Friday, September 28, 2007

 

Ask the Administrator: ABD Seeks JOB

A returning correspondent writes:

I am in the midst of completing my dissertation,
wrestling with 250 pages of text at the moment but I
should have everything wrapped up this spring. I
didn't plan on going on the job market until I was
well and truly done, but a job has just been
advertised that is so bang-on that I'd be a fool not
to apply. The place (just a shy of ivy league) is a
long shot but what they've advertised has me written
all over it and I'm wondering how best to deal with
some issues that, field and expertise aside, might
make me look less-than-ideal.

1. I am a citizen of the country (USA) where the
position is located, but I don't live there now and
without stating it I won't look like a citizen (none
of my post-secondary education is in the US). Should I
state that I am a citizen up front just so that it is
clear that there aren't any immigration issues?

2. It has taken me longer than average to complete my
PhD because of a series of life events over which I
had no control (deaths, illness, that sort of thing).
How do I address the gap in my record (no pubs, no
conferences, no progress, but I did teach), or do I
even mention it at all? Would this be something to
address in an interview if I am lucky enough to get
one?

3. How does one deal with the ABD thing? What phrases
do I use that convey that I really am chugging along
and almost done?

Thank you Dean Dad and anyone else who can help answer
these questions!



Since the questions are numbered, I'll address them in order.

1. Yes.
2. Don't mention it. Save it for the interview.
3. There's the rub...

"I'm almost done with the dissertation" ranks right up there with "the check is in the mail" and "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." It could be true. Or it could be sincere, but mistaken (the most common one, I think). Or it could be a flat-out lie.

In my time at PU, we sometimes simply culled any ABD candidates from the pool, period. We had seen enough (and known enough) people who came on board (there or elsewhere) swearing to high heaven that they were this close, only to have it drag out for years. Some places have adopted a de facto degree-in-hand requirement. (At my cc, we don't require Ph.D.'s, though we do prefer them.) I once posted my binary typology of dissertations:

The Two Types of Dissertations:

1. Done, defended, degree in hand.

2. Other.

That may seem cold, but it's based in fact.

The places that don't actually disqualify ABD's will still, in all likelihood, have a "show me" attitude towards them. Have you published any of your chapters anywhere? How many chapters are completed? Is the defense actually scheduled (meaning, a specific date)? Other than sincere assurances, what proof can you offer that you're actually "chugging along and almost done"?

More broadly, don't go in with excuses, assurances, or apologies. For heaven's sake, don't tell shaggy dog stories about your life to justify your lack of production. Go in like you own the place. Show them how wonderfully interesting, connected, and productive you are, and don't play defense until you're forced to. And even then, change the subject as quickly as possible.

One of the harder psychological shifts in this line of work is going abruptly from grad student peon to Professor. You need to walk the walk if you're going to do this.

Which raises another possibility. There's no such thing as The Dream Job. Job openings come and go. (Too few come, but that's another issue.) Applying for jobs takes time and psychic energy away from other things, like, say, finishing your dissertation. If your funding has run out and you just plain need the work, then the point is moot, but if you have the option to stay off the market until you're done, I'd recommend giving it serious thought.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found an effective way around the ABD issue? Or should she finish first?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Comments:
Tangential question: What is the standard protocol?

I'm working from the assumption that most jobs are advertised in the fall and complete the hiring process in the spring.

If you finish you dissertation in the fall, before the job season really gets underway, then you end up kicked out of the nest for the spring semester and have to find a temporary job, move out of grad student housing, etc.?

However, if you finish your dissertation in the spring, you can continue to receive support from the department all year and continue to work on your research.

I always suspected that for people applying for relatively prestigious jobs that the advisor's letter of recommendation was fairly candid about the state of the dissertation project. The advisor doesn't want to look like a fool if the student screws up.
 
To the ABD:
Consider the possibility that your thesis adviser might apply for that dream job. (Senior hires are quite common in R1 programs.) Can you win that job? That is what DD means about going after it with authority.

In my field, physics, you can get a post-doc while ABD but you cannot be hired into a t-t faculty job without a PhD in hand. Accreditation requires it if you are to teach graduate-level classes. Typical hires at the R1 level will have significant post-PhD research and publication experience and are expected to get a research grant immediately. You would have to be Louis de Broglie with a dissertation worthy of a Nobel Prize to get hired ABD in physics.

I can't speak to any other markets, but have written about the Physics job demand composed over the summer pursuant to some blogs on that general topic.

Later in that series is the observation that getting that dream job and earning tenure in it are very different things. But if the expectation for faculty at your dream school is to be internationally respected before granting tenure, you need to convince them you will be there in 5 years.

To anonymous:
The protocol is institution dependent. Many will hire you as a post-doc (in areas where grants support research) or adjunct for the remainder of the year and don't care where you live if you pay rent. Others will throw you out on the street the next day. My own advice is elsewhere in the thread on physics jobs: if you don't have a plan until after you finish, you are making a big mistake.
 
On the ABD issue, my department (in the humanities) certainly looks at ABD candidates, but we need to be sure that they'll finish before the job begins. So for the first cut it might be enough to hear from you that you had one chapter left to write, and from your advisor that you were almost done. If you made that cut, we'd probably want a scheduled defense and to see a complete draft before we'd risk inviting an ABD to campus.

Institutions vary widely of course.
 
More than anything, use the job search as motivation to finish. To be honest, it is easy to be ABD because there are no hard deadlines to meet and no one to push. I was ABD without motivation until my prof said "I'm moving, so get moving!" Amazing how much writing can get done when you face starting all over again! ;-) And that was done while working FT with a six year old in the house. Not bragging, just pointing out that you can do what you set your mind to do.
 
I'd echo A. here, but suggest that you can implement it earlier in the process: one way of signaling the "almost doneness" of the diss is to indicate a scheduled date for a defense in the job letter. As someone on a hiring committee, that usually says to me that you and your committee are serious about your potential to finish. You may also want to ask your recommenders to state this in your letters.
 
I know it's hard to resist applying for the dream job, but here's my own experience:

I expected to be finished with the diss this past summer, and so I applied for a few positions in my area. I was hired ABD by an urban CC in May and I started teaching this fall.

Problem was, I wound up in the hospital in July (very unexpected)and spent the rest of the summer recuperating, so the diss didn't get finished before the academic year began.

The problem now? Heavy teaching load. We're five weeks into the semester and I'm so overwhelmed with keeping up with classes that I haven't touched the diss.

It's going to be extremely challenging to meet the 'unofficial' deadline of next spring that the CC has strongly suggested.

I truly love being here and wouldn't want to give it up for anything, but at the same time, finishing that diss under these teaching expectations is going to near kill me. I'm confident that somehow I'll make it happen, but damn...

And, I'm an instructor as opposed to an asst. prof. until the diss is completed, so the time I spend ABD does not count toward tenure. So, I've already added an additional year to my seven years to tenure.
 
I was ABD when I applied to several R1's in a hard science field. I would guess that several of those search committees tossed my application. However, one (my top choice) did not. I was offered an interview. At the interview I was repeatedly asked about when I would finish. I had already scheduled my defense and had the draft I was working on available on my laptop for anyone to view. No one took up my offer to look at it, but I think the gesture solidified the perception that I would finish on time. This university had a requirement that the PhD be in hand prior to starting.

I would apply for every job that looks promising. State clearly when you will be done, however do not exaggerate.
 
A few recommendations:
Before applying for an academic job take advantage of the texts available to help you such as The Job Search in Academe or The Academich Job Search Handbook (easily and fairly inexpensively available through amazon, etc. or your school's career office may have 'em. Reading these books will help you aquire any type of academic job (dream or otherwise) and help you to use the correct rhetorical moves to explain some of the aspects of your current situation.
Start reading The Chronicle of Higher Ed's careers section. Also, you should be reading Inside Higher Education and any other salient websites that talk about the academic job search. Your questions are frequently addressed on these types of websites and they're covered in the "how to" literature about academic job searches. Doing this type of research would, I think, make you a more nimble and successful candidate.

Sarah
 
"For heaven's sake, don't tell shaggy dog stories about your life to justify your lack of production."

I agree with this post and the comments and yet, this sentence pisses me off. I'm not even sure what a qualifies as a shaggy dog story. but I, too, have the impulse to give a bit more information about my path through grad school b/c I think it's enlightening as to who I am and what I'm about AND because it does account for why I didn't get in and out in five years like some of my (single childless) friends. y

our advice is don't make excuses. my angry inner grad students says it's not an excuse. the problem is not lack of productivity. I work every single damn day and I have, with brief breaks of maybe a week here or there when my kid got the flu, for the last three years. my lack of production is owing to a whole bunch of factors including but not limited to the fact that I have kids, that my project required overseas travel, that I grew up white trash and went to a shitty college, and the fact that my adviser decided it made sense to resign a year into my dissertation because he was mad at me.

no, i wouldn't tell that story. maybe not even in an interview. but I want to shake somebody, everybody who presumes that taking longer than average is always about not working hard. And that assumption is exactly the reason I want to tell part of my story. And yet I can't because it will be interpreted as making an excuse.

honestly, I want to throw things at people. not necessarily you. but really. I mean, damn.

[/rant]
 
As a science dean at an R1, I've hired nearly 40 faculty in the last three years. Only one of those did not have his PhD at the time the offer was made, but he was granted a year's delay arriving at our institution (already having plans for a postdoctoral year), and the offer was contingent on successful completion of his degree.

In some of our non-science fields, offers to ABD candidates are not as rare, but the offers are into "holding pattern" positions (e.g., "acting assistant prof"), with conversion into a tenure track job contingent on timely completion.

On another topic, it isn't easy to explain away a slow dissertation without sounding like you are making excuses — and nobody wants to hire someone who is going to be making excuses if they fail to perform well in the future. I understand and sympathize with anastasia's point about there being lots of good reasons to take a long time to finish, but the point is that it is hard to make a case for yourself without making it sound like you are really saying that you have had it harder than all the others who took longer than average to finish.

If she actually took a leave of absence from her program, then I'd mention that, but otherwise I'd handle any discussions of the gap in person if questions come up at interviews.
 
Two points for the ABD to consider:

1. Considering the amount of time necessary to gather the documents and materials for any serious job application, you may be wasting a huge amount of time if you're planning to apply for only one. If this school is "almost Ivy League" as you imply, you can expect them to ask for quite a bit of supporting material later in the process and at fairly short notice. Can you afford to table your dissertation progress for months for a single application?

2. If you're ABD and have no conference presentations or publications, there's a pretty good chance that you won't clear the first hurdles with an "almost Ivy League" school. No matter how closely that advertisement seems to be asking for you, they're likely to get several more qualified (more established, more active) applicants.

Overall, I think that making a single "dream job" application is a massive waste of time. Go on the market when you're ready to go on the market for real.
 
I understand and sympathize with anastasia's point about there being lots of good reasons to take a long time to finish, but the point is that it is hard to make a case for yourself without making it sound like you are really saying that you have had it harder than all the others who took longer than average to finish.

Not to mention inviting unfavorable comparisons to people the committee knows who also had hurdles yet still finished in a standard amount of time. It might feel fierce, defiant, and "Moms Rising!" to you to raise your two children as a not-excuse, but I'd just be thinking, "And? Two of my grad school cohort finished in <6 years with three children."
 
Thank you for all of your responses! You have all given me a lot to think about and I'm wavering about whether to proceed at all.

Just to clarify, I have publications and conferences up the ying yang from before and after the illness/death gap, just not during the gap. I was withdrawn during the gap, so my leave is on the record.

Anastasia - I hear you, and how! Everyone's path through grad school is unique and those of us who don't follow the expected path feel at a disadvantage. I would like to share my experience somehow and actually turn it into a positive reason to hire me, a sort of I-fought-really-bad-odds-and-won kind of story, but if that's shaggy dog then perhaps I'll have to leave it at the door.

Now I'm off to talk to my committee members and read some books on jobs - the dissertation will have to wait until tonight!
ABD seeking JOB
 
I've been on a number of faculty search committees and also have read a vast number of applications for what is essentially a fellowship for advanced graduate students. I've also served for the past few years on my college's undergraduate admissions committee. My sense is that if there is an obvious gap in your publications or it took you an unusually long time to complete your degree, it's worth mentioning why, provided that you can do so succinctly and without sounding whiney. If there is a one sentence explanation, I'd include it. If it's more complicated, leave it out.

Also, another option might be to ask one of your references to explain the gap or withdrawl. I recall once reading a CV that was a little mysterious and I found myself wondering what had happened in a particular year. The applicant's major professor provided a short explanation: a difficult divorce led to the student taking a year longer than normal for one of the phases of her degree. In this case the letter-writer exactly anticipated the question I had upon reading the file. The letter-writer didn't dwell on this issue, but the simple statement was very helpful for me in assessing the overall strength of the person. She ended up getting the fellowship.

In general, I advise students (undergrads applying to grad school and grad students applying for jobs) to explain anything glaringly odd or mysterious on their record, but to do so briefly and without excuses. For example, if there's an F on a transcript or some time unaccounted for on a CV, I think it's best to provide some info. Not doing so runs the risk of having the search committee make assumptions and imagine all sorts of dire explanations for the mystery.
 
I got my job in history when I was ABD. I literally had my thesis complete at that point and was going through the editing and revisions. Those were completed four months later in the second week of the term I started teaching (what a crazy time)!

Take a cold, hard look at your progress and talk with your supervisor. Does she or he think you're going to make it to be done by X date before the job starts? What's the supervisor's opinion on the application?

If you get a gung-ho response, ask them for a letter of reference and pull together your application in such a way as to highlight the timeline to completion but don't go holding your breath that the job offer's just around the corner. As DD noted, ABD is often a hard sell, even at a smaller university such as my own. I was the last ABD person hired in my program to a t-t job!
 
Regarding whether to tell a story explaining delays or gaps in one's CV, I think it comes down to this:

If there's a single, one-time event that explains everything, tell it upfront. If the story is more complicated, wait to be asked.

The big problem is that many difficulties continue over time. If you used to be sick a lot, then you may be in the future as well. If you didn't get much done when your last child was born, then the same may happen if you have another child. It may be illegal to discriminate based on some of these issues, and even if it's legal it may be immoral. Nevertheless, you don't want to volunteer anything that could make someone suspicious about your future productivity. People are often biased by information they aren't consciously holding against you.

So don't say anything unless you can make it clear that the distraction is absolutely over. The trickiest case is when there were several independent problems, each of which is definitely over. That might sound just as good, but it's not really. The reason is that some people go through life continually running into distractions and time sinks. I don't mean this as criticism (these may be people who respond more caringly when a family member needs them, for example). However, it's a real pattern that if you've been derailed several times in the past, then it is more likely to happen in the future. If you are such a person, then it is not in your interests to advertise it to employers; if you are not, then you certainly don't want to be mistaken for one.
 
The biggest thing, to me, is to be cenetered in yourself about the delay, so you don't sound defensive or uncharacteristic.

"Yeah, (x event) happened, so it was not possible for me (or I made the decision not to) to work on the dissertation for that period."

But it sounds like the ABD nature is the real deal-killer here. At least the app process will be good for you.
 
Ok. I'm on the side of "don't go on the job market." My own professional school refuses to look at ABDs, generally, because it's so hard to get tenure in general that senior faculty is NOT going to take a risk on hiring a colleague who lacks the basic requirement, period. It doesn't matter about publications (we'll credit the advisor not the applicant), presentations, etc. You have to be done, THEN we look a publication record.

Granted, that position is going to seem insane to some readers, but over the years, we've been happy with the results. Unless you have the degree in hand (and some schools will stamp your dissertation defense date on your transcript--major plus of my big 10 research U), don't even bother looking. You're wasting your time when you could be writing. And your application will be sent to the bottom of the committee's applicant pile.
 
Many good suggestions! One I'd like to second is getting your recommenders to do some of the "dirty work" of explaining gaps, etc., for you. This gives the explanation more legitimacy than it would have coming from you, and also avoids putting you in a defensive position.

If you have a good relationship with your dissertation director, consider having a heart-to-heart discussion with him/her about your timeline. I find that my students often expect to finish about six months before I expect them to, mostly because I have a better feel for the amount of revision their committee will request. If your director expresses any doubts at all about you being able to finish (really finish, not just have a complete draft) before the start date of the job, I'll line up with those recommending that you sit this one out. Good luck!
 
Many good suggestions! One I'd like to second is getting your recommenders to do some of the "dirty work" of explaining gaps, etc., for you. This gives the explanation more legitimacy than it would have coming from you, and also avoids putting you in a defensive position.

If you have a good relationship with your dissertation director, consider having a heart-to-heart discussion with him/her about your timeline. I find that my students often expect to finish about six months before I expect them to, mostly because I have a better feel for the amount of revision their committee will request. If your director expresses any doubts at all about you being able to finish (really finish, not just have a complete draft) before the start date of the job, I'll line up with those recommending that you sit this one out. Good luck!
 
I think it depends on the standard in the field - in my field it is very normal to apply for jobs during the fall of your dissertation year, defend the dis during the spring or summer and start the new job in the fall PhD in hand.
 
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