Reading Leonard Cassuto’s recent “Do Your Job Better” column titled Advising the Dissertation Student Who Won’t Finish, I felt a familiar pang.
I’m an ABD. Ask around enough (not that it’s considered polite), and you’ll find a gaggle of librarians who are also ABDs. While most of us address it with a grin and a shrug, I’ll admit – this has been one of my greatest shames. It tastes like failure, and failure of the most epic sort.
There were a number of reasons I left my doctoral program back in 2003. One of them was my health. Another was that I was quickly realizing that while I very much enjoyed the coursework, I did not want to spend years writing a book on the subject I was studying. As older students were on the job hunt, I was surprised to note that you had to be completely geographically flexible if you wanted a tenure-track job as a professor in political science; it was not as easy as “Oh, I’d like to live in City X; I’ll just apply there.” My advisor was neck-deep in his own research, since he published like gangbusters, and made it clear that this was a sink or swim sort of program, and while swimming was nice, what he really wanted of me before I completed my coursework was a workable dissertation topic. I became disillusioned when I found that my research need not connect to something practical and usable, it just needed to be done. The faculty often quoted the old dissertation adage, “Good is not good. Done is good.” And those who did leave the program without the degree were never heard from again – nor spoken of.
Entering graduate school straight out of undergrad, there was a lot I didn’t understand (though I *thought* I did). I entered grad school loving my subject (international relations), good at coursework, and wanting to teach it at the college level. I was unprepared for the different dynamic of graduate school (older students, many already married, the fast splintering of our incoming class), the isolation of the program, and the heavy research. Coming from a teeny liberal arts college where the faculty were heavily invested in success, indifference from faculty was actually hurtful – I had assumed at a higher level, faculty would be even more invested, which is not always the case. I had no real idea what the dissertation meant, other than that it was post-coursework and exams.
Conducting my own research now on doctoral student retention, I have been both flummoxed and surprised that my experience was not outside the norm. I’m not the only one with the scarlet A of attrition branded onto my psyche; there is a large group of perfectly capable and intelligent individuals who also started – and failed to finish – the doctorate. There’s an entire literature dedicated to them. To us. And the factors are all similar: personal reasons, personal network failures, failure to mesh with faculty, problematic relationships with advisors, financial reasons, ill-preparedness for advanced research, and the list goes on. Indeed, in academic librarianship, it appears many of us come to librarianship via that ABD-route, and we often joke about it. In my own case, an older graduate student who married and followed her PhD-ed husband for his job left with her MA and went to library school, which is where I got the idea to do the same.
Looking back, I wish I had done my library science work first, it would have made a great deal of difference in my research ability. I wish I had gone into graduate school more informed. On the other hand, since leaving that program (and I had some wonderful experiences there, too), the course of my life has been interesting, and in the masters degrees I’ve acquired since, I’ve learned a lot about who I am, what I am capable of, and what I want to do.
I am currently working on my EdD in Learning & Leadership here at UTC, focusing on academic libraries and student retention. Older and wiser, I quizzed the faculty deeply, memorized the program requirements and checkpoints, and walked in with my electives planned out and two likely dissertation topics, having already reviewed the literature, and not wanting to bomb a second time. The program has a cohort design, which creates unique friendships among students, and the staff and faculty of the program have already been incredibly supportive. I feel good about this. I want this. Most of all, I know (for the most part) what I’m getting into.
I’m already in a much better position for this program, and I feel it. Ten years between doctoral attempts has made its mark, in maturity, patience, and wisdom in better evaluation of what I am capable of. The ABD still stings – some of my friends joke about it every once in awhile, and don’t understand why it makes me sullen. I suppose it shouldn’t – there are better/worse things to be ashamed about. Oddly enough, as a librarian, I made faculty status long before many of my colleagues in that PhD program even got close to defending or going on the job hunt, since the short MLS is considered the terminal degree, which gave me some comfort. But who am I competing against? And for goodness sake, why?
I do occasionally feel that the ABD stain leaves me in need of some sort of redemption, but I’m tired of carrying that around all the time. I have enough emotional baggage as it is; I’m going to abandon this one on the turnstile. It seems I’m the only one who really cares about it, and there are better things to spend my energy on.