Ass Butt Drama

I KNOW I KNOW SO MATURE.

Many days late, because I’ve been on the road, here is my latest article for Slate, “ABD Company“, which is about the professional and psychological damage that can come from beginning a doctorate and not finishing it. I wouldn’t know nearly as much about this as I do without the help, guidance and frank talk in the past year from Melvin Peña, the folks at Leaving Academia, and everyone else who has shared their story with me. Thank you all, and may you continue to heal wonderfully.

Advertisements

32 thoughts on “Ass Butt Drama

  1. My PhD advisor told one of my labmates: “You can finish your master’s thesis. I will write you glowing letters of recommendation for master’s-level jobs. I will not keep you as a PhD student, nor write you letters of recommendation for a PhD program elsewhere.”

    Harsh, but my buddy did get a good master’s-level job.

    Like

  2. The Yesko piece is pretty incoherent, I have to say. On a more positive note: Rebecca, your dissertation consultancy work sounds pretty interesting, I’d love a more-depth column about that, if you’re allowed to discuss details.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jill was writing from a place of real emotional pain. I admire her bravery for sharing those feelings, and getting them across was the piece’s most important aspect, and it succeeded. I’ve talked to her a bit and she is a really nice person who is taking the results of her nerve-hitting in real stride.

      Like

      1. It was over 20 years ago that Yesko was in grad school, so I guess I’m surprised the pain is still so raw. She sounds like an interesting person (since grad school, she seems to have done lots of writing and travel), and I bet there were compelling reasons why her dissertation writing went awry, but this doesn’t come across in the IHE piece.

        Like

      2. As someone whose honest displays of emotion re: grad school & higher ed have garnered vitriol the likes of which Yelsko could only dream, I would never, ever, ever begin to join the pile-on to Yelsko. I don’t know her. I don’t know what she went through. She was brave for being honest.

        Like

      3. Also, I think the reason the piece touched a nerve was because it seems to say that the dissertation is not an intrinsic component of the PhD. I don’t see how anyone who cares about the survival of the research-teaching model can support that position.

        Like

  3. The other other dirty secret of the ABD & then out crowd, beyond the outside & internal hindrances that you discuss (which are all SO so legit) is that if a Phd can often be 10 years from beginning to end – that’s a long time for real life to happen, and go wrong. Illnesses, sick parents, dying family members, divorces, house fires (you get the idea) – it’s not like this stuff waits until after you’ve finished your diss / is willing to be postponed until you’ve got your writing time in.

    There are plenty of people stuck in ABD-limbo due to all of the reasons you mention and the additional mess of a life emergency / chronic situation, which then get worse when they’re basically told that they should have worked harder (what after 12 hours in hospital with X family member?), or should have found family/friends to step in on their behalf (which is a triple f***-you, since it presumes everyone is geographically close, and because of course we all have huge extended families with buckets of free time to help out when an emergency hits, and sure, my emotional labour can totally be farmed out to a distant cousin), or should have just decided much earlier that a Phd wasn’t compatible with their complicated lives (thanks, I totally planned this hellish situation way back when I signed up for grad school), or should just be able to manage their health issues better (have you tried gluten/sugar/dairy free? It totally freed up my focus AND my skin), or should just abandon their dying or horrifically ill parent/spouse/friend because nothing is more important than finishing you dissertation.

    It’s just so utterly heartbreaking to see the guilt that gets heaped on to people at truly awful times in their lives, and how suddenly individuals (including supervisors) they thought of as friends (as well as colleagues) turn on them since they clearly don’t have what it takes anymore, making it all the likelier that they just quit and live with this absurd shame and stigma of failure.

    Like

    1. Yep. Yep yep yep. Older loved ones pass away in ten years. Multiple children are born and raised. A lot of life happens in a decade, and anyone who thinks the “best” way to do it is to disappear into a bubble in your late 20s and come out in your late 30s having done nothing but live in the mind is BARKING.

      Like

      1. Itinerant’s comment reminded me of this article by Michelle Martin, on how race/class/gender intersect to affect what family resources one has in a crisis such that some individuals and groups can weather the aforementioned crisis much better than others. Similarly, and also an issue of intersectionality, some people are leaving graduate programs not so much by choice, but because they are fleeing discriminatory abuse on the basis of race/gender/color and/or sexual harassment and sexual assault. Getting pushed out of one’s program because one files a Title IX (or IV) complaint, in the aftermath of abuse/assault/harassment, is not uncommon, as both the current OCR investigation of 60+ schools and Kate Clancy et al’s article on sexual harassment of female scientists make clear.

        I find the discourse of ‘agency’ through which narratives of ‘leaving the academy’ are usually articulated to be very problematic given that it assumes levels of choice which just don’t exist for all individuals. It also allows people to normalize a ad condone an abusive system, while stigmatizing people for making life choices that aren’t about ‘failure’ but are about leaving life-threatening (literally in some cases) environments. It is also a very neoliberal worldview, attributing all ‘failure’ and ‘weakness’ to the individual, while ignoring structural inequalities that make it de facto impossible for people to succeed or for the proverbial playing field to be equal.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Yes, this! I am so incredibly lucky, because when my life completely fell apart during grad school (I developed an autoimmune disease in my second year, then a couple years later I had a baby and had severe childbirth injuries and PPD, while at the same time my brother and his wife lost three children in quick succession and my aunt passed away from ALS…these past 4 years have been a physically and emotionally wrecking clusterfuck on the family and health front), he actually supported me, never guilted me, and when I defended a month ago, he told the entire department (just before my talk) that he was very proud of how I’d worked to carve a sustainable path for myself (which happens to involve teaching, not research – a big “no no” in my department) while remaining committed to my family and taking care of my health. Other folks in the department were not always so kind (which is why, to me at least, his comments before my defense were a really big deal). Damn, I’m so glad my advisor is a decent human being (actually, a pretty darned wonderful one, not just decent!). If he hadn’t been, I would have just completely broken these last few years. I don’t get what’s so hard about being decent – grad students are human beings!

      Like

  4. Thank you for your article. I dropped out of a Ph.D. program just before taking exams, so I was not even ABD. After years of feeling inferior to people with Ph.D. who I knew were not as smart as I was (and yes I know this is terribly arrogant, but I was also suffering from a severe inferiority complex, which is part of what motivated me dropping out in the first place, so I think it was actually healthy to have this realization), I went back, but decided to do it on my own terms. It has not been easy. Nearly 11 years after I started, I’m still not done, though the end is in sight (one more chapter to write), and life has also intervened, slowing down dissertation writing: I got divorced, took care of dying grandparents, and experienced my own life-threatening illness. But I must say that no matter what happens on the job market, I’m going to have those damn three letters after my name because I hated the feeling of having started and not finished. That being said, coming back after dropping out has also taken a lot of pressure off — I’ve already done the worst possible thing, so things only get better from here.

    Like

  5. I love your writing, and I especially loved the phrase “unabashed hot mess” in this piece; it’s always good to be reminded that drafts or early versions of work are ok!

    Like

  6. There should be an official club for ABDs whose PhD advisors died while the ABD was research and/or writing the diss. I had completed one chapter while in Berlin when my advisor died in the States. I had some very supportive people step in to let me know that I was not alone – that helped even out the hurt when other people rejected my request to use emergency grad student funds so I could attend the memorial service (others took up a collection so I could go and speak at the service). It took me extra years to figure out how to mourn, keep writing, and negotiate a new relationship with a new advisor. Without tons of support from people who understood what I was going through, I would never have finished (and would have succumbed to the despair of people assuring me that I was taking my mentor’s death too seriously or reminding me that I had been lucky to have such a supportive advisor and now would have to deal with the ‘real world’). Thanks for mentioning death of one’s mentor as being a very real world factor in keeping the diss going in the midst of an academic and personal nightmare.

    Like

    1. This is another place where serum rural inequalities like race/racism, gender/sexism matter. If you are a woman and/or underrepresented racial minority working with an adviser who is also the only woman or underrepresented minority professor in your department, and this department has hostile racial and/or sexual climate issues and your adviser who is buffering you from the full force of such hostility dies, things can become even worse/more complicated in relation to lack of support to finish. If your project is fundamentally threatening or not of interest to remaining faculty because it interrogates issue of race/gender privilege that remaining faculty don’t relate to or see as important because do their subject position, then the death of an adviser becomes an even greater impediment to finishing. Advisers have to see advisees and their projects as worth supporting in the first place, after all.

      Like

      1. Sorry, I meant to type ‘structural inequalities’ in the first sentence, not ‘serum rural’ and didn’t realize this is what the autocorrect selected.

        Like

  7. Sometime roughly in the 90’s, the president (!) of a community college in Arizona was fired when someone realized that the ABD “degree” on his vitae wasn’t actually a degree.

    Like

  8. I enjoyed your article, but then I started thinking of it in terms of the job market. I know a lot of people whose (very interesting) dissertations will never see the light(?) of publication, because they left academia, largely because of the job market, before they got close to the point of revising the dissertation into a monograph. Or in other words, it’s one thing to think of your dissertation as the worst work you’ll ever produce, as long as you think you have a good chance of an academic career ahead of you. But with the job market the way it is, it’s likely to be the ONLY thing you ever produce, which (for me, at least), is increasing the pressure in very non-productive ways.

    Like

    1. Totally. Which is why I discourage the PhD outright at present, because there is, when you think about it, little reason to complete a dissertation when it will be the “capstone” of your career, since making a simultaneous “capstone” and “first stone” is a recipe for perfectionism and, thus, disaster.

      Like

      1. I so agree. If universities continue to accept way too many people into Ph.D. programs, they should at least train us for jobs that exist, as is the case in the sciences.

        Like

      2. I believe it is the responsibility of our professional organizations (in my case, the American Historical Association) to promote the value of our training outside of the academy. The AHA could be a bit more imperialistic and promote the norm that certain professions required a Ph.D. in history.

        Like

  9. I’m almost done with my dissertation. I think I am, anyway. I don’t know because my advisor has never seen any of it. He only wants me to send it when the whole thing is finished, not chapter by chapter, and he told me it has to be a minimum of 250 pages, although really it would be best if it were around 300 (I’m sociology), and I have only met with him a few times in the past year because he’s been on sabbatical. Why does it have to be that long, given that a post-doc is generally spent revising the dissertation into a monograph through means that include making it shorter? Why is 300 pages the best number of pages for a dissertation he has never seen? And, most frightening, what happens if I turn it in and he says it is garbage, or not at all what he expected? Do I have to re-write the whole thing? Did I mention I have no funding for the summer and have been trying to juggle dissertation-writing with three part time jobs? This is why people are ABDs for 10+ years, or give up entirely: no support, structural, financial, or otherwise. No guidance, no mentoring, nothing. I would quit if I wasn’t so close.

    Like

    1. Your adviser should be fired. That is unconscionable. People have told me some crazy shit in the last year, but this is up toward the top of the list. My heart goes out to you. If you have the money, I’d recommend hiring a consultant with a PhD in your field to do a read-through — but even that might not guarantee that your shitty adviser will play along. What an ass.

      Like

    2. Wow, this is precisely my situation- nobody on my bloated committee is willing to read it until the whole freaking thing is done. It has to be 250-300 pages and yeah, what if it’s nothing like what it’s supposed to be when I turn it in? Then do I have to start over? And I”m out of funding and nobody would let me apply for grants this past fall because they said I wasn’t competitive enough without enough of the dissertation written. So I am sponging off my parents while my student loans mount up.

      Like

  10. I really, really enjoyed your Slate piece on PhD finishing. While people may read me as I have never failed, I actually quit my PhD for 2 years because I was heartbroken (my former partner, fiancé, etc. broke my heart). I lost two additional years because I had to rewrite the damn dissertation from beginning to end (TWICE). But I finished it. I damn finished it, and I’m alive (after thinking that I would die from having lost my fiancé), and I have a wonderful job that I love, and friends, and family. So when you recommend that PhD students finish, all I can say is:

    YES, YES, YES, DAMN IT. YES.

    Hugs. And thank you!

    Like

Hello. I "value" your comment. (No, really, I do!) Please don't be a dick, though.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s