Advising the Dissertation Student Who Won't Finish

Brian Taylor

October 03, 2010

A former graduate student wrote me a note a few months ago to thank me for helping him drop out. What's wrong with that picture? Nothing, except that we don't see it often enough.

Not every graduate student will finish a dissertation. We know that truth to be self-evident. Nor should every graduate student finish. Some would be better off doing other things with their lives. Others simply can't complete the project.

The problem is that academic culture doesn't credit the decision to stop writing a dissertation as legitimate. In fact, leaving graduate school has a reputation a lot worse than that. I've met many people over the years who have dropped out as ABD's, and not one has ever presented the decision better than apologetically. Many see it as a personal failure—like the student who confessed, "I haven't lived up to the investment that the university made in me." Graduate-school administrators collect untold fortunes in "open file fees" from people who pay to keep their student status alive for five, 10, even 20 years after they've left the university, all in order to say (mostly to themselves) that they're still at it.

They stay because the unfinished dissertation is like the wound of Philoctetes in Greek mythology, a festering sore that never goes away. No mere albatross, it stigmatizes its owner in ways that usually leave permanent scars. Philoctetes himself was ostracized, and he became a suffering hero of tragic theater.

The sociologist Erving Goffman describes stigma as when a person "is disqualified from full social acceptance." Graduate students are already marginal by virtue of being apprentices, but a foundering dissertation compromises their status even further. With stigma, says Goffman, "shame becomes a central possibility."

No wonder struggling graduate students rarely consider leaving. Watching someone tread water in Lake Dissertation (as one clear-eyed student aptly put it) is one of the more painful sights in academe, but it will remain an all-too-common spectacle given the stigma attached to the alternative.

The good news is that Ph.D. completion and attrition rates have gained more attention in recent years. The bad news is that the problem is being viewed almost entirely in administrative terms. A 2007 study by the Council of Graduate Schools showed, among other things, that most attrition from doctoral programs occurs in the first few years, not at the dissertation stage—a disturbing finding (because the dissertation stage is much longer) but an important one. The related subject of time-to-degree has also come under deserved scrutiny. In one of the more polemical contributions to that discussion, Harvard University's Louis Menand recommends revamping the structure of the dissertation to make it shorter, more practical, and less research-driven.

We can only benefit from examining our degree-granting practice, but let's not forget that this is foremost a teaching issue. Graduate students will never see leaving a Ph.D. program as a viable choice unless we honor that choice ourselves. Right now we allow—and through our passivity even promote—the sense that someone who doesn't finish is a quitter.

These are our students. All of them, including ones who are stuck. We have a responsibility to teach them. That means it's on us. Most professors recognize when graduate students won't finish, but mostly we do nothing. We need to talk to our struggling graduate students, not treat them as though they were invisible. We need also to start a conversation about them.

How then should we teach the students who are destined to run aground? Students who aren't going to finish have certain specific needs that we can identify and try to meet. Here are a few suggestions to start.

  • If you love them, let them go freely. Our job is to lead students toward the finish line, but it's also to let them choose their own finish line. (How to help a struggling graduate student actually complete the dissertation will be the subject of the sequel to this article, next month.)
  • But let's assume that you and your student have done all you can, and that the dissertation is still foundering. In that case, it may be time to ask, "Are you having trouble hanging on, or letting go?" I've asked that of students more than once in my career, and the initial response is usually, "Wow, good question." Indeed, it is a question many graduate students should consider, and it can serve as the proverbial mustard seed.

  • Advise the student, not just the dissertation. Most graduate students are young grown-ups who are still making major life choices. Some of those choices, such as the need to support a young family, may lead away from dissertation completion.
  • Sometimes I have to remind myself that it's the student's dissertation, not mine. We can often help students navigate past research or writing problems, and we should always try. But if the dissertation is not going to get done, the adviser needs to let go of it, no matter how significant a contribution the work might make if it were ever to see the light of publication.

  • Understand the power of your approval. "Who's your dissertation adviser?" is one of academe's FAQ's, but its outward benignity conceals the assumption that if you work hard and all goes well, you will be prized one day as your adviser's scion. Graduate students seek their advisers' approval all the time, and invariably believe that if they leave the program without a Ph.D. they'll be letting their advisers down personally.
  • I once sat a student down and told her that I would be as proud of her if she left the program to work full time at the nonacademic job she loved as I would be if she stayed and finished her thesis. She looked stunned. When she recovered herself, she thanked me profusely. She hadn't felt free to choose before.

  • ABD does not equal failure. All graduate students embark on the dissertation with the idea of finishing it, but sometimes it's better for them to cut their losses. Erasing the stigma attached to the unfinished thesis starts with us. If we accept that leaving school can be a better decision than staying, we need to treat it that way.

There are plenty of good reasons for putting a dissertation aside. One student might be unable to cure himself of perfectionism, while another might so dislike research that she can't make herself do it. Another might be put off by the terrible academic job market. Many students make those self-discoveries during the dissertation phase, but the insights can take a while to sink in.

Faculty mentors (particularly of fully funded students) sometimes compound the problem by choosing not to discuss with their advisees the signs of possible problems down the road. "Time to degree" imperatives push us to say, "Onward, onward," no matter the cost or consequences, but we should check that impulse. Talking to students about their work can include asking them if they're having trouble doing it. Those conversations may give them their lives back, sometimes after years of unexamined suffering. If we teach students that leaving graduate school is a decision and not a failing, we can start to erase the stigma that so wrongly attends withdrawal.

Most of my advisees finish their dissertations and get jobs. I'm proud of that. But some walk away—and of that I'm just as proud. Not everyone gets a Ph.D., but everyone who tries deserves our attention and respect. Teaching students how to leave graduate school is a task every bit as noble as shepherding them through it.

Leonard Cassuto teaches at Fordham University, where he has twice served as the English department's director of graduate studies. In Part 2 of this series, he will focus on how to help a struggling graduate student actually complete the dissertation.