanding sustaining more horrific failure from 9-11 in many ways. It is the rising above and going beyond the unthinkable, that gives doctoral alumni the "right" to say, it was really hard, but I did it anyway.

44. 11241998 - October 05, 2010 at 02:44 pm

An excellent article. I'm ABD X2 and while I must accept significant responsibility for my failure to finish the dissertation(s), I never really felt I had the support of an advisor who cared. I was an excellent student in every other way and received a lot of excellent feedback (e.g., one of the most well written dissertation proposals I've seen). I am nearing retirement from a very successful career in academia, but being ABD is the one regret in my life and will haunt me to my grave.

45. mikecarpenter - October 05, 2010 at 03:16 pm

In the end, completing a dissertation, especially after it has dragged on for years is not only a (hopefully) significant and original contribution to human knowledge, but also a means of gaining self-knowledge. May I suggest that many ABDs wind up learning an unpleasant kind and amount of self-knowledge, a feeling that never really goes away? Diluting the research requirement debases the PhD that everyone else gets. Perhaps it's better to have an alternative track (Doctor of Arts, Candidate in Philosophy, or some other professional designation) for those who've put in the time but but for any one of a number of perfectly valid reasons can't complete the resarch and its analysis. At least these students would not leave the program with *nothing* except the feeling of defeat; the use of such a designation would also have a clear meaning in the job market.
Perhaps students writing their dissrtations should also face a review every year on the possibility of completing the research. Dissertations often change scope during their completion. Formalizing the review would encourage active advising.

46. markkap - October 05, 2010 at 03:19 pm

As someone who was ABD for nearly a decade, but who just finished the Ph.D., I do not believe that I would have taken well at all to being told along the way that I ought to just throw in the towel. As that it was only upon the retirement of my old perfectionist advisor and my reassignment to a new advisor that I received the mentorship that made it possible for me to finish, I have come to believe that it may well be in many cases the mismatch of advisor and advisee that contributes more the inability to complete than the unsuitability of the student for the degree.

That said, Cassuto's point in this article would be better served if he advocated for a clearer face-saving mechanism to allow students to walk away from the dissertation. johncross1789 is right to suggest that students be given a formal degree upon becoming ABD. He refers to it as a C.Phil, I have heard of it as an M.Phil. In either case, formal recognition that completing doctoral course work beyond the MA level, fulfilling language requirements, taking comps, and developing a well thought out research proposal is in itself a significant personal accomplishment worthy an academic degree might make it easier for some people to walk away in the manner Cassuto advises from a dissertation that has become "a festering sore that never goes away."

I look forward to the next installment.

47. laura639 - October 05, 2010 at 04:06 pm

There are two different things being conflated in this thought-provoking article. One is the length of time needed to finish a PhD in a particular program; this varies widely by field and institution and to some degree reflects the different values associated with a "quick and dirty" 5 or 6-year degree in the hard sciences, where a 100-200 page long dissertation is sufficient, compared with a longer PhD in the humanities, where the average time to completion may be 8 or 9 years (or more) and dissertations run to 1500 pages or so (sometimes much longer). The hard science PhDs need to do postdocs to be taken seriously as scholars, while the longer-term humanities PhDs who finish are ready to go as full-fledged scholars. Some students take a long time to finish because they are doing a hell of a lot of work!

The other issue here is one that many previous posters have also faced: the lack of having a mentor as a grad student. Faculty should be prepared to mentor "their" grad students, or they should stop admitting/accepting grad students. And no, it isn't always possible to change advisers--some departments/programs are quite inflexible. My old PhD program had a firm policy of admitting people as a single faculty member's protege/e, and all funding,advancement, etc was tied to that person, so God help the poor students who were assigned to the faculty members who just didn't do their job as mentors and instead chose to focus their energies on university administration, etc. instead. The faculty who use data generated by their grad students and don't even put them in the list of acknowledgements--let alone list them as junior authors-- should examine their consciences and know that they have been lousy mentors!

48. ef17402 - October 05, 2010 at 05:34 pm

Of course it's "failure" not to finish a degree that was the objective of a program, but this is different from _being_ a failure, and from treating students who do not finish as failed human beings. Academics and others can suffer from the illusion that earning a Ph.D. is the highest kind of achievement--an idea that I have internalized too much myself. I do not diminish what it means to earn a Ph.D. It's an arduous and admirable feat that requires a huge amount of discipline and drive. But it is also a very specific kind of achievement, that measures a specific set of skills and validates a specific kind of temperament. It does not make you a better person. In my own experience, I have found the process to be narrowing--forcing me to live "in my head" and to beat back some of my more social and creative tendencies.
It would have been a great accomplishment if earlier in my program I had been able to discern the mismatch between academia's requirements and my own personality, to view these _as_ a mismatch rather than a fatal insufficiency, and to free myself to realize other gifts. It's a powerful and needed thing for advisors to let their students know that it's ok "cut their losses." I hope many advisors will take the author's cue to "advise students, not just dissertations." But those words will have little credibility unless they are spoken by people who value successes of many kinds--not just the narrow ones (degrees, publications, tenure) that seem to count for all in academia.

49. labjack - October 05, 2010 at 06:14 pm

I was fortunate to work with a great advisor and recieved my PhD in the biological sciences. I had friends in grad school who were in the humanities, and they seemed to have more free time. I realize that this was because we in the 'hard' sciences had essentially full time jobs that we were required to work at. I'll admit there were times during my weekly meetings with my advisor that he told me I needed to spend more time in the lab. If I didn't have his help keeping me on track, I am sure I'd either have drifted away from grad school, or have left ABD.

One of the major themes the comments seem to focus on is the lack of good mentoring for careers outside of the track that worked for their advisors. The faculty I knew were great in their fields. They were not great in career development outside of academia. Some thought that if you got your PhD, and didn't use it at an R1, you were wasting everyone's time, others realized that not everyone who gets a PhD wants the same career as they have. Even those mentors who are supportive of 'alternative' careers ussually can't give good advice on how to find those alternate careers, or even what they are. The faculty at universities are selected for their ability to thrive in academia. They are also expected to maintain a rigorous intelectual environment, or research program, and just don't have the time to become experts on the ever changing job market. The universities often provide career counselling, which is very useful, but can be difficult to fit in while trying to finish a Dissertation.

Personal take on ABDs. This may well be specific to my experiences, but it seems like the people most likely to bring up academic 'credentials' are ABDs. Before I went to grad school, I thought the term was sad. It seemed that the people I met who were ABD, were both trying to claim something they did not have, wanted to puff themselves up over those with bachelors or masters, and desperate to be accepted as peers by those with a PhD. I thought the same when I struggled with the decision to complete grad school. Now that I've earned my PhD, I still find it sad. I liken it to scientists saying, I almost made the discovery that won the nobel prize. I am always more impressed with people who are proud of what they have accomplished than I am with those who define themselves by what they haven't done.

I think it would be better for ABDs to define themselves by what they are, rather than what they aren't.

50. nativepoet - October 05, 2010 at 07:22 pm

<Comment removed by moderator>

51. fallen_angel - October 05, 2010 at 08:42 pm

ef17402 Thank you for saving me the trouble of writing a response to that comment that, substantively, would have been identical to yours.

22097984: You write, "The way this group changes the meaning of words makes me think of 1984!" Funny, I had the same thought when I read your comment. I was in kindergarten then; the extent to which your comment completely misses the point might have been overlooked in such an environment. Not so here.

52. lothlorien - October 05, 2010 at 10:15 pm

I, myself, hit a period where my dissertation was languishing. I loved the time I got to spend writing it, but that time was swamped usually (I felt) by family committments and teaching 5 to six classes a semester to support my family. Ultimately, what helped me most was a change in department advisors and the mentorship of one of the department chairs that I was working for. In the case of the latter, he noticed how I was floundering, and helped me to set realistic goals and organize my time better. I was fortunate to be an adjunct at his institution, one that actually cared about its adjuncts as opposed to seeing us as a neccessary evil.

My new advisor was also helpful, but ultimately, I would recommend that ABD's find an outside mentor as well, one that can help you assess your committments and see the big picture. I am sure if more ABD's had such advice (what is now pithily called "life coaching"), more dissertations would be completed.

53. 22280998 - October 06, 2010 at 08:19 am

Instead of an informal ABD status, award students an official Ph.C. (Philosophic Candidacy) on completion of course work and pre-lims. This would provide a psychologicalanchor for the decision to pursue the Ph.D.

54. pvenkman - October 06, 2010 at 08:36 am

Maybe it would be nice for a terminally ABD grad student to hear from an advisor that it might be best to contemplate leaving it all behind, but that is just one minor salve that may provide temporary relief for a very large festering wound. The reality is that there are too many PhD programs taking too many students. Within that basic framework there are too many 2nd and 3rd tier programs that do not provide enough institutional support for grad students to create a stable enough platform from which to work. Inadequae stipends (if any) and required teaching duties ensure that there is not enough free time to think let alone write. Pepper those structural problem with young adults who are phenomenally bad at realistic assessing all the sacrifices necessary to produce a PhD and you have a formula for the environmental disaster that is graduate education in America. Telling a student who wasn't given a gas mask or a shovel that it's okay that they succumbed to the fumes and the sludge seems humane but really does not address the underlying problems. . . maybe Prof. Cassuto should go to his next department meeting and say "There are just too many grad programs in English in the United States. We are not ever going to be able to create the research environment or outcomes that better endowed research instutions (who alone produce more than enough PhDs) do and so for the good of the discipline and these poor souls whom we are shamelessly exploiting, I propose we phase out our graduate program in English" Unless and until a speech like that gains a serious reception, the "humane" conversation outlined above will be one needed over and over and in many ways is the cruelest form of comfort: pity

55. der_gadfly - October 06, 2010 at 11:44 am


If I read you correctly, you were directed to write about something NOT of your own interest? In a particular context? I suspect that the advisor should have been told to bugger off because the dissertation is NOT about the advisor, it is about the candidate.

Just my humble 2 cents, but If all I had to do was a book report according to a pre-designed rubric, following a pre-determined formula, I would bang that out in a few months.

56. drluccia - October 06, 2010 at 01:33 pm

It took me perhaps too many years to complete my dissertation. But, when I did, I was comfortable with my work, knew I had completed what I set out to complete, and was glad it was over. My journey included a multi-year bout of clinical depression that found me barely able to function, let alone continue the research and writing necessary to finish the dissertation.

It was during a year spent driving a big rig that the depression finally lifted and I was able to pick up the reading and research again. Following that, I found a teaching position at a for-profit college. While I gained excellent teaching and administrative experience there, when I was awarded my Ph.D., my school and the company that owned it couldn't care less. There was no increase in compensation, and no acknowledgement of the added value my personal and professional accomplishment brought to my students and my school.

I didn't expect much from the for-profit environment by way of acknowledgement, though. In a world in which the sales staff are paid twice as much as faculty, it is clear that despite the requirement for faculty to be educated and degreed is essential to appease accrediting bodies, the value represented by the graduate and post-graduate degrees held by faculty is almost nil.

Since I didn't need the Ph.D. to enhance my actual position, why did I finish it?

Because I started it with a passion that never really subsided, and because the work needed to be done by someone and I was ready to accomplish it. By earning a Ph.D., I became the first person in my family to do so. Two uncles started doctoral studies, and decided to stop at the dissertation because, as high school and community college educators, they would have been compelled to become administrators and both hated that prospect.

Ultimately, I completed my dissertation for myself, for my own self-esteem, for my own sense of accomplishment. That, and to be able to tell anyone who ever told me, "You don't know what you're talking about, you twit," "That's Doctor Twit, to you."

Glad I started. Glad I didn't quit. Glad I finished.

57. dotdidit2010 - October 06, 2010 at 01:41 pm

To literatureandart and der_gadfly: You touched on the conflict. There are many advisers who only accept doc students IF their research fits into the adviser's interest and agenda. Otherwise, they will claim they are not subject matter experts in some other area and will therefore, not be able to help the student. Whatever happened to learning how to think and stretch one's imagination? Isn't that what a part of the journey in higher education is supposed to be about? Most of the faculty are not trained in teaching and advising. They are practicing professionals. So there are a lot of other issues to consider when trying to figure out the lack of support for doc students and why they are not able to finish. I reflected a lot on the comments posted above and thank you all for your insights. To me it is a long difficult journey into the role of becoming a doctor of whatever speciality the student is aspiring to become an expert in. At this point of professional development, the soon-to-be doctor has to figure his/her path and approach to make it through no matter the struggle, sacrifices, and cost. And no one adviser, faculty member or college can make that choice for the doc student. The doc student signed up for the experience, the college opened the door and said, yes, we will give you the opportunity, but in the final analysis, whether the adviser follows up, the reality is that the student is the customer and as such, has rights to get what he/she paid for. So it is a tragedy and great misjustice that students have to settle in for accommodating their adviser's research agenda in order to complete their degree. Something has to be done about this issue. Any ideas???

58. fauhousing - October 06, 2010 at 02:05 pm

I spent two years completing coursework, one year preparing and passing my prelims, and four long years working on my dissertation. I almost quit along the way several times while working full-time and raising a child. In the end I had to finish for myself and no one else. I wasn't sure it would pay off financially and professionally, so I had to find that intrinsic motivation to do it. I had a good advisor who returned submitted work with lightning speed (thanks, Dr. Bower!) and who was patient with me along the way. Academically, writing my dissertation was the first truly difficult academic challenge I had faced and it was a humbling life lesson.

For dissertation advisors and program administrators: I think it would help to counsel students up front about the challenges and structure the dissertation writing process a little bit better.

59. rightwingprofessor - October 06, 2010 at 03:27 pm

I never understand this idea of someone being "ABD". In mathematics we have another name for "ABD", it's called a master's degree. The dissertion is not just one small part of earning one's PhD, it is the central part.

60. adb75_im - October 06, 2010 at 04:28 pm

One issue not touched on in this article is that tenure review is based in part on how successful one has been at mentoring students through graduate school, with the key metric being how many have obtained degrees while in your program. Indeed, I've had several mentors indicate that I should not expect to get tenure if I don't have a sufficient number of degreed graduate students. Thus, I am probably disinclined to encourage a struggling student to move on. Rather, I'll probably bend heaven and earth to get the student through. And that is a clear problem because I also know that not everyone who starts a graduate degree should get a graduate degree.

61. lwalton - October 07, 2010 at 01:22 pm

@ef17402: Thank you for identifying the reason I left my PhD program as ABD 25 years ago. As I approached the dissertation phase, I began to have an initially faint, but very persistent feeling that this was not the right "fit" for me. After much anguish (and a sense of personal failure that persisted for many years), I left my program in sociology and entered the field of human resources. In the subsequent 25 years, I have had an intensely satisfying career, in both corporate and higher ed. I discovered that my true love was being a practitioner, and I know that I have had a positive impact on literally hundreds of coworkers throughout the years. My background in sociology has informed my work and I will always value it. But the typical academic path would have stifled and depressed me. Temperment matters!

62. miamadness15 - October 07, 2010 at 04:00 pm

Thank you for this article. I think it touches an important issue but also forgets about one.

While everyone seems to discuss advising as one of the major factors helping students to complete their PhD, I do believe that undiagnosed learning disabilities might play into it.

Many graduate students deal well with their coursework and other requirements but face unstructured chaos once at the research stage. Many developed coping strategies in the early stages of their studies but research causes problems that they cannot solve anymore. If they remain undiagnosed, their ability to complete their studies could be jeopardized. They might blame their lack of motivation, organization or other issues. The problems, however, may be internal. They might not get the support nor the information they need to understand their struggles. Perhaps their department or advisor does not provide them with openness they need to discuss the issues with which they struggle.

I thought I would just put it out there so that we can also take this into consideration.

63. dissertating - October 07, 2010 at 06:44 pm

To add to the discussion, the other side of the coin re: telling an advisee that perhaps they should pursue an alternate career, is that this might discourage a student who does want to overcome the challenges they are facing and may lead to their quitting when pushing on might have helped them achieve their goal.

Soon after selecting my advisor after an agonizing process of choosing between two sparring faculty members, he told me, you know, you don't have to pursue academia, there are other jobs out there.

I read that as a message that I was not 'good enough' for academia, somehow. He was not one to explain his statements. Over the years, he has been supportive at times and dismissive at others, without a logical reason. But for various reasons I won't go into now, I haven't been able to switch to a different advisor.

In my final year of my phd now, it is all the more difficult to decide to change advisors. Unfortunately for myself, his current mood is dismissive and indifferent, and I have to work really hard on reminding myself that I am good enough and I can finish, despite his apparent lack of faith in me.

So I would heed caution in being overly enthusiastic about telling your advisee that perhaps they should explore other alternatives. Especially if that is against their own wishes.

64. dotdidit2010 - October 08, 2010 at 08:33 am

I so appreciate the comments by miamadness 15 and dissertating. I fired my second adviser the last year before I defended. He did very little for me in four years. When I defended my dissertation proposal, he left my proposal at his client's office and he only skimmed it prior to my meeting. So he offered me junk at that critical session. That was one reason why it took me 10 years to finish. Years later, when I wrote to my first adviser a few months before I was ready to defend, she told me in other words how busy she was. I wrote her back and basically said, "I am not going to pick a number and get in the back of the line anymore. Feel free to pass that message onto other students who are in other phases of their research. I am getting ready to graduate, have no wiggle room for wasting time or waiting behind others anymore, and I cannot wait for your schedule to open up." She wrote me back and said that "if I didn't like it I should just get myself another adviser. She would do everything she could to help me but she was drowning with over-responsibility." In other words she was doing the work of 10 people and not delegating to others. Her schedule was busy also because she made choices to work that way. I did defend on 4-8-10, but I suffered severe depression, gained 20 lbs from living off of ice cream for two months, and was sleep deprived. So if you ever confront your adviser directly, you must be very prepared for a negative response. I am glad that I dumped that no-good second adviser and recruited an excellent adviser that helped me finish - because the first one was still too busy. If you are in need of an excellent resource, I highly suggest getting the book: Completing your qualitative dissertation: A roadmap from beginning to end. by: Bloomberg, L.D. and Volpe, M. (2008). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. It will make all the difference in your research if you are doing a qualitative study.

65. manitoga - October 08, 2010 at 10:04 am

My apologies if it seems like I am laughing at other people's miseries, but academia seems a little FUBAR when your advisor has no time for you, does not care, and gives you minimal help. At that point just rubber stamp the damned candidate and have him/her be on his/her merry way with a PhD in hand! These faculty members are not doing their due-diligence, they are not doing their jobs, and tenured or not need to be punished!

On my end of things, I am looking into PhD programs (having completed 4 masters already). I've developed the work ethic, I've developed work flows for independent research, and I am more or less self sustaining, the issue is funding. One thing I refuse to do is go in debt for a degree that's just useful in academia where jobs are few and far between :-)

The whole "maybe you shouldn't be doing this then" I've heard before, in an undergraduate program where the department offered little support to students. My advisor saw my grades lower in my major than other courses I took (which quite honestly offered greater access to faculty for disambiguation and help outside of the class) and told me to switch majors. I didn't - I graduated from that program, I showed him ;-)

There are some people who are genuinely not suited for PhD studies in a specific field, at a specific school that's just a fact, but it's the moral obligation of the school and of the faculty to help a student that they've admitted into their program as an apprentice! They are getting paid, so do you job!

~Dr. Pepper

66. ddwalker - October 08, 2010 at 11:58 am

"Talking to students about their work can include asking them if they're having trouble doing it." -- This would be a normal question for any manager to ask any employee.

67. amandawagner07 - October 08, 2010 at 11:39 pm

I have to say that the article was refreshing. I currently am ABD and there is not enough support and understanding from the University to help you get through this "process". It is all about the money. I recently received a call from my school asking me when I think I will be finished and that I have to consider all my options, financially. And then alluded to me not finishing.

I know it is a choice that I made, but at the same time life happens. And unfortnatley they do not make any allowences for that. I have to work to pay for rent, and the research that comes with it and basic needs, and of course to pay of the student loans I am forced to take out. I have spent to much time, money and made to many sacrifices to no finish ! But they sure as hell do not make it easy !!

68. dissertating - October 09, 2010 at 10:29 am

TO: dotdidit2010

Thank you for your empathy and sharing your experience - it matches mine very closely. I will also check out the book you suggest.

One thing that I wonder about is, if I fire my major advisor at this point (fall term being the time to apply for jobs next fall) how can the new person who hasn't seen me present or is not as familiar with my work be able to be a reference for these job applications? I feel like I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place.

69. dotdidit2010 - October 10, 2010 at 08:14 am

To dissertating: You are correct - it is very difficult if not impossible to dump the first adviser if you are in your final year. And I don't know the dept. will let you do that because no other adviser will step in to help since they do not know what happened throughout your process. You will also develop a reputation through the faculty grapevine which carries with it negative consequences. Nor will your new adviser be able to give you a job referral since he/she does not know you or your work. Unfortunately, I think you must exercise greater faith in yourself and not worry about whether or not your first adviser believes in you and your work. I know the pain that comes with that disconnection, but that is a part of the learning. This is the point, the moment, when you turn the corner and take your destiny into your hands, and go for it. You have worked really hard for many years, have built up an expertise in your subject matter, and are a competent and confident professional. At this point you should be preparing for your defense, filling out paperwork with the college to assign your dissertation defense committee, finishing up your field research and writing for defense submission.

Learning to believe in myself even when no one else did (or so it seemed) and the chips were down was for me the moment I moved into the role of being a "doctor." I earned my degree at that moment even though I was months away from graduating. So I saying two things: You accept the role of a doctor when you pass the crucial test of walking the road to Calvary on your own, and you are confirmed in the role of a doctor at your graduation ceremony by the college. That is your resurrection day or day of freedom and liberation.

I feel my degree and achievements in finishing stands on its own and speaks volumes about my abilities. Therefore, I would never use my first adviser's recommendations for a job. I have designed a special film project for doctoral alumni so when you get to next fall, contact me at dr.dorothygorbe@gmail.com and let's do some business together. You are going to finish well and this chapter of your school life will be over very soon. There is no turning back at this point, just keep your graduation date in mind and focus. And if you have to graciously bring your concerns to your first adviser, then do it in a professional manner. Keep asking questions if you are not sure what he/she is saying. I also tape recorded all my advisement sessions, then transcribed them and turned them into a checklist. I worked on the things that would help me finish my dissertation and didn't worry about the rest of my adviser's personal opinions about other stuff I could do nothing about. Separate out what you can do to finish well and don't worry about the rest of your adviser's stuff. I hope this response, lengthy as it is, helps. Best regards, D.

70. dotdidit2010 - October 10, 2010 at 08:25 am

To dissertating: One more point I wanted to make is that after you have a "gracious and professional" chat with your first adviser, ask tons of questions to clarify what the pink elephant is in the room or in your research journey, and he/she has not changed his attitude or indifference, you may want to consider going to the chair of the department or the dean for an intervention. The first adviser's attitude cannot become a barrier to your finishing and your well-being. You are a paying "customer/client" of the school and have the right to be treated with the utmost respect. Perhaps the dean and chair can remind him/her of that fact. Let me know what happens. Good luck, D.

71. fergbutt - October 10, 2010 at 03:09 pm

When my dissertation adviser left in the middle of the process, one of his colleagues said to me with a straight face: This could be a blessing, because you won't feel obliged to rely on someone who is now gone. And she was right. It didn't hurt that I chose a very modest topic and recognized that this was just another big paper, padded with the same material that gets excised when the dissertation is converted into a journal submission. And for me, crunching numbers went faster than some endless qualitative analysis that I might have chosen. My career has since been judged by the publications I produced after the dissertation, which itself turned out to be one more fiery hoop on the way to a terminal degree. As I advise my dissertation students: It's just a big paper. Get it done so you can move on to a wider variety of research topics.

72. waldemar - October 11, 2010 at 06:33 am

What a rare and welcome bit of kindness this article demonstrates. The stigma connected with quitting a PhD program is a problem not only for those who quit, but for those who stick with it to the end, but should have quit for the sake of their own happiness.

Here is a similar opinion:


73. 99neila99 - October 11, 2010 at 11:59 am

Great Article. Please see The Now Habit: Overcome Procrastination and Enjoy Guilt-Free Play by Neil Fiore, PhD, based on work with hundreds of doctoral students who were helped to complete their dissertations in less than 2 years while living a full life.
Also see reviews on Amazon.com
It is possible to write a quality dissertation, live a healthy life, and maintain the motivation to continue good research after the doctorate.

74. thunderboy - October 11, 2010 at 02:24 pm

Graduate programs need to take much more responsibility for the welfare of students in their programs. Bad supervision, poor departmental oversight, viewing graduate students as cheap labor, ill-advised admissions decisions - all these and more the responsibility of the program, and programs need to take ownership of their failings.

75. thunderboy - October 11, 2010 at 02:38 pm

Well,blaming students for their problems in PhD programs seems disingenuous. Graduate programs bear a large amount of responsibility for problems with their students. Some causes: bad admissions decisions, bad supervision, bad departmental oversight of supervisors and students, viewing students as cheap labour - any of these sound familiar? Making unsuccessful students feel better about dropping out hardly seems like a solution to systemic problems.

76. thunderboy - October 11, 2010 at 02:49 pm

Well,blaming students for their problems in PhD programs seems disingenuous. Graduate programs bear a large amount of responsibility for problems with their students. Some causes: bad admissions decisions, bad supervision, bad departmental oversight of supervisors and students, viewing students as cheap labour - any of these sound familiar? Making unsuccessful students feel better about dropping out hardly seems like a solution to systemic problems.

77. lindarugg - October 11, 2010 at 07:59 pm

Given the present academic market, it has been my department's practice to advise students as they enter our program that there is no guarantee that there will be an academic job available when they finish, though we will do everything in our power to make sure that they are qualified for the academic job that does come available. The idea that PhD programs intentionally lead their students into "wasting five years of your life," which is implied by one of the writers above, is irksome to me on a couple of levels. All the cards should be on the table as the student enters the program, and then s/he can decide if the (really!) amazing experience of having five or six years to explore fascinating and enriching subjects is worth it, even if there is no job down the road. (A caveat -- the enriching experience is probably only worth it for the vast majority of people if the student's study is funded by the department, either in the form of grants or teaching. I really do not believe in allowing or encouraging students in the Humanities to accrue a massive debt while studying, and we support our students fully.) When I entered grad school thirty years ago, the graduate school sent a letter to all the new students letting them know that getting an academic job was not at all guaranteed, and that we should weigh our decision to enter grad school in light of that fact. When I chose to proceed, it was as a fully informed adult.

Having said that, there are moments throughout grad school when it is incumbent upon the faculty to let the student know that his or her work is not at the level required to advance in the field, and I think that allowing a student to begin a dissertation when it is clear that s/he is not likely to be successful in writing one is a major disservice. Better to advise people to quit at the Master's level, or to fail them at the qualifying exams, or to advise them not to take the qualifying exams, than to let them founder as an unsuccessful dissertator. Yes, one can also advise the student to "let go" during the dissertation process, as the article recommends. But it is best to do so as soon as it becomes clear that the student would be better served by a different professional path.

78. superdude - October 11, 2010 at 11:44 pm

I'm sorry but all of this is so much excuse-making.

Starting a PhD program with the intention of earning a PhD, going through all of the coursework and exams, and then bailing out on the dissertation is the very definition of failure.

Failure of motivation, failure of creativity, failure to navigate interpersonal relationships and/or departmental politics, failure to simply work hard and push the project along.

It's difficult work, which is why there are so few PhD's earned compared to MAs and the BA/BS degrees. But that's it, and there's really no way to sugarcoat this.

79. hamilton1982 - October 12, 2010 at 10:20 am

I can relate to much of your frustration and desire to have your thesis be worthy and lasting testament to your time as a student. I will though say that when you view doctoral or even thesis-based masters work as a "novel contribution to knowledge" then there comes a juncture where the desire for perfection is overridden by the urgency to make that contribution in this lifetime! Personal ambition has to be subservient to the "greater good" if you will. I got through mine by distracting myself with an annual visit to my family in Cape Town; an addiction to online bingo and compulsive blogging.

80. qcity - October 14, 2010 at 09:40 am

"No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back."

Yes, you started graduate school with the goal of finishing. However, not finishing does not have to mean that you failed. It can mean that you found a new, more important and meaningful goal. Some ABDs are failures in that they still want to finish and they can't. But others are not because they've chosen to move onto a different path.

Little kids say they want to be astronauts, movie stars, President, but we don't call them failures when they are not these things. They've chosen other ambitions, and that's healthy!

81. superdude - October 14, 2010 at 03:23 pm

"Little kids say they want to be astronauts, movie stars, President, but we don't call them failures when they are not these things."

That's because they're little kids. Adults, who know better, are in a different situation. What may be "healthy" behavior for kids, simply represents a failure to plan or have realistic goals as an adult.

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