A Ph.D. student is playing poker. As a result of her hard work, piles of chips are stacked in front of her. On her last round, she bets the house, risking all of her hard-earned winnings. She holds her breath as she pushes the chips to the center of the table.
But instead of victory, the student loses. All of her work and winnings erased -- nothing to show for her efforts but empty pockets and frustration.
The poker metaphor describes the hellish fate of the all-but-dissertation (ABD) student. Only in the parallel universe of academia is it possible to log years of Herculean scholarship, write and defend a complex dissertation proposal, and -- upon failing to complete one’s dissertation -- come away with nothing to show but the humiliation of not being recognized by the academic industrial complex for one’s blood, sweat and uncompensated toil.
As someone who dedicated five years of her life to a social science doctoral program (from which I emerged with the dreaded ABD acronym seared like a scarlet letter on my forehead), I am outraged that universities fail to acknowledge those they have tossed aside. Once a student becomes a terminal ABD, it’s her, not the process or the institution, that shoulders the blame.
Numerous blogs catalog the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune experienced by doctoral students who failed to summit their dissertation Mount Everests. Barbara Lovitts, author of Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure From Doctoral Study, writes that the culture of graduate school “cultivates a ‘pluralistic ignorance’ in which everyone involved — deans, faculty members, students themselves — tends to blame the departing students for leaving.”
Dysfunctional graduate departments, toxic faculty, and the Navy Seal-like brutality of the Ph.D. process all contribute to the burnout experienced by the estimated 50-plus percent of Ph.D. students who fail to earn their doctorates.
While STEM Ph.D. students don’t experience the same attrition rates as their social sciences and humanities colleagues, the ABD problem is so vexing that the Council of Graduate Schools initiated the Ph.D. Completion Project,  a seven-year, grant-funded study addressing the issues surround Ph.D. completion and attrition at 29 major U.S. and Canadian research universities.
I don’t want to waste valuable keystrokes playing the ABD blame game. Rather, my mission is to change a broken system that disenfranchises half of all doctoral students and endorses a corrosive academic ecosystem that dishonors scholarship at the expense of what is essentially academic hazing.
As an ABD, the only academic avenues open to me were those of an adjunct instructor. I endured a few years in that hamster wheel, knowing that without attaining the Holy Grail of the doctorate, I’d never earn a tenure-track position. The fate of adjunct instructors is well-documented, and it is heartening to read that some reforms have been achieved. Still, being a full-time adjunct is nobody’s idea of a fulfilling academic career.
I experienced roadblocks when I tried to get re-admitted to a doctoral program so that I could finish my Ph.D. Unlike undergraduates, who are granted second, third and fourth chances to complete their degrees, once you’re “terminated” from a Ph.D. program, it’s like you are dead to the former department. I was told that my work was no longer current to the discipline -- an insipid reason given that my dissertation work involved the interpretation of 18th-century texts (does history have an expiration date?).
My conversations with faculty and administrators were often met with suspicion and sometimes near-hostility. How dare I ask for readmission to a program that I had scorned?
I was also given contradictory information about the number of Ph.D. credits that I could transfer. After being told by an admissions official that the federal government limits the number of Ph.D. transfer credits to nine, I spoke with the chief of staff to the under secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. He informed me that no such policy exists, and that schools had the discretion to accept as many Ph.D. transfer credits as they want.
Even if academic institutions don’t care about the psychological costs for ABD students, they should be paying attention to how Ph.D. attrition rates hurt their bottom line.
High Ph.D. attrition rates offer a terrible rate of return on investment for graduate programs that spend valuable economic and faculty resources to sponsor students. Wouldn't it make sense that universities should do everything in their power to keep graduate students in doctoral programs so they wouldn't bleed away precious stipends? Maybe faculty advisers should be offered financial incentives to see that their doctoral students complete their studies.
Instead of casting ABDs out into the wilderness, universities should welcome them into the fold. I propose that ABDs be granted terminal degree status (albeit a status below that of the Ph.D.).
Granting a Certificate of Doctoral Completion (CDC) would formally recognize the ABD as an academic degree for those who have completed all course work up to the doctoral level. Holding a CDC would provide the opportunity for students to attain a Ph.D. if they elect to complete the full doctoral process.
This radical proposal would benefit graduate schools by bolstering their completion rates, and would bring in new students who would otherwise not choose a doctoral program. Especially for graduate students who want an academic career focusing on teaching rather than research, attaining a CDC would streamline the process of bringing academic teachers to colleges and universities.
Conferring CDC status also would go a long way toward healing the psychic wounds of the thousands of ABDs, and would help undertake much-needed reforms in graduate education.
No one runs the Boston Marathon with the intention of dropping out in the final mile. Similarly, no one enters a Ph.D. program with the intention of becoming ABD.
Providing a middle ground for doctoral students who don’t complete their dissertations would not only save institutions money and resources, but more importantly, it would grant ABD students the status they deserve while preserving what little dignity still exists in the upper echelons of graduate education.
Jill Yesko is ABD in geography from a major northeast university.