The change from being a PhD Student to a PhD Candidate is a big one. The moment we cross that threshold of becoming ABD, we fall in to a kind of purgatory where we are no longer students and not yet peers of our professors. This purgatory, or as it is better known as ABD, is something that no one prepares you for. One of us (Harold Young) went through the process in the last two years and the other (Adnan Rasool) just started down this path a couple of months ago after I defended my dissertation prospectus.
Here we share our common experiences.
So what changes? What do we do? Why it matters and how do you survive this process?
The biggest change is that you are on your own. As one my professors keeps saying “you are on a little island all by yourself, trying to find a way back”. That is the reality and the way back is finishing the dissertation project. While the first few years of grad school provide the tools and framework needed to survive, during this phase there is little to no accountability leaving you alone to figure out how to harness the discipline needed to complete the dissertation.
But how does one go about doing this? Well you start figuring it out when you acknowledge and accept that you are virtually alone in this now. That realization eventually does hit even if it might take a few weeks or months. But when it hits home, that is when you realize a host of other things as well.
Firstly, you are no longer treated as a student. You are treated like a future peer. This means that the way your work is viewed is significantly different and the expectations are much higher. The kind of mistakes you could have made and powered through are no longer acceptable. More importantly, you cannot depend on constant guidance and advice of your mentors and professors because that part of the program is over. The only time you will get detailed feedback is when you submit significant chunks of your dissertation project.
While the department remains cognizant of you and wants to see you finish on time and hit the job market, they leave it to you to decide when to do that. What we mean by that is, the only time you will go back to the department is when students are specifically required to be there (e.g., student symposiums), need signatures or for scheduled practice sessions for job interviews. Otherwise, the only departmental contact you have is with your committee and specifically with the chair of your committee.
Secondly, you will very quickly realize that your cohort is splitting up and going their own ways. Because everyone is working at a different pace on different projects, the tendency is for the comradery of the first few years of grad school to dissipate. You need to be prepared for your social circle to slowly thin and change over time. There is a certain amount of emotional toll the ABD experience and dissertation writing process takes on you and that should be expected. The best thing one can do is to prepare for it in advance by acknowledging this will happen.
Lastly, acknowledge and understand that this will be grueling process but ultimately you will be rewarded. You are here because you love learning and producing knowledge. This is the most time you will ever get to dedicate yourself to the singular pursuit of knowledge, so enjoy it. And while you do this, keep an eye on the job market. Your timeline depends greatly on the job market you wish to enter. The decision to enter the job market after writing a few chapters or waiting till finishing the whole project determines how you settle yourself in for the long haul. So, keep an eye on that and make reasonable accommodations.
Reach out and thrive!
The purpose of this piece is to talk about not just surviving but thriving during the hardest part of the PhD. Program. The clichés ”you cannot edit your head, so write” and “a good dissertation is a finished dissertation” ring true. However, getting to that goal is fraught with mental, emotional and physical stress. So, reach out to those are in the same phase or have recently succeeded, acknowledge your fears, discuss strategies and make new friends in the process. You will be pleasantly surprised at the friendships you make as they are the only people who can relate. That is actually a major reason we are such good friends.
The going can be tough but that is the whole point of academic rigor and pursuit of knowledge at the ultimate level. You can do it and, when you succeed, be there for the next ABD newbie!
About the Authors:
Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate & Student Innovation Fellow 2016-2017 at Georgia State University. He is also the recipient of the Taiwan Fellowship for 2017 by Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ROC. His research focuses on role of bureaucracies in democratization and populist clientalistic appeal in new democracies. You can also find Rasool on Twitter and his website.
Harold Young is an Assistant Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. His research area is Public Law and he examines an American and comparative perspective on judicial institutional changes and decision making. Previously he was a social worker, a health communications project manager, and an attorney-at-law. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.