ABD 2/27/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

This is probably just a post for me, but I’ve been thinking on this topic for a while. Truth be told, I don’t even know if it’s still a “thing” since I haven’t heard of it in quite some time, but it used to be far too common in my personal opinion.

“ABD” is short for one of two things, either “All But Dissertation” or “All But Defense”. It’s used when somebody who never completed graduate school wants a job that requires a doctoral or master’s degree. I’ve always seen it for teaching positions that require a doctoral degree. But it represents failure.

“ABD” is not a recognized degree. It could be used in conjunction, I guess, with a date for defense of the dissertation, but that’s not what I’ve seen. This would be the equivalent of saying that graduation is imminent, akin to applying for a job before finishing a degree but putting the anticipated graduation date. But, that’s not how I’ve seen it.

To complete a doctoral program (and many master’s programs these days) there are two key steps; the dissertation and the defense.

A dissertation is a publication of the research performed during the graduate program. It starts literally on the first day that you step in the doorway, and never really ends. My dissertation represented five years of research because, frankly, I finished my degree quickly (most take six or seven years or longer). If “ABD” means “All But Dissertation”, it basically means nothing has been accomplished at all. See, graduate school isn’t like a typical undergraduate program, meaning there are usually no (or very few) actual course requirements. For example, I was only required to take one course to make up for a weakness in my undergraduate degree. The courses required are generally barely above undergraduate and not really intended to be much beyond undergraduate courses anyway. In fact, many of these courses (the proverbial “500 level” courses) are often taken by a mix of new graduate students and advanced undergraduate students. Some Master’s programs might rely heavily (or exclusively) on courses such as these, but most of them require independent, advanced and unique research. The goal is to learn to learn, that is, seeking and finding answers outside of the classroom and a professor. If “ABD” means “All But Dissertation”, then this can be accomplished with literally a few courses and nothing more, almost no experience beyond undergraduate coursework because the dissertation is where one documents their research.

“Defense” refers to defense of the dissertation. If “ABD” stands for “All But Defense”, this is somewhat better, but still has little meaning. Defense means that you have stood in front of a committee of doctors in the field of your research and successfully defended your work. This group (typically at least three but my committee actually had six in the fields of thermodynamics, statistical thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, an external professor from Harvard who was a fluid dynamicist, a biochemist and an inorganic chemist) is responsible for determining if your work (and dissertation) is of a quality level worthy of the title of “Doctorate”. This defense can last as long as the members wish it to last, and the members are allowed to ask any question, on any topic on or off of your dissertation, that they wish. And you…well, you have to defend your work. Questions “off of” the topic of the dissertation are generally related to background that is often left out of the dissertation, and yes, you have to know this background as well. For example, a very good friend of mine (and a young woman for whom I have a great deal of respect) was about to defend her thesis in biochemistry. About an hour before her defense, she asked me to explain logarithms, a mathematical function, because she was working with pH. Many of you might recognize pH as having to do with acidity (the lower the pH, the more acidic), but you may not realize that the equation for this is logarithmic in nature, and because pH figured prominently in her dissertation, she had to know the mathematics of it.

Ultimately, I came to realize that “ABD” basically stood for “incomplete”. In hiring committees, if they included an anticipated date of defense, that was fine, but otherwise I wouldn’t even consider anybody who listed “ABD” without an anticipation of defending. I suspect this is less common of a practice among people applying for positions because of the computerized application process that is so common today. These systems will not accept unanticipated answers, so unless you actually have a proper degree the application will be incomplete and therefore not considered.

As I said, I think this is mainly just me venting a bit. But there it is.

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