Monday, October 17, 2011

The ABCs of ABDs

Well this, sent out just now to my department by one of my classmates, sure made for a nice study break, as it were, from attempting to figure out this process. Before addressing the rest, to the Chronicle commenter who insists that no PhD in any field ought to take more than five years, any thoughts on variations in required coursework? Required teaching, which can range from full-time-job-plus to zilch? The having of the bebes? Or that part of why some students are in their 15th year and going strong is that they've taken the Candidate B message to heart, and don't think they can be taken seriously as candidates until they've basically become professors (books published, numerous courses taught and designed) while still ABD, meaning, they did not spend years one through 14 marinating in coffee shops, which in some cases is kind of how it went? As someone who's already past the point of anything like 15 years being a possibility for me, it's not in my personal interest to defend that route, but let's remember that "dedication" can't be measured so easily.

As for the rest, I obviously don't have any answers here. But that doesn't stop me from having thoughts!

It seems that often enough, when one hears of students who took only five years in the humanities getting jobs, this is because they're coming from super-prestigious programs that get everyone out in five years, that don't require teaching, and that pay enough so that students in them are not working a bunch of jobs on the side. Correlation, causation, and all that.

And! Isn't it possible that what makes a Candidate B so wonderful isn't just the more voluminous CV, but also the years of experience applying for academic jobs? In which case Candidate A needs to go on the job market, even if unlikely to get anywhere that year, simply in order to become Candidate B later on? Some of the process is familiar to anyone who worked between college and grad school, or even during college, but much of it is its own animal.

Also worth pondering (while you sit in the coffee shop where you've been "getting your PhD" for the past few decades): there's something extraordinary, if you step back and think about it, about the fact that someone with a five-year post-college track record - this in addition to the presumed four years of undergrad in the same topic - can be measured only for "potential" or "promise." It's hard to imagine an equivalent in any other field. In Europe, you get a law degree while an undergrad, and have by whichever age been working as a lawyer since forever. Even a very, very, very advanced grad student has never been a member of a university's permanent faculty, has never confronted those dynamics and politics, and as such is also going to be a gamble.


eamonnmcdonagh said...

In the UK and Ireland you can sure get a law degree as an undergrad but that doesn’t make you a lawyer. Your degree just gets you exempted from some of the subjects on the professional training schemes controlled by the barristers’ and solicitors’ organizations, when you pass the exams set by one or other of those organizations then you practice law.
Here in massively over lawyered Argentina an undergraduate law degree indeed makes you a lawyer

Phoebe said...

Huh. I'm pretty sure my brother-in-law went to college (and got a Master's, but this is all one program - no just-a-BA exists, or existed at the time) and has since been a lawyer. But that's a different part of Europe.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

yep, on the mainland they do things differently. They only have one kind of lawyer for s start

wrt to you general point, I can think of one great scholar who took forever (17 years) to finish his doctoral degree but still had a rockin' academic career, my compatriot Fred Halliday

Flavia said...

Distinctions matter here, and I think that the writer errs in lumping candidates who spent several extra years in grad school into the same category as candidates who have done multiple post-docs, visiting gigs, or even a previous job on the tenure track. As I think you're suggesting in your last paragraph, the candidate who has experience as an actual faculty member--and who, not unrelatedly, can be regarded as having been vetted by a previous hiring committee--is different from a candidate who has only been employed at his or her graduate institution (or perhaps on an adjunct basis at other area colleges).

It's also the case that some institutions seem actively to prefer people who appear fast out of the gate. I knew a number of people in grad school who got done in 5 years (or at least who got jobs during their 5th year--it sometimes took another semester or two to file), and I think every one of them got a relatively prestigious job.

Partly, that's because those people were genuinely ready: they all had at least one major article in print or forthcoming, and we had a light teaching obligation. But some schools seem actively to favor candidates who have a fresh, golden-boy sheen, whom they can project all kinds of fantasies onto and imagine as first-round draft pick: someone who's the next new thing! who talks about the sexy advanced seminars he wants to design and teach!--rather than someone who's been sullied in the trenches of freshman comp and gen ed courses (and who already seems, let's put it bluntly, like expendible contingent labor). Those institutions are a minority, and I think they're generally wrong in believing they know how to spot a rising star, but for them 5-years-and-out can seem like proof of exactly that status.

J. Otto Pohl said...

I did my PhD in two years at SOAS (University of London) and then spent three years being unemployed. Speed does not help you and neither do publications. Having the correct ideology and connections does.

Phoebe said...


It seems like there are good (and not-so-good) reasons to prefer to hire someone at any given stage other than 'spent 12 years in grad school but really just watching video games/painting my toenails.'

In some departments/universities, changes over the years in funding, teaching requirements, etc. have make it so that there are Candidate Bs and Candidate As on the job market at the same time, without this having much to do with anyone's individual will to get through the program in any particular amount of time. So as tempted as Candidate As might be to think the more advanced applicants are permanent-student types, and as the Candidate Bs might be to think the Candidate As are naive go-getters overstepping their place in the hierarchy, neither assessment is accurate, given all the structural shifts that can occur.

J. Otto,

That your Blogger bio mentions and is indeed entirely about how quickly you got through your program a) makes me not surprised you commented on this post, and b) suggests you think time-to-degree ought to be weighted more heavily. Re: "ideology," if you think the "vast majority" of U.S. academics (!) " support Israel in everything it does." I'm afraid I don't know where to begin. That's far from true among American Jewish academics studying Jewish topics, let alone the rest of academia.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Shouldn't speed be weighed more heavily? After all in the real world promptness and making deadlines does count. It is only in academia that you get penalized for finishing in a reasonable period of time.

Phoebe said...

Speed should count for something, sure. But different departments set different deadlines, and sometimes they switch this over time. I'm set to finish "early," but this is largely because I didn't teach nearly as much as my predecessors in the program had to.

If there's no expectation to finish at a set moment, if indeed your advisors are telling you that anything you produce after just a year is inadequate, this is not like handing in a term paper by its due date. I mean, if you "get penalized for finishing in a reasonable amount of time," maybe consider that your thoughts on what ought to be demanded are not in sync with what's being demanded. In the "real world," doing what your supervisors ask, behaving in ways consistent with the profession, and yes, networking and making connections, these are all important. If academia's different, it's insofar as everything takes longer and thus starts later, one is called a "student" till such an old age, etc. But I don't think a dissertation that looks like it ought to have taken a decade, written 'round the clock by someone who didn't sleep for a year, is going to be held against anyone. It's just that there is such a thing as a rushed-through dissertation, and that's going to have to be disproved. It's definitely not held against you in grad school if you turn final papers in on time, quite the contrary, even if one is often permitted to stay in grad school even if one does not.

Britta said...

In my program, they encourage you to delay defense until you have a job lined up. Most people go on the market about a year before they'd be totally ready, but plan on staying in for anywhere between 6 months - 3 years, depending on options. In my discipline, it's better to take longer (and maybe get more publications under the belt) than get out and be unemployed.