All But Dissertation (ABD) Status 😬

A Plain-Language Explainer + Guide For Stuck Students

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Expert Reviewer: Dr. Eunice Rautenbach | April 2024

All but dissertation

When it comes to completing a PhD or doctoral degree, “all but dissertation” (or ABD) is all too often the danger zone for candidates. In this post, we’ll explore what it means to be ABD, look at the factors that contribute to students finding themselves in this position, and offer practical suggestions to help you navigate (or altogether avoid) ABD. 

What Does “All But Dissertation” Mean?

As the name suggests, “all but dissertation” or ABD describes a PhD or doctoral-level candidate who’s completed all the necessary coursework and passed all relevant exams, but has not yet submitted and defended their dissertation or thesis (in which case, it’s called “All But Thesis”). In essence, it’s a form of academic purgatory – so close to the finish line, yet so far.

To be clear, achieving ABD status is no small feat – if you’ve made it this far, you’ve likely already conquered years of rigorous study, challenging exams, and the general academic torment that accompanies postgraduate-level study. So, pat yourself on the back. However, the challenge now is to push yourself past the plateau and complete your dissertation. Easier said than done, we know…

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Why Do Students Get Stuck?

Over the years, we’ve had many ABD students approach us for help in the form of private coaching. While everyone’s situation is unique, we’ve seen some patterns in terms of the underlying factors that contribute towards students getting stuck in the all but dissertation holding pattern.

Let’s unpack some of the most common contributing factors, after which we’ll discuss some practical measures you can take to mitigate them.

ABD Factor 1: Procrastination & Poor Time Management

Writing a dissertation requires a huge commitment of time and energy. Naturally, many students struggle with procrastination and/or poor time management, making it hard for them to maintain the consistent progress needed to conquer the dissertation mountain.

This is often exacerbated by a general lack of structure in terms of their approach. Without the routine of regular classes and clearly defined deadlines, students often derail and find themselves burning a lot of time on relatively low-value activities. In other words, they find themselves very “busy”, but not very productive.

ABD Factor 2: Supervision Issues & Social Isolation

As we’ve discussed before, maintaining high-quality engagement with your research supervisor is critically important throughout the dissertation process. It’s no surprise then that conflicts or a general lack of support from an advisor can significantly delay or even stall students’ progress. As the relationship erodes further and further, students lose more and more momentum, eventually grinding to a dead halt.

Related to this dynamic, a feeling of isolation and loneliness can often creep in over the months or years. This puts a major drag on students’ general feelings of well-being, further contributing to a loss of momentum. In a nutshell, a lack of high-quality, productive relationships is a major contributing factor to getting stuck in all but dissertation status.

The ABD procrastination problem is often exacerbated by poor time management skills and a general lack of structure and daily routine.

ABD Factor 3: Academic Burnout & Research Roadblocks

After years of intense study and research, some students will experience burnout. This feeling of mental and physical exhaustion then impedes their ability to complete their dissertation or thesis, and dampens their motivation to push on with the project. In other words, they burn out and lose the passion and enthusiasm they had at the start of their PhD journey.

At the same time, it’s not uncommon for students to encounter unexpected problems in their research. Quite often, we see students facing difficulties with data collection, changes in research direction, or challenges in interpreting results. These are par for the course in the research process, but dealing with them in an already burnt-out state is often just too large a rock to push up the mountain.

ABD Factor 4: Funding Issues

In many cases, doctoral programmes offer funding for a specific period of time (often 3-5 years). However, completing all the requirements for a PhD can sometimes take longer. When the funding runs out before the dissertation is completed, students face the challenge of supporting themselves financially while they finish their research work. As you’d expect, this leads to increased stress and oftentimes forces students to take on part-time or full-time jobs, which can significantly slow down their academic progress and get them stuck in ABD.

Hiccups are par for the course in the research process, but dealing with them in an already burnt-out state is often just too much.

ABD Factor 5: Perfectionism

This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the treacherous trait of perfectionism. All too often, we see hardworking doctoral candidates struggle with perfectionism, feeling that their dissertation or thesis is never good enough to submit. This can lead to a cycle where students continually revise their work, never feeling satisfied enough to consider it complete.

Given that a dissertation is a substantial and defining piece of work, the desire to produce something flawless can be particularly paralysing. Perfectionism can also then feed intro procrastination (which we discussed earlier), creating a vicious cycle of inaction.

Of course, these are just a handful of common contributors to students landing up in all but dissertation land – there are many other potential factors that can come into play. However, if you want to move past ABD status (or avoid it altogether), you’ll want to take a proactive stance to combat these issues.

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How To Break Through The ABD Barrier

Whether you’re currently stuck in ABD or you’re just starting the dissertation stage and want to make sure you don’t hit a scholarly standstill, there are several simple but effective actions you can take to conquer the proverbial Mount Thesis.

Action 1: Establish A Well-Defined Routine

Creating a clearly defined daily routine is crucial for making steady progress on your dissertation. By setting aside specific times each day for writing and research, you can mimic the structured setting of coursework, which will help you maintain focus and productivity.

In practical terms, you’ll want to articulate a clear daily schedule of well-defined activities. Put these into your calendar and perhaps even consider using a time-tracking app such as Toggl Track. Also, it’s a good idea to find a consistent working location that’s free from distractions, so that you can cultivate an environment conducive to deep work.

In addition to maintaining a firm daily routine, you’ll also want to regularly assess your progress. So, take some time each week to review what you have accomplished, what you haven’t – and adjust your plans accordingly for the week ahead. This regular check-in will help keep you on track and prevent feelings of overwhelm.

Action 2: Set Realistic Goals (And Action Plans)

Setting realistic, achievable goals is key to making consistent progress and avoiding the dreaded all but dissertation limbo. To this end, it’s wise to begin by outlining the major milestones you need to achieve and then break these down into smaller, highly specific tasks. For example, instead of setting a goal to ‘write a chapter,’ you might set a goal to ‘write the introduction section of chapter one.’ This approach makes the task seem less daunting and more attainable.

With your goals set, you’ll then need to develop an action plan to achieve them. In other words, you need to define which specific actions you’ll take day in, day out to achieve each goal. It pays to get very specific here – for each goal, consider what exactly you’ll need to do, how much time it will take, what resources you’ll need, whose input you’ll require and so on. The more granular you get at this stage, the less chance of nasty surprises catching you off guard down the line.

A final thought on goals and goal setting. It’s important to celebrate your victories as you achieve them, no matter how small they might be. Recognise each task you complete and allow yourself to bask in a moment of pride. Ticking items off your to-do list is a simple practice, but this positive reinforcement can be incredibly motivating and will help you maintain a positive outlook throughout the dissertation process.

achieve and then break these down into smaller, highly specific tasks. For example, instead of setting a goal to 'write a chapter,' you might set a goal to 'write the introduction section of chapter one.' This approach makes the task seem less daunting and more attainable.

Action 3: Invest In Your Advisory Relationship

When it comes to conquering your dissertation or thesis, maintaining a strong working relationship with your advisor is critically important. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that it’s the number one defence against getting stuck in all but dissertation mode. Making a concerted effort to grow this relationship pays significant dividends.

In practical terms, aim to have structured, regular meetings where you discuss your progress, challenges, and the next steps in your research. Being prepared with specific talking points or questions will make these meetings more productive – but it will also demonstrate to your advisor that you value their time and take the process seriously.

As an overarching philosophy, try to always put your best foot forward when engaging with your advisor. Don’t be the student who constantly whines and moans about every little obstacle. Bring potential solutions to the table – not just problems. Simply put, make yourself an attractive student to work with and you’re much more likely to have an invested advisor on your side.

Action 4: Build A Support Network

Building a strong network of peers and colleagues is key to mitigating the feelings of loneliness and isolation that will invariably present themselves during the research journey. While you must (by design) travel down a narrow, lonely path in terms of the intellectual focus, it doesn’t need to be a lonely path psychologically and socially.

To build a network, a good starting point is to engage with fellow PhD candidates in your department – or if need be, in other departments. You can also consider attending academic conferences and participating in online forums related to your research area. These interactions not only provide social support but can also lead to new insights and ideas for your own dissertation. Again, while everyone’s research focus will be unique, the experience (and its associated challenges) will be very similar across the board.

If you are fortunate enough to connect with candidates within your specific research area, you might also consider forming a study group where members can share their progress and provide feedback on each other’s work. Naturally, this collective approach can help you maintain motivation and reduce the sense of isolation.

While you must travel down a narrow, lonely path intellectually, it doesn’t need to be a lonely path psychologically and socially.

Action 5: Be Proactive About Burnout

A surefire way to secure all but dissertation status is to burn yourself out midway through the research process. So, keep an eye out for common burnout warning signs such as chronic fatigue, disillusionment, and decreased productivity.

If you spot these red flags, you’ll need to take proactive steps to reduce your risk of hurtling over the edge and completely flattening yourself. In practical terms, this could include setting more reasonable work hours, ensuring you take time off for relaxation, and engaging in hobbies and exercise. Don’t underestimate the power of a little exercise – oftentimes, a little time away from the screen can do wonders for your writing.

If you find yourself already thoroughly burnt out, consider seeking professional help such as counselling or therapy. In some cases, universities themselves offer resources for stress management and mental health support. So, be sure to check what’s available to you.

Action 6: Say Farewell To Perfectionism

To move past ABD (or, ideally, avoid it altogether) you must move past perfectionism. To this end, start by defining what ‘good enough’ looks like for each stage of your dissertation. Here, it’s a good idea to consult with your supervisor so that you can align expectations. Remember, the goal is to complete a dissertation that meets the specified academic standards – not to produce a flawless piece of work, change the world or earn a Nobel prize.

Beyond defining what success looks like, it’s useful to cultivate a mindset that values progress over perfection. In practical terms, this could mean setting limits on the number of revisions for each section or chapter and using timers to enforce focused writing periods without self-editing. The aim here is to encourage yourself to move forward with the writing process, even when you feel that certain parts could be improved. Remember, done beats perfect – every day.

Remember that the goal is to complete a dissertation that meets the specified academic standards - not to earn a Nobel prize.

FAQs: All But Dissertation Status

All But Dissertation FAQs

Can you get a PhD ABD degree?

No, you cannot get a “PhD ABD degree.” ABD status is not a degree; rather, it describes a stage in the doctoral study process. In some cases, universities may award a Master’s-level degree to ABD status students who drop out of the PhD programme, but this varies from university to university.

How long do students typically remain in ABD status?

The duration can vary widely among students and disciplines. Some complete their dissertation in a year or two, while others may take longer. Extending too long in ABD status can risk programme deadlines and even lead to students leaving the programme without completing their dissertation.

Can ABD status expire?

Yes, some programmes have a time limit by which the dissertation must be completed. If the dissertation is not completed within this timeframe, the student may lose their ABD status and might have to meet additional requirements to re-enter the programme or complete the degree.

Can ABD status impact my career prospects?

Being ABD has different impacts, depending on the field. In academia, not completing the dissertation can significantly hinder career prospects, as a completed doctoral degree is often required. In other industries, substantial coursework and research might still be valued even if the dissertation is not completed.

Can I use the title "Dr." if I'm ABD?

No, you cannot use the title “Dr.” The title is reserved for individuals who have completed all requirements of their doctoral degree, including the dissertation or thesis project.

Are there any specific support systems for ABD students?

Many universities offer specific resources for ABD students, including dissertation boot camps, writing retreats, and specialised advising. Private coaching can also prove invaluable for students stuck in ABD.

Wrapping Up

Navigating (or avoiding) all but dissertation status is undoubtedly challenging. But, with the right approach, it is certainly manageable. If you find yourself in ADB land, remember that you’ve already accomplished so much by reaching this point and you most certainly have what it takes to cross the finish line.

If you need 1:1 help moving past ABD status, be sure to check out our private coaching service, where we hold your hand through every stage of the research process.

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