All But Hired: Changing Incentives for Graduate Time-to-Degree

My name is Travis Proctor, and I am ABD.

If that sounds like a confession you might hear at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, it might as well be. In academic circles, ABD refers to “All But Dissertation,” the stage at which the only thing standing between me and being referred to as “Doctor Proctor” is the daunting task of writing the equivalent of my first research monograph. In the context of graduate school, ABD is considered an accomplishment: It means you’ve completed the grueling task of reading and writing for rigorous graduate seminars, passed difficult qualifying examinations to prove your expertise in your field, and had your proposed dissertation project approved by a group of well-established academic peers.

In the context of the academic-job market, however, ABD might as well be a death sentence. In the current market, Ph.D. students are not only competing with one another; they’re also vying with peers who have already graduated and been occupying adjunct teaching positions (usually under such euphemisms as “visiting assistant professor”). The competition is such that some job calls strictly forbid ABDs to apply, knowing that they’ll receive plenty of quality applications from those already finished with their degree. Recent statistics for my field (religious and biblical studies) are even more damning: One of the main factors for job-market essay writing success is having your Ph.D. in hand at the time of application or appointment. The general takeaway: ABDs need not apply.

So why don’t all of us ABDs just finish already? Aye, there’s the rub: While there might be a certain stigma carried by someone who is ABD (and thus still a graduate student), it doesn’t carry quite as much negative baggage as another title: “unaffiliated scholar.” That’s academic lingo for someone who is not associated with any academic institution. Whether fair or not, having “unaffiliated” on your name card at a national conference might as well be a big red “A” on your lapel — search committees typically take it to mean that no one was willing to give you money for your research or teaching, and so why should they?

In such a context, ABDs are left with little maneuverability: They’re less competitive on the job market without degree in hand, but don’t want to finish too early and give up their institutional affiliation. And so some students are left to drag out their Ph.D. process, not necessarily because they have substantial work left on their dissertation, but because it’s their lifeline from drowning in a sea of academic unemployment and alienation. This is one reason (though certainly not the only) that the median completion time for the dissertation stage is three years. Since many humanities students spend nearly four years on coursework and exams, and department support for Ph.D. students in the humanities drops precipitously after the fifth year, this means that most students are left with little or no funding as they attempt to finish their dissertation and apply for jobs and fellowships.

So what do we do? I think we need to tweak how we fund humanities graduate degrees. The solution is not necessarily to give students more money (although I wouldn’t protest that, either). Heaven knows that humanities departments are about as poor as their graduate students, and some recent studies have indicated that more overall graduate funding does not correlate to shorter time-to-degrees. Rather, we need to rethink how our funding system promotes graduate matriculation. Currently, most programs offer five to six years of initial funding, but that support is guaranteed only while you are enrolled as a student. And so students have an incentive to take at least the five to six years so that they can maximize their funding, and to continue their degree work until they have a reliable job option on the other side.

What if we switched the incentive by rewarding students who finished quickly? Under such a rewards-based funding model, any student who finished term paper his or her Ph.D. by the end of the fifth year (or perhaps sixth for certain fields) would automatically receive a postdoctoral teaching position at the university. The position would require the students to design and teach their own courses in exchange for an extension of their graduate stipends and benefits. (Smaller colleges with less demand for teaching could make it a research-focused role.) The position would be guaranteed for one to two years, with opportunities for renewal based on satisfactory teaching and funding. This proposal has several advantages when compared with current funding models:

  1. Students would be encouraged to finish quickly both by funding incentives and by removing the danger of losing their institutional affiliation.
  2. Students would have less pressure to apply for external funding in Years 5 and 6, which would give them more time to work on their dissertation and make a more valuable contribution to scholarship. This means that while students would be taking less time to earn their degrees, they would spend more time focused on their research.
  3. Students would be able to take several competitive runs at the job market, over a two- to three-year period, with one to two of those years with a Ph.D. in hand. This means that students would not face the dilemma of choosing whether to focus on their dissertation or job applications. Both would receive the more-focused attention they deserved by being separated into distinct career stages.
  4. Students would face less stress in those first few years after a Ph.D., knowing that they would have at least some source of money and institutional affiliation, and would not need to move around annually to chase the next adjunct position. The latter point would be especially welcome to Ph.D.’s with partners or families, who often cannot pursue non-local temporary positions because of personal circumstances.
  5. Students would receive more pedagogical training, which means that they could worry less about picking up part-time teaching positions during their doctoral training. Departments and students would benefit if junior scholars had more teaching experience.
  6. With ABDs making up less of their applicant pool, departments would have a better grasp of the precise matriculation status of their potential hires. Hiring committees would be able to spend less time divining exactly how much more time their potential hires would need to finish incomplete dissertations.
  7. Universities would benefit by paying a modest amount for instructors who had been well trained by their own departments. Institutions would no longer have to waste time and resources searching for visiting or adjunct instructors, as positions could be filled by their very own graduate students at a much lower cost.

As with any academic policy, potential drawbacks accompany this proposed model. For example, in much the same way that bachelor’s degrees carry less of an employment cachet as more people earn them, having a Ph.D. in hand might lose its distinguishing power as an increasing percentage of job applicants held that status. Others might worry that placing an incentive on time-to-degree might compromise the quality of dissertation projects (though Point 2, above, obviates that objection to some degree, and dissertation committees would presumably stand as safeguards against such problems). Despite such potential objections, a rewards-based funding model would provide much-needed institutional and financial security to graduate students, while simultaneously decoupling the dissertation and job-search phases.

In the end, maybe we can again make ABD a status to celebrate, rather than the dreaded start to a career of contingency.

Travis W. Proctor is a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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