Thoughts about ABD & Snowflakes

Sep 02 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

A while back there was a discussion about ABDs (all but dissertation) and how such people had worked hard, done a lot, and left academia with nothing to show for it.  Another in Slate, subtitled "What’s worse than getting a Ph.D. in today’s job market? Not finishing one."  It's been floating around in my head, and getting me irritated. Thus a post to expiate my irritation.

Evidently there was a lot of hate in the comments to the post. People were called "failures" and other people objected to being called "failures". I thought that much of the discussion focused around humanities/social science ABDs. But ABDs have existed well before the Snowflake generation, and I have heard the same discussions & name calling back to when I was a student, in the mid-Miocene. I had a couple of good friends from grad school who ended up ABD (often women, often getting married, often getting pregnant).

The slate article by Rebecca Schuman has a few weird things to say, including that a dissertation is "trial by fire" and only extreme (or evil) people think that this is an "apt initiation".

Maybe they couldn’t. But that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Dissertations—some 250 pages of original research in the humanities, and topping 400 in the social sciences—are objectively, indisputably difficult. It sometimes takes years just to collect data or comb through the necessary archives, and then the damn thing must be written, often in total isolation.

This of course can be true in the sciences. Over at DM's, a discussion on writing has produced the argument that some people are fully capable of writing on their own and don't need to share drafts. But, mostly the total isolation is something that can be avoided by bio types. Even if you are not a lab-type, but a field-type, in most depts., including eco/evo departments there is a good strong graduate student community. Swallowing one's pride and showing those less than perfect drafts to others is A Good Thing. One piece of her advice is solid:

Finally, here’s what ABDs can do to help themselves. Dare to stop reading and start writing, and revel in an early draft that is an unabashed hot mess. Realize that the greatest misconception of dissertation writers is that the project must be perfect. In fact, for a career academic, the dissertation should actually be the worst thing you ever write. [well, no not this one]

So yes, not getting a PhD is a failure of sorts. You were trying for a PhD and you didn't make it. It's one failure. People who get the damn degree have all sorts of other failures. Failure is part of life. If you only do the easy stuff, you will be bored. Get over it. No, there should not be a "special certificate" for ABDs. For heaven's sake, not everyone gets a trophy. Finally, there are lots of reasons, probably even lots of people at fault, for the reason any individual does not finish their PhD. But no one, but no one, goes to grad school because someone held a gun to their head and said "I will shoot your brains out if you do not go into a PhD program". It was a damn choice. It could be a bad choice, or it could have been a good choice at the time that turned bad. There could have been a stack of dead white men who hated you, harassed you, doubted you, and made your life so miserable you could not finish. That is not right. It needs to be fixed. But you left the program. You made some more choices. Giving you an "intermediate degree" isn't going to change what you have and have not done. And it certainly isn't going to move you forward in life. Do not get your personal desires mixed up with what is the goal and purpose (mission, if you must) of academia. As manifest by the university or program, its is to educate. As promulgated by a PI, it's to train and get science done (and to avoid service as much as possible). The order and relative weight of those varies both among PI's and within an individual PI. Getting an "in between" degree doesn't show up on any of those scales.

The weirdest thing Schuman says is

But it is the academic establishment’s treatment of those who fail initiation—disowning, shame, refusal to reveal attrition—that is one of its dirtiest secrets. 

Bad treatment? What is she thinking about? Compared to people who get fired from jobs? Compared to people to people who get denied tenure? Yes its hard on the folks who leave. Yes they are bitter, and hurt, and have experienced, yes, failure. But what treatment is she talking about? Disowning? The only interest my alma mater has in me is money. And my thesis advisor was not warm and cuddly, but he's dead now.

I think there are other dirty secrets, but indifference to those who leave? Because it is indifference, and just like Mother Nature, most of the world and most of the people in the world are indifferent to all of us.




2 responses so far

  • Yeah, I thought that was a weird article, too. Anyway, at least in the natural sciences, there is a consolation prize awarded to ABDs: a master's degree.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I mostly thought this was a stark portrait of one of the ways the humanities and the natural sciences graduate studies differ dramatically. This is why nobody in the natural sciences talks about being "ABD". Ever.

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