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Why are there more ABDs than PhDs?

by pollard-doctoral-dissertation-helpRichard Pollard, PhD

Earning a PhD is typically an arduous process. When I started my doctorate at Harvard, a 7th year doctoral student told me that the difference between undergraduate and doctorate education was like the difference between a prison term and a life sentence. As an undergraduate you serve your time and are paroled. As a doctoral student, your only way out is to escape. I was fortunate to go directly from undergraduate to a combined MA/PhD program without an intervening period of earning money. I was at Harvard in the 1970s and was fortunate to be able to talk with my advisor almost every day. We had a symbiotic relationship; I developed and wrote computer programs that he needed for his research. This led to a dissertation, which resulted in three chapters in a book he published shortly after I finished my degree.

Things have changed since the 1970s. Very few doctoral students have the sort of relationship with their advisors that I had with Freed Bales. When I was writing my dissertation, he provided frequent and detailed feedback, as did the three other members of my doctoral committee. Most of the students I work with now rarely see their advisors and receive only cursory feedback on their writing, often after a long lag time. My first doctoral student, from when I was on the faculty at the University of Arizona, received the sort of feedback and guidance that I received. He finished his dissertation on time and went on to endowed chairs and the presidency of a foundation. He later became Dean of the Business School at University of Arizona and is now President of a large state university.

Now I spend my time helping doctoral students at more than a dozen different universities to successfully complete their dissertations. I provide the sort of feedback and advice that dissertation advisors once provided, along with more detailed editing than any dissertation advisor would have the time to do. I find this work extremely rewarding, as I see students succeeding and earning their PhDs in a variety of fields. I like to think that I am doing my part to reduce the number of life-long ABDs.

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