How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation

How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation

by David Sternberg

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Mastering these skills spells the difference between "A.B.D." and "Ph.D."

-refuting the magnum opus myth
-coping with the dissertation as obsession (magnificent or otherwise)
-the fine art of selecting a topic
-writing the dissertation with publication in mind
-when to stand your ground and when to prudently retreat if the committee's conception of

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Mastering these skills spells the difference between "A.B.D." and "Ph.D."

-refuting the magnum opus myth
-coping with the dissertation as obsession (magnificent or otherwise)
-the fine art of selecting a topic
-writing the dissertation with publication in mind
-when to stand your ground and when to prudently retreat if the committee's conception of your thesis differs substantially from your own
-dealing with obstructive committee members, and keeping the fences mended
-how to reconsider "negative" findings as useful data
-reviewing your progress, and getting out of the "dissertation dumps"
-defending your paper successfully-distinguishing between mere formalities and a serious substantive challenge
-exploiting the career potential of your dissertation
-and much, much more

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How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation

By David Sternberg

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1981 David Sternberg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8470-0


The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer


The status of ABD (All But the Dissertation) is the critical one in American graduate education. Since the 1960s its poignancy, sometimes permanency, has been growing. We all seem to know someone — a friend, relative, spouse, colleague — who is either filled with apprehension confronting the task fresh after completed course work or bogged down for years in stop-again, start-again efforts to finish.

Although dissertation woes are generally familiar in the context of the private lives of obscure graduate students, they have been know to obstruct revolutions and revolutionaries! Rosa Luxemburg's longterm lover and fellow political activist, Leo Jogiches, couldn't finish his dissertation, the cause of much wrangling between the two: "When she moved to Berlin, Leo stayed behind in Zurich, working at an interminable doctoral thesis which he never completed. Years went by ... before she could persuade him to leave Switzerland and join her."

No such prolonged crisis confronts the doctoral candidate in hard/life sciences or "professional degree" programs, where a full dissertation (see below for a delineation of the elements defining a full dissertation) is not required. It is in the social sciences, education, humanities and letters disciplines that people have their lives disrupted and even sometimes permanently scarred by a dissertation-writing experience.

American society is not aware, excepting personal acquaintance of particular ABDs, of the almost larger-than-life trials, fortitude, despair, courage and even heroics experienced in writing a doctoral dissertation. One never sees a TV program or movie, for example, about a handicapped, disadvantaged, full-time-employed, or alcoholic-addicted person who, against all odds, completes a dissertation in political science or educational psychology. Skating championships, law and medical degrees, attainment of political office, yes; doctoral dissertations, no. Nor is there any modern fiction about people writing dissertations, depicting them as central heroic or tragic characters caught up in a great struggle, or any "how-to-do-it" books. Again, books abound about fiction writers as heroes, about studies of fiction "writers at work" and about how to write poetry, short stories and novels, even, recently, general nonfiction.

The first, and only, nonfiction book about dissertation writing I was able to find was John Almack's Research and Thesis Writing: A Textbook on Principles and Techniques of Thesis Construction for the Use of Graduate Students in Universities and Colleges, published half a century ago! This book is not without merit on the "mechanical" side of thesis construction, but, reflecting its times, it says absolutely nothing about the structural/bureaucratic and emotional dimensions ringing dissertation writing. It seems long overdue for a book on writing a dissertation in tune with its time, when such a project has to be understood to be as much of an emotional and human relations enterprise as an exercise in library research, hypothetheses construction, and gathering and analysis of data. Although not slighting the "mechanical" aspects of the dissertation, the greater weight of the present volume is toward sociological and personal issues that the dissertation writer must confront and master.

The frequency of the ABD status has become so large that it has been legitimated in its own right: Professional journals, like the Employment Bulletin of the American Sociological Association, frequently contain openings for an "instructor or assistant professor to teach introductory and family courses: ABD," or, "will consider M.A.; prefer ABD." A recent perusal of the Sunday New York Times Careers in Education section indicated the ABD status as an acceptable credential for teaching positions in history, psychology, human relations, bilingual-teacher education and English-language studies.

Implicit in these offerings is the understanding that one will soon get his doctorate or not be retained beyond a limited number of reappointment years in the teaching position, but understood as well is the hard fact that many will never complete the dissertation. A social science trade joke, recognizing the limited mileage of the ABD, goes, "An ABD and fifty cents will get you a cup of coffee."

In the last years of the 1970s colloquia/workshops on "How to Write a Doctoral Dissertation" were held at major metropolitan New York graduate centers, including New York University and City University of New York (CUNY). All sessions played to standing-room-only crowds of graduate students. In March of 1980 Kingsborough Community College of CUNY advertised in The New York Times for a major doctoral-candidate workshop dealing with problems like writers' blocks, oral examinations, statistical analysis and publishing professional articles. In May 1980 the following advertisement appeared in The New York Times: "Doctoral Candidates. Can't get that dissertation off the ground? Enroll in intensive workshop, June 5–7 ... Leave workshop with a detailed draft of your proposal. Limited to 7." This last workshop appears much closer to a business venture than the other more academic, nonprofit, sponsored ones. Profit-oriented dissertation "counseling," probably involving no small measure of actual thesis writing, appears to be growing in response to the desperation of many ABDs.

Most social science and some humanities doctoral programs themselves schedule (often require) anticipatory socialization for students near the end of their course work in the form of routine thesis prospectus or dissertation seminars, but veterans of these efforts are nearly unanimous in evaluating them as very little help for the great task. (Read on for reasons why in-department forums are ineffective.)

This book is intentionally entitled: "How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation." Two potential emotional/career nightmares face the ABD: Not to finish is practically to guarantee a years-long, if not lifelong, mood of a flawed or somehow incompleted life, where the ABD is constantly explaining/rationalizing to others (e.g., university employers, colleagues, friends, spouses, lovers, family) and to himself just why he didn't finish. The emotional energy expended in often decades-long apologizing and soul-searching is incalculably debilitating and humiliating.

On the other hand, I have often heard ABDs remark (indeed, sometimes said it myself), "If only I could finish my thesis, my troubles would be over." Although such a statement has some validity, finishing often scars the successful laureate as well: All along the dissertation course, from initial topic selection and proposal to defense, are strewn potential dangers to self-preservation (dignity), inter alia, a sadistic (or lecherous) professor on one's committee; "selling your soul" to a committee which won't pass your thesis unless you excise what you consider to be its (and thus your) guts or add what you judge to be anathema; situations where the fieldwork data contradicts one's hypotheses and causes one to feel (wrongly, as the book will show) that the alternatives are either giving up the project or "fudging" the data; lying to or manipulating (thus depersonalizing) your sample in order to get data deemed "absolutely essential" for the thesis.

A last-stage emotional correlate of finishing is often postpartum dissertation depression, where the writer is so emotionally exhausted, that years of unproductive drifting can follow. One function of this book is to anticipate the surfacing of many of these emotionally crippling conditions and train the candidate in self-compassion and self-healing along the dissertation course.

Statistics of the Problem.

When I researched this book I discovered something akin to a "cover-up" regarding information about doctoral candidates in dissertation-required programs. Not only are there no national statistics on ABDs; there are no national statistics on how many students are enrolled in doctoral programs separate from master's degree enrollments. At the local level of particular universities, graduate registrars were either vague and defensive about hard statistics on this group or, even when eager to help, hard put to give satisfactory answers since their coding categories did not include attention to this specific status. My review of much statistical data on universities (an enormous body of facts and figures on nearly every conceivable aspect of university programs, faculty and student characteristics), together with my interviews with registrars and educators, convince me that the dissertation doctorate is certainly the least understood institution in American higher education. (Some tentative answers to why this should be so come later in the chapter.) The statistical picture of the ABD problem in the United States that follows, then, was necessarily constructed by me through indirect measures, formula suggestions from prominent registrars, educators, statisticians at the National Center for Education and educated guesses from my own experience as a sociologist and dissertation adviser.

What we are trying to ascertain here is an estimate of the number of people currently in the same boat in the early 1980s. Table I gives the national statistics for graduate students, full and part-time, enrolled beyond the first year of graduate school in the twelve fields of study requiring a dissertation for the doctorate, as of 1976 (the last year for which figures were available when this book was written). Although a small portion of this population are master's candidates, the great majority are doctoral:


Note that the part-time total was divided by three to get a full-time equivalent of that portion of the doctoral population which roughly controls for students who pursue doctoral courses well beyond the conventional two full-time years that most catalogs and authorities indicate as normative. The total of 142,265 must be corrected additionally for growth in graduate student populations since 1976 (dissertation-required doctoral enrollments are growing, although not at a striking rate, despite general decline in college enrollments). A "medium growth" projection would be 1.5 percent per year. To come up to 1981, then, the total would be 152,935 doctoral students.

The reader will have noted a large variance in enrollments by field. Education doctorate enrollments (about 60,000) account for nearly three times the next largest category, social sciences (23,000), followed by psychology, letters, and public affairs and services (each with about 13,000). The smallest fields are area studies, communications, home economics and library science, each with 2,000 or fewer candidates.

Do doctoral program enrollments differ substantially by sex? Despite considerable rhetoric from feminist quarters, the data do not support a general claim that women are discriminated against in current dissertation-required doctoral enrollments. Data is not available for assessing their proportionate representation as ABDs. We do know, however, that they still represent a minority of doctorates received: In 1973, 30 percent of doctorates granted in sociology went to women; in 1978, 37 percent. Table 1.2 gives the percentage distribution of men and women enrolled in the twelve fields:


A totaling of male and female full and part-time students in 1976 comes to 116,806 men and 116,251 women, virtually a 50–50 split between the sexes. Of the twelve areas, only two were significantly male-dominated (defined as showing a skewed distribution of at least 60–40) — theology and social science — and three significantly female-dominated — foreign languages, home economics and library science. Increasing pressures from affirmative-action groups make it likely that the 1980s will see even further reductions in the enrollment inequalities by sex that do exist, as well as moves toward near-parity in degrees conferred. In any event, the drastic biases against women candidates in "professional studies," such as medicine and law, have no real analogue in the dissertation-required fields. This may well be because sexism is always most evident in those institutional and educational sectors where the most money and power are implicated, and, by and large, regardless of the relatively high prestige attached to winning, say, an humanities or social science doctorate, these twelve fields rank relatively low on both financial and power scales. In my judgment, sexism practiced by faculty members against her ranks relatively low on the list of hurdles facing the female dissertation writer. Certainly, she may have to combat debilitating sexist attitudes on the part of an unsympathetic or often outright hostile husband who wants dinner on the table at six, no matter what the dissertation time schedule demands. But such problems can be dealt with in a way that historic institutionalized resistance to female membership in fields like medicine cannot. The major hurdles to completing and surviving a dissertation, discussed at great length in this volume, are not sex-linked.

Approximating the number of ABDs within the larger doctoral population is even chancier than estimating the number of doctoral students. I divided the population by three, reasoning that this would give the number of candidates who had most likely finished all (two full years) of their course work, and were either squarely up against the dissertation, or soon to be so after their last qualifying written and/or oral preliminary (to the thesis) examinations. This calculation yielded a figure of 50,978 ABDs. This is a very considerable figure in its own right, but an even more important point to stress is its perennial nature: Each academic year throughout the 1980s more than 50,000 new ABDs will be generated by the American graduate school system. We will have over half a million ABDs during the decade.

In this sense the ABD is in a very large boat with lots of company. It is one of the key paradoxes of the ABD that it is a "lonely crowd" status. Statistically large in numbers as ABDs may be, the context and contours of graduate education institutions, and perhaps the very structure of the dissertation doctorate itself (see discussion below), make almost all successful doctorates products of an individual, and usually lonely, agency.

If 51,000 ABDs per year is a reasonably close estimate, what is the completion, or success, figure? Again, as of this writing no research, certainly on a national scale, has ever been conducted. Certain individual departments in particular disciplines may have carried through studies of their own shops, but that information is available on a "need-to-know" basis only. The best, although far from entirely satisfactory, model one can use is an "in-out" scheme. Simply put, one asks how many finished-product doctorates come out as compared to ABDs going in. Let's look first at the number of doctorates awarded yearly in the twelve areas:


Perusal of all the (albeit admittedly incomplete) available statistics leads to the conclusion that no matter how one cuts the pie, each year in the 1980s will see upward of 50,000 ABDs go in and about 20,000 earned doctorates come out of the graduate education machine. Obviously, one cannot simply compare brand-new ABDs of a given year with awarded doctorates for the same year to get a success figure, since normally it takes one to two years to write the dissertation. But, for example, we generated about 47,400 new ABDs in 1976; 19,760 doctorates were awarded the next year. Assuming the 1976 ABDs had now worked on their dissertations for at least a year, their finishing rate was about 42 percent. Obviously, there is some statistical distortion here, since all the 1977 awards were not conferred upon 1976 starters; some could have begun five years earlier. So one cannot talk about cut-and-dried success and failure rates, given the often idiosyncratic time phasing of particular dissertation writers in particular fields and the far from satisfactory statistics. Still, a "catch-up" process that significantly alters the numbers does not appear to be operating; for every one hundred ABDs that go in, only forty-some doctorates come out, year after year.


Excerpted from How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation by David Sternberg. Copyright © 1981 David Sternberg. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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