The ABCs of Grad School Should Include “ABD”

When most people wrestle with the perennial question, “Should I go to grad school?” they consider many variables: cost, distance, future job prospects, loss of salary, potential long-term salary gain, how good their names would look with initials after them, how proud their parents would be, whether their parents would even notice, and so on. But how many folks stop and think, “What if I start and never finish?”

Starting a PhD and ending up “ABD” — or, “All But Dissertation” — is vastly more common than you might think.

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. … 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.

That means about half of people who pursue a doctorate in any field give up before they get the sheepskin, but after they have endured years of privation and toil. The Slate article has advice for people who find themselves in that position, as well as advice for others in higher ed, but mostly it’s a good Monday morning eye-opener. Those of who did manage to finish your ultramarathons PhDs, congrats! Feel extra-special-good about yourselves today.