Monday Methods: Why You Should Not Get a History PhD (And How to Apply for One Anyway)

all but dissertation reddit

I am a PhD student in medieval history in the U.S. My remarks concern History PhD programs in the U.S. If you think this is hypocritical, so be it.

The humanities PhD is still a vocational degree to prepare students for a career teaching in academia, and there are no jobs. Do not get a PhD in history.

Look, I get it. Of all the people on AskHistorians, I get it . You don't "love history;" you love history with everything in your soul and you read history books outside your subfield for fun and you spend 90% of your free time trying to get other people to love history as much as you do, or even a quarter as much, or even just think about it for a few minutes and your day is made. I get it.

You have a professor who's told you you're perfect to teach college. You have a professor who has assured you you're the exception and will succeed. You have a friend who just got their PhD and has a tenure track job at UCLA. You don't need an R1 school; you just want to teach so you'd be fine with a small, 4-year liberal arts college position.

You've spent four or six subsistence-level years sleeping on an air mattress and eating poverty burritos and working three part-time jobs to pay for undergrad. You're not worried about more. Heck, a PhD stipend looks like a pay raise . Or maybe you have parents or grandparents willing to step in, maybe you have no loans from undergrad to pay back.

It doesn't matter. You are not the exception. Do not get a PhD in history or any of the allied fields.

There are no jobs. The history job market crashed in 2008, recovered a bit in 2011-12...and then disappeared. Here is the graph from the AHA. 300 full-time jobs, 1200 new PhDs. Plus all the people from previous years without jobs and with more publications than you. Plus all the current profs in crappy jobs who have more publications, connections, and experience than you. Minus all the jobs not in your field. Minus all the jobs earmarked for senior professors who already have tenure elsewhere. Your obscure subfield will not save you. Museum work is probably more competitive and you will not have the experience or skills. There are no jobs.

Your job options, as such, are garbage. Adjunct jobs are unliveable pay, no benefits, renewable but not guaranteed, and *disappearing even though a higher percentage of courses are taught by adjuncts. "Postdocs" have all the responsibilities of a tenure track job for half the pay (if you're lucky), possibly no benefits, and oh yeah, you get to look for jobs all over again in 1-3 years. Somewhere in the world. This is a real job ad. Your job options are, in fact, garbage.

It's worse for women. Factors include: students rate male professors more highly on teaching evals. Women are socialized to take on emotional labor and to "notice the tasks that no one else is doing" and do them because they have to be done. Women use maternity leave to be mothers; fathers use paternity leave to do research. Insane rates of sexual harassment, including of grad students, and uni admins that actively protect male professors. The percentage of female faculty drops for each step up the career ladder you go due to all these factors. I am not aware of research for men of color or women of color (or other-gender faculty at all), but I imagine it's not a good picture for anyone.

Jobs are not coming back.

History enrollments are crashing because students take their history requirement (if there even still is one) in high school as AP/dual enrollment for the GPA boost, stronger college app, and to free up class options at (U.S.) uni.

Schools are not replacing retiring faculty. They convert tenure lines to adjunct spots, or more commonly now, just require current faculty to teach more classes.

Older faculty can't afford to retire, or don't want to. Tenure protects older faculty from even being asked if they plan to retire, even if they are incapable of teaching classes anymore.

A history PhD will not make you more attractive for other jobs. You will have amazing soft skills, but companies want hard ones. More than that, they want direct experience, which you will not have. A PhD might set you back as "overqualified," or automatically disqualified because corporate/school district rules require a higher salary for PhDs.

Other jobs in academia? Do you honestly think that those other 1200 new PhDs won't apply for the research librarianship in the middle of the Yukon? Do you really think some of them won't have MLIS degrees, and have spent their PhD time getting special collections experience? Do you want to plan your PhD around a job for which there might be one opening per year? Oh! Or you could work in academic administration, and do things like help current grad students make the same mistakes you did.

You are not the exception. 50% of humanities students drop out before getting their PhD. 50% of PhD students admit to struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues (and 50% of PhD students are lying). People in academia drink more than skydivers . Drop out or stay in, you'll have spent 1-10 years not building job experience, salary, retirement savings, a permanent residence, a normal schedule, hobbies. Independently wealthy due to parents or spouse? Fabulous; have fun making history the gentlemen's profession again.

Your program is not the exception. Programs in the U.S. and U.K. are currently reneging on promises of additional funding to students in progress on their dissertations. Universities are changing deadlines to push current students out the door without adequate time to do the research they need or acquire the skills they'd need for any kind of historical profession job or even if they want a different job, the side experience for that job.

I called the rough draft of this essay "A history PhD will destroy your future and eat your children." No. This is not something to be flip about. Do not get a PhD in history.

...But I also get it , and I know that for some of you, there is absolutely nothing I or anyone else can say to stop you from making a colossally bad decision. And I know that some of you in that group are coming from undergrad schools that maybe don't have the prestige of others, or professors who understand what it takes to apply to grad school and get it. So in comments, I'm giving advice that I hope with everything I am you will not use.

This is killing me to write. I love history. I spend my free time talking about history on reddit. You can find plenty of older posts by me saying all the reasons a history PhD is fine. No. It's not. You are not the exception. Your program is not the exception. Do not get a PhD in the humanities.

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We welcome perspectives from other countries. :)

14 more replies

This is very sad.

Agreed, it feels like a slap in the face cause now there is no plan as to what I'm going to do for a career

More like a punch to the stomach.

I started many years ago in engineering, failed miserably, was depressed, suicidal. Got diagnosed with ADHD and figured I might as well take a good look at myself and ask what it is I really wanna do.

And it was history. My one true love since I learned how to read. I'm 27, I'm one year in, and this is my last shot at making a career for myself. My biggest fear in life has been to end up a perpetual fuck-up, stuck somewhere in life like so many in my own family, like a sad, stunted tree, interrupted in its growth. This post made me convinced I'm heading there now anyway.

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I realized this like....16 years ago when I was in the midst of undergrad. Really wanted to get a PhD, looked into it, and ultimately read a lot of horror stories along the lines of "the first 5 years after you get your PhD you should consider getting a job interview as significant as getting a job;" and "every year there are twice the number of PhD's who graduate as there are open faculty positions at 4 year colleges." Looks like by those AHA statistics it's actually gotten WORSE. And I know folks who have been adjunct professors in humanities who subsisted on below-poverty wages for far too long and have ultimately pulled the plug and ended up in corporate America but without all the years of experience that companies like, so making more entry-level type wages.

Broke my history-leaving heart.

I have almost the same story. Graduated college in 2003. Accepted to both law school and a history PhD program. Chose law school. The outlook was bad way back then. Hard to believe it's gotten that worse.

If I may ask, what do you do now?

A history PhD will not make you more attractive for other jobs. You will have amazing soft skills, but companies want hard ones. More than that, they want direct experience, which you will not have. A PhD might set you back as "overqualified,"

This is some serious truth.

I spent over a year after my PhD applying for normal person jobs. I'm currently doing a job that's supposed to be filled by someone with an undergraduate degree. I like my job fine, but I'm basically where my career would have been 6 years ago if I hadn't done my PhD.

I recently applied for a mid-level governmental research position at my office, over 70 people applied and nearly all of them had PhDs. At best my having a PhD puts me equal to the hundreds of other people out there looking for jobs with them, but by and large I've never felt it to be a real benefit to my in convincing people to hire me.

I will say that I feel like I have a lot of skills necessary to do a lot of jobs from my time as a postgraduate student, but that's not obvious to the people hiring.

The one clear benefit is that the Thesis Defence being basically a job interview dialled up to 11 meant that I'm not nearly as scared of job interviews as I once was. I probably could have achieved that without 5 years of study, though...

One place that I’ve found a PhD to be helpful in is secondary school education. A lot of them pay based on education experience and not just time at the institution. I had a bunch of grad school friends take that route and ended up at places like Milton, Andover, and Deerfield. They seem pretty happy with their gigs.

I am in a similar boat. As ambitious kid kid who went to years of school with other ambitious kids, there’s something very hard about being in your early thirties in many ways just starting your career (and retirement savings, etc) while many of my friends from college are moving into their mid-career, buying houses, taking vacations I can’t afford. It’s silly material stuff, and I certainly could survive and thrive on a grad student stipend, but it didn’t materialize as the career I imagined (in terms position, pay, prestige, etc) which now puts me in a position where I’m recently married and we’re delaying having children waiting for a little more financial security.

Now, in my program, this didn’t happen to like 1/2-1/3 of the students, who found either tenure track jobs or found an off ramp into “industry” (I was in a sociology program, so some found their way into places like advocacy non-profits and management consulting more easily), and I had my own specific difficulties, but I think a significant portion find themselves in position broadly similar to mine.

I ABDed in a non-history humanities field at a prestigious university (they gave me a master's as a consolation prize), and now work in the software industry. I think that having a master's from X university (even in an irrelevant field) helped me get my foot in the door: I'm certain that completing my PhD wouldn't have helped me at all relative to that.

Do I need a master's before a PhD? No, but you should, financial factors considered.

Where should I apply? Where there's a professor you want to work with and where you have a good chance of there still being a history (or allied) department when you finish.

How do I find professors I want to work with? Look at recent books and articles in your field related to your research interests and using your preferred methodologies/type of sources. Look up where their authors teach. Cross-list with functional PhD programs.

How do I know they want me? Contact potential advisors in the fall--September is good. Ask if they're accepting grad students for the coming year.

The department website says 100% of graduating students secure academic jobs! They're lying.

What do I need to apply? Application fee, application form, 3 letters of recommendation, a writing sample (hyper-polished paper), a statement of purpose/intent, the GRE, possibly something else interesting like a diversity statement or TOEFL

The GRE? Doesn't really matter. Just get the minimum score for the university's sake. Buy a prep book if you need to re-learn high school math. I liked Kaplan's for that.

Letters of recommendation? From full professors who know you and your work is best. Don't pick a superstar who doesn't know you; don't pick a grad student instructor who does.

Statement of purpose? The core of the application. Why you want to study what you do (you have NOT "always wanted to", unless you want to argue for a Platonic pre-existence of the soul in eternity), a sketched-out research plan in your area of interest that is probably NOT what you will write your dissertation on so don't stress about that part, who is your POI and why, what are other reasons you need THIS program (other profs, special collections, research center), why does this program need YOU.

Writing sample ? Your absolute best, most-polished work related to your research interests. Probably an edited-down seminar paper or chapter of your MA thesis with some framing added.

When do I apply? Check the department website and keep track. Dec. 1, Dec. 15, Jan. 1 are the most common, but there are some weirdos.

This is like a Rude Goldberg machine or the game Mousetrap! Make a spreadsheet with each school on the vertical column and the horizontal covering (a) deadline (b) each component of the application (c) INCLUDING submission. Mark off what you've done.

What are my chances? Utterly impossible to predict.

Any last minute advice? Do not get a PhD in history.

I want a PhD. Do I need a master’s?

De jure, no. I personally would give a resounding yes, but the one caveat is a HUGE one—money. A master’s degree gives you the chance to adjust to the very, very different workload, class style, and lifestyle of grad school. If your field is language- or skill-intensive (paleography, statistics), you have time to develop those skills. Your application to PhD programs will be stronger. Also, PhD admissions are tough. It’s a good idea to apply to at least one MA program as a backup if you’re dead set on grad school. People who come into the history program at my school with a master’s are far less likely to drop out ABD.

If you’re not zeroed in on a fairly narrow area of research, you need an MA first.

Where should I apply?

This isn’t undergrad. For picking a master’s program, there are two basic criteria: (1) what is the best funding deal you can get, and how likely it is that you will get it (2) does the academic/professional outcome of students entering the program match your own goals.

For picking a PhD program, there are three criteria: (1) all of the PhD students must have guaranteed full funding (tuition fellowship and stipend) for at least five years (2) there is an advisor who works in something overlapping your area, and at least one person who could serve as a backup (3) does the actual (as opposed to PR materials) professional outcome of students entering the program match your goals.

In the U.S., do not pay for a humanities PhD. For the obvious reason of the criminal student-loan industry, but also because full funding is a good indicator of the department’s care for its own students and the university’s interest in supporting a PhD program in your field. Make sure the department guarantees full funding for all its students.

You will probably pay for a master’s degree. That can be offset with TA or RA (research assistant) fellowships and occasionally other on-campus jobs. If your interests overlap with religious history, consider religion studies/div school programs with a very strong historical focus—they are more likely to offer full tuition remission or even a stipend.

This department website says 100% of graduating students secure full-time academic jobs!

(1) They’re lying.

(2) They’re not “lying,” but if you look closer it actually says “100% of students who seek it. For a very particular definition of “who seek it.”

How do I find potential advisors?

Look at recently-published books and articles related to your research interest. Google the authors. Find out where they teach. Find out which of those schools have PhD programs.

Sometime in the fall—September is good—contact the potential advisors. In the email, introduce yourself (“my name is P, I’m a student/employee at Q, I’m interested in your PhD program in R”), find some question about the program to ask them, and then ask if they’re accepting grad students to work with for the following year. I was told to set up phone conversations next, but only do this if you can come up something to say.

What do I need to apply?

Generally the application package consists of: (1) the application form (2) GRE (3) writing sample (15-30 page seminar paper or thesis excerpt) (4) statement of intent/purpose (5) letters of recommendation. Some schools might throw in a “diversity statement” or list of primary sources read in original language or other fun wrinkle.

The GRE? But I can’t do math.

Buy yourself a Kaplan test prep book and reteach yourself high school math through Algebra II. It’s a breeze the second time around. (I thought Kaplan was the most helpful for math, Princeton Review for teaching you how to game the writing section).

And don’t worry about it. As long as you hit the bare minimum score for the university (not the department), the GRE basically doesn’t matter for admissions.

Letters of recommendation

The best is tenured professors who know you and know your work. A superstar prof is great, but only if they know you and your work. Tenure-track profs, adjunct profs, and postdocs/grad student TAs are descending levels of acceptable. If you’ve been out of formal study for awhile, a letter from your boss or other person familiar with your work on a professional level is a good idea.

Statement of Purpose a.k.a. Statement of Intent

There is so much bad advice about these floating around. This is NOT a personal essay. This is an assertion of your basic topical interest, maybe a couple sentences about why this interests you that does NOT start with “I have always…” (no, you haven’t), and some comments about why THIS school is right for you and why YOU are right for this school. This should include the prof you want to work with and why, and at least one resource the school/department offers that will aid your research.

Most importantly, the SOP must include a well-written but casual research proposal for your dissertation. This does not need to be and probably will not be your actual dissertation topic. The point of this is to show (1) sustained interest and experience in a target subject area (2) the ability to think along the lines of a topic that will make a good historical research project.

Writing Sample

Edit the living daylights out of a seminar paper or edit the living nightlights out of a chapter of your honors/master’s thesis. If you’re applying for a non-Anglophone historical topic, make absolutely sure you have original language in at least your footnotes, and if you can work in some “translation is my own” bit that’s excellent.

Ideally, the writing sample will be in your rough field of interest (medieval culture, early modern politics, etc).

When should I apply?

Schools have different deadlines—Dec. 1, Dec. 15, Jan. 1, Jan. 15 are frequently seen. Keep straight which school is which date.

What else might pop up?

Interviews. On campus or Skype. Even if your school has never held interviews for finalists in the past, they might decide to start the year you apply with no warning whatsover.

If you’re a finalist in an interview process : As nervous/intimidated as you might be, this is a two-way street. It’s as much for you to find out if the school is right for you, as for the school to judge whether you are right for them.

What are my chances?

Genuinely impossible to predict. You could be a medievalist applying a year the admissions committee decides to accept only ancient historians. You could be interested in 19th century medicine the year before a professor is planning to teach a seminar class on Victorian hospitals and needs enough interested students for the class to go ahead. Your potential advisor could be on the admissions committee. They could bargain away their allotment of grad students for this year’s cohort to another prof in exchange for two grad students the following year.

All you can do is put forth the best application you can to programs where you are a great fit in terms of research interest and resources available.

Any last minute advice?

Do not get a PhD in history.

While I think your advice here is great, I don't think it emphasizes to our readers just how important it is to get into a top 10 program if you're in the US. 50% of all US tenure track professor jobs in history go to graduates of 10 universities . If you can't get into one of these 10 schools for your PhD, don't get a PhD. (Unless you're independently wealthy or retired, and you are just getting your PhD for joy rather than in hopes of a career.) There are hundreds of good professors in this country who would make great PhD mentors, but when it comes to getting a job the quality of your mentor simply doesn't matter as much as having a piece of paper from one of this short list of elite universities.

In the U.S., do not pay for a humanities PhD.

"For the obvious reason of the criminal student-loan industry, but also because full funding is a good indicator of the department’s care for its own students and the university’s interest in supporting a PhD program in your field. Make sure the department guarantees full funding for all its students."

To add onto this excellent advice;

Across academia, one of the big transitions from undergraduate life to graduate school is one that no one really warns you about. Where as an undergrad your success is the end goal of most everyone around you with power over you, while as a graduate student you are almost always simply a means to some other end. This might sound dehumanizing but, so long as the context is right, gives you power over your destiny that you may not have been ready for as an undergrad. However, it is a tricky new dynamic that you suddenly need to negotiate the moment you start interviewing. Indeed, for the department you will be a means of cheaply supporting professors who bring in cash or a means of cheaply instructing students who bring in cash. While for professors you could be a means of establishing pecking order in the department by supervising your teaching, a means of cheaply producing research with tools that are committed to sticking around for a while, a means of expanding their research community, or ideally all of the above; what you aren't is the customer like you were in undergrad, you are the product being sold by you. This is a very different dynamic and you have to protect your interests because you can't rely on anyone else to do it for you.

To that end, any letter that you get from an institution offering you a chance at an post-graduate academic degree but not enough funding for both tuition and a plausibly livable stipend, is not an acceptance letter, it is an advertisement, and the product will be shitty. An advanced academic degree that you pay for will, in addition to driving you into debt that the degree will not help you pay off, make you an exploited stooge, and just like everywhere else, no one respects an exploited stooge in academia. An adviser who is desperate enough to take their failure to thrive and failure to fund their work out of the asses of their graduate students is an adviser who cannot be expected to give a sufficient shit about you to be worth your while. A department that is craven enough to do the same also does not give a sufficient shit about you to be reasonably expected to further your interests. Similarly, any academic field without sufficient funding to do something as basic as paying its graduate students a livable wage for their teaching and/or research labor is not a field worth joining for anyone but the independently wealthy and hobby minded. Not only is an advanced academic degree without funding is a miserable existence, but it will also inevitably not result in the reward of a career that academia as an institution is designed to provide. It will instead give you an academic hobby. Not all academic degrees are created equal and an adviser/department/field that cannot get their shit together enough to pay you will be an adviser/department/field that cannot be taken seriously by the people you would want to pay you in a career. That is an adviser/department/field that cannot be reasonably expected to train you in an economically viable skill set, much less help you prepare for a career more successful than their own.

Additionally, joining an academic field under exploitative conditions will only ever hurt it in profound and generationally deep ways. Inevitably, the most important thing you as a voluntarily exploited graduate student would accomplish for the study of whatever would be to push it further towards being dominated exclusively by those with more money than sense rather than those with genuine merit. Whether one has more money or less sense, the sacrifices that should be made for academic fields are ones that must be made by those with the ability to make meaningful and beneficial ones, like universities, taxpayers, funding agencies and the independently wealthy - not vulnerable students. As a prospective student you only really have the power inherent in what you are willing to consent to, and that power is considerable. It helps no one for you to use it to enable the exploitation of the vulnerable.

TL;DR: NEVER EVER do an unpaid post-graduate academic (non-professional) degree, much less pay for one with your own money. You will only hurt yourself and everyone around you. Also, don't get a PhD in history.

I want a PhD. Do I need a master’s? "De jure, no. I personally would give a resounding yes, but the one caveat is a HUGE one—money. A master’s degree gives you the chance to adjust to the very, very different workload, class style, and lifestyle of grad school. If your field is language- or skill-intensive (paleography, statistics), you have time to develop those skills. Your application to PhD programs will be stronger. Also, PhD admissions are tough. It’s a good idea to apply to at least one MA program as a backup if you’re dead set on grad school. People who come into the history program at my school with a master’s are far less likely to drop out ABD."

I think that this might only seem like good advice to give to undergrads having been soaked a bit too long in the casually exploitative environment of nearly any history department anywhere. The moment a student leaves undergrad the training wheels come off and dynamic is different. With a Bachelors a student should already have the kinds of soft skills it makes sense to exchange money for. Paying a department money to train you in a set of hard skills, which in the case of a masters in history are unambiguously not economically viable enough to pay dividends, is an unambiguously terrible plan. An academic field that is so undervalued and underfunded to the point where it cannot even pay its academic graduate students isn't really a field anymore, its a hobby, and like any other hobby you cannot count on it to pay your bills.

"A history PhD will destroy your future and eat your children."

I'm not sure it can really be stressed enough how accurate and literal this is.

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What’s worse than getting a ph.d. in today’s job market not finishing one..

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When I first began my Ph.D., I kept hearing other graduate students bandy about the term “ABD,” but I had no idea what it meant. Arrested Botox Detonation? Anointed Between Demigods? I didn’t dare ask, because Rule No. 1 of Grad School Fight Club is that you never admit that you don’t know something in public. (“Oh, Phenomenology of Spirit ? I’ll have to re -read that this semester.”)

Eventually, I figured it out: ABD stands for “all but dissertation,” a description of a student who has finished coursework and passed comprehensive exams, but has yet to complete and defend the doctoral thesis. Today, the Ph.D. Completion Project estimates that the ten-year completion rate (that is, someone’s status a decade after they begin) is 55–64 percent in STEM , 56 percent in the social sciences, and 49 percent in the humanities. Not all Ph.D. dropouts advance to the dissertation stage before they leave—but since the project’s charts start leveling out around Year 8 (the dissertation begins in Year 3 or 4), it’s safe to assume a hell of a lot do.

Aside from the obvious professional consequences (it’s hard enough get a job with a doctorate!), there are also psychological ramifications to leaving grad school without finishing. Last month, Jill Yesko, an ABD in geography, took to Inside Higher Education with a wrenchingly honest look at how she and many of her fellow ABDs feel:

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.

Many programs do disown their dropouts, refusing to write letters of recommendation and often cutting off all contact. But the anger, disappointment, and betrayal Yesko expresses here reveal far more about the lasting emotional damage that leaving graduate school can cause. It is, in fact, especially wrenching to students who never envisioned a life outside of academia (and, often having gone directly from college to graduate school, have never lived one). In recent years, many , many online resources have sprung up to offer academic cast-asides the support they otherwise lack.

Speaking of which: Reaction on IHE to Yesko’s piece—and her solution, to offer a new kind of degree between an M.A. and a doctorate—was a snide pile-on. “Can we make sure that the Certificate of Doctoral Completion also comes with a little plastic trophy and a large green ribbon signaling excellent participation?” sniped one commenter. Added another: “These degrees aren’t soccer trophies for young childrens [ sic ] whose spirit might get crushed. Terminal ABD has a meaning: Failure.” And you, dear reader, may also feel, right this second, as if those who leave Ph.D. programs simply couldn’t hack it.

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. Dissertations are not impossible, but they are very hard, and most people in the world—including, perhaps, you, my friend—cannot complete one.

There are innumerable reasons for this, and I know them all, because when I quit academia , I started working for a company that “coaches” dissertators who are blocked, stalled, or simply in need of some practical guidance. Thus, I happen to have firsthand knowledge of the countless obstacles put in the way of ABDs—by outside forces, and by themselves—because it is my job to.

First, the outside hindrances: Some advisers are helpful and supportive. But many run the gamut between absentee, excoriating, and micromanagerial. There are the advisers who retire, leave, or even die. Then there’s the total lack of preparedness for such an extensive and rigorous project: A seminar paper is a 5K fun run; a dissertation is an ultramarathon . And in the social sciences and STEM fields, there are data sets or experiments that simply fall apart.

Then there are the inner hindrances, the ones that cause procrastination, and then shame, and then paralysis. Here’s my favorite: believing, erroneously, that one must read and master every single word of existing scholarship before even beginning to write. Here’s my least favorite (which happens to my clients all the time): refusing to turn in any chapter that isn’t perfect, and thus not turning in anything at all—which results in the adviser getting irate, which puts even more pressure on the student to be even more perfect, ad infinitum . This is how dissertations are stalled, often forever.

So what can be done to fix this? The Izzy Mandelbaums of academia may argue the system is fine the way it is : In a field that requires extended independent work to succeed, the trial by fire of the dissertation is an apt initiation. (“All aboard the pain train!”) But does it have to be this way? I see no reason why, for example, more dissertation advisers couldn’t be enthusiastic about seeing early drafts, to provide guidance and support. Some already do this (mine did), but far too many of my clients say their advisers won’t even look at anything that isn’t “polished.” Every adviser who says this is part of the problem.

Another step in the right direction would be not just to hold dissertation workshops, but also to make them mandatory. A lot of grad students are simply too paralyzed (or ashamed to admit they don’t know what they’re doing) to attend one of their own volition. A mandatory workshop frees them to get the help they need, without having to admit they need help.

And, most importantly, though I’m not sold on Yesko’s idea for an in-between degree, Ph.D. programs need to stop disowning the students who do not graduate. Whatever inconvenience a jilted adviser suffers from an ABD is nothing compared with the ABD’s fractured life and career. The least an adviser can do is write a letter. And, finally, along with the current drive to require programs to publicize their real (i.e., full-time) job placement rates , so should they be compelled to list attrition.

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.

Sure, the best way to avoid the psychic wounds of not completing the dissertation is to squeeze that bad boy out any way you can. But we must also remember that students leave Ph.D. programs for innumerable reasons, usually complex combinations of things in and out of their control. Terminal ABDs will work for much of their lives to overcome what is at best a sense of lingering incompleteness, and at worst lasting anguish and damage. 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. 


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  6. Submitted my dissertation today, I hope it goes well! : happy

    all but dissertation reddit


  1. he prepared a whole thesis😭 #Shorts

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  5. The Front

  6. What does all but dissertation mean?


  1. PhD ABD (all but dissertation) distinction

    PhD ABD (all but dissertation) distinction - meaningless? TL;DR - popping my reddit cherry to ask if the professional world gives

  2. ABD (All But Dissertation) ... but burnt out : r/Professors

    Have gotten feet wet with teaching and know that it is more of side hustle than a passion. Hope to work in local gov vs aiming for tenure track

  3. No dissertation finished but you're still a PhD? : r/AskAcademia

    I totally agree. Having a PhD is what makes you a doctor. You can put it on a resume as PhD ABD, but that still just means you are a doctoral

  4. ABD without shame? Seeking advice on quitting PhD

    11 votes, 15 comments. Hi all, TL/DR: I am in the process of leaving my PhD program ABD and it is incredibly painful.

  5. Accepting a full-time position while ABD (All but dissertation)

    24K subscribers in the IOPsychology community. /r/iopsychology is dedicated to all things IO psychology. As a highly interdisciplinary field

  6. PhD students of reddit: do you regret it? : r/AskReddit

    808 votes, 1.3K comments. Recently, I learned that a good friend's wife, who is "ABD" (all but dissertation) at a major California university in…

  7. ABD on a resume? : r/LeavingAcademia

    I am ABD in my PhD program. I know I do not want to continue, so for the past month, I have been applying for jobs. I saw in some older posts

  8. Applying for jobs while ABD working on dissertation? : r/AskAcademia

    I was told that many people apply for academic jobs while working on their dissertation in a PhD program. However, I see nobody in my PhD program…

  9. Monday Methods: Why You Should Not Get a History PhD (And How

    I am not aware of research for men of color or women of color (or other-gender faculty at all), but I imagine it's not a good picture for anyone.

  10. ABDs, All But Dissertation, Ph.D. candidates who can't quite finish

    When I first began my Ph.D., I kept hearing other graduate students bandy about the term “ABD,” but I had no idea what it meant.