Permanently ABD

It is no secret that I ❤️ The Professor Is In. She is the Bee’s Knees. (See what I did there? Because I also heart puns? And Bees? Okay, I’ll show myself out now…) I read just about everything she puts out there.

Her most recent column: “A Few Good Reasons to Switch Graduate Programs” in The Chronicle of Higher Education only touched upon the question of “should I quit my PhD program?” but having been there – and done it – that one little aside gave me a lot to think about.

I quit for a whole host of reasons, none of which are uncommon.

First, I went into my PhD program largely because I didn’t know what else to do. I had a Master’s, and I loved higher ed, I loved learning, so why not? And my thinking was that a Master’s was better than a Bachelors when it came to competing for jobs, so obviously having a terminal degree would help me edge out even more competitors. So in large part, I exited my program with just as much “meh” as I had started with.

Except I had more cynicism.

Because by then I knew the following: I did NOT take to teaching. I had been teaching as the instructor of record for 2 full years, and the only thing I knew for sure was: this isn’t what I want to be doing full-time. This does not suit me. Yet I had gone to a PhD program that would make me competitive only for not-very-selective Baccalaureate colleges and below. Period. Where teaching was going to be the only game. No writing and research.

And the second thing I knew was that even way back then, the tenure-track job market (yes, even back in the 00s) stunk. Okay, not as bad as it’s gotten now, but realistically, I wasn’t going to get my pick of the litter. We were being told that any day the boomer retirement wave would mean scores upon scores of jobs…LOL. I’m not going to belabor this point. You know how that worked out by now.

Another factor was my husband – much more innately a through and through academic – had it as a lifelong dream to get his PhD. And so it was his turn. And since I am already bracing for your comments about how this is so off-brand for me as a feminist, no I didn’t quit my program to make way for a man’s career. But he matters to me, his goals matter to me, and given that I was lukewarm at best about having a PhD myself, and increasingly saw it as a career liability for me, since I knew for certain by then that I was heading squarely for alt-ac…it definitely made it clearer for me that I should quit.

A third factor was practical life concerns. I was working full-time to support us while he started his grad program. I was working in a whole new career, with a learning curve all its own. So outside of my new 40-hour workweek (and commute), I was ALSO supposedly working on my dissertation in my “spare” time, all with the onset of an autoimmune disease? My health and taking back my own free time for my self started to take precedence. It wasn’t physically or mentally possible for me, nor was I interested enough, to expend the amount of energy and effort required to make that happen.

So I quit!

What would I advise others to do? It depends. If you’re one of the rare academics who is suited only for academia, and has a deep innate drive to get a terminal degree, and you can afford it (time-wise, money-wise, health-wise), go for it! But if you are like me and just doing it to bide your time until you figure out what you want to be when you grow up? You’re probably better off quitting.

I’ll be honest – the time I invested in my PhD INSTEAD of in my career did come with significant costs. Folks younger than me, who started in my field at entry-level, have 5 years plus experience on me, and so sometimes out-compete me for jobs. And probably had an easier learning curve because some of them even got degrees in the field I work in, whereas I had to learn on the job. That sucks!

But I also was a lot younger then. Had a lot less life and work experience. I didn’t know then what I know now about what I needed and could get out of my relationship with a career, so I’m not sure that 2002 me would have made the “right” choices that quitting-my-program 2006 me made. I also cherish the time I got to spend from 2002-2006 figuring out my life, my work, and learning what DIDN’T suit me before committing to – literally – a lifetime career in teaching college.

In a lot of ways, choosing the best career for you is more of an art than a science. It’s partly learning what you like and want to do because you start, well, doing it. And partly knowing what you don’t like doing because you happen to be tasked with it.

But one thing I continue to grapple with – and still can’t quite get a handle on – is that I am permanently ABD.

It’s not the shame of not having finished. It’s that this is a nebulous, neverending liminal state, with no recognition whatsoever. I did all the coursework, I passed my written and oral comps with flying colors. I even eked through my damn foreign language exam. I got a terrific dissertation prospectus approved. I wrote 3 chapters of a dissertation. In other words, I essentially have the equivalent of AT LEAST a second Master’s degree under my belt, and little to “show” for it in terms of compensation or job title that recognizes that. So that work and time gets rendered invisible in terms of market value. (At times it can even decrease one’s market value. In fact, depending on a job I’m applying for, I’ll leave the 4 years there off my resume entirely, ALL NINETY SIX CREDIT HOURS. SIGH.)

And then, since we’ve hit post-peak-PhD alt-ac career coaching, most of my competitors focus on helping clients with how to market and the value their terminal degree. (Rendering the scores of us in this permanent liminal ABD state invisible in that sphere as well).

Are you ABD? Do you struggle with this, too? Is it just me? Hit me up on Twitter and let me know.

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