“ABD.” When we hear this acronym, most people either cheer or cringe. If you recently passed your qualifying exams, “All But Dissertation” is a celebratory milestone. And if you’re revising Chapter 6 for the sixth time, you probably feel like you’ve fallen into a black hole.
If you’re cringing right now, you’re undoubtedly familiar with what I experienced as the primary responses to the challenge of being ABD. Fight or flight. Fight, concentrating all my time, effort and resources into the task. Flight, searching for anything-but-the-dissertation to do, including the timeless tradition of dawdling, now more convenient than ever, thanks to Facebook.
But is there another way to respond? Can we flourish in a way that transforms our lives as we experience the highs and lows of writing a dissertation?
Writing a dissertation is one of the most intellectually and emotionally demanding projects we will attempt in life. This endeavor seems to require us to “fight” small everyday battles that make up a complex, multi-year process. The challenge for many of us is making sense of how to maintain a steady focus on our research without excluding the non-academic aspects of our lives.
One of my professors presented me with this challenge in the first year of my PhD program: “I think you’re capable of writing your dissertation in three years.” While the duration of a doctoral program will vary depending on the university and the discipline, the majority of my classmates took 5+ years. At first I was flattered, but then I began to consider the costs required of such an undertaking. A friend once told me, “If you say ‘yes’ to something, you are saying ‘no’ to something else.” It quickly dawned on me that a 3-year-plan would require me to focus entirely on myself, and consequently say “no” to family, friends, and opportunities to serve others.
At times, “fight” mode can reinforce our self-centered state. Two of the first words my niece learned to scream as a toddler were “MINE!” and “[Do it my]SELF!” Regardless of our age, we are inclined to look after our own well-being. Is it any wonder that by the time we reach the academy, we have very little trouble fitting into its self-promoting, self-sufficient culture?
While a culture of self-reliance and fighting for our own needs is reinforced by academe, it does not reflect the vision God has for us. In John 17:22, Jesus prayed on our behalf, that we would “be one as we are one.” Christ is referring to the Triune God that is present throughout the Old and New Testaments. God is three — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and yet one. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit point to one another, modeling perfect community. Similarly, God desires community for us. We need one another. We were designed to go deep with each other, drawing the best from one another (Proverbs 20:5).
I knew I had to release the desire to focus all my time and energy on my dissertation to live a flourishing life in grad school, to flourish not only in my research, but also in my relationships with God and those he placed in my life.
Feelings of frustration, inadequacy, and burnout are normal, but how we deal with these emotions vary. Most of us, at some point, procrastinate. In my moments of flight, I searched for other “productive” tasks to complete in order to avoid coding interview transcripts. Let’s just say that never will I have such a pristine, more immaculate kitchen than when I was ABD!
There are other “flight” patterns. Some take a new direction in their research. Others take a leave of absence. Some leave their doctoral program entirely. Regardless of the pattern, this is when we need our friends and family most.
And yet, this precious gift can be misused at certain points. It’s easier to pack our schedules with lengthy lunch appointments, coffee dates, and ministry opportunities than to disaggregate perplexing tables of data. It’s easier to relieve our anxiety with the comfort of friends than to be still before God, allowing him to work through our internal paralysis. So often we build an over-dependency on community and momentarily forget the One who authored community in the first place.
“Flourish” isn’t the word that naturally comes to mind when we think about writing a dissertation, but I believe flourishing is possible in and through the Triune God, and in and through his love and wisdom imparted to us through community.
I did not write my dissertation in three years, but in four. In that time, I was transformed through eating the Lord’s supper at church, 5:30 am power walks, evening prayers along the beach, and hikes in Will Rogers State Park — alongside family, friends, and classmates who continually pointed to the reality that my identity rests solely in Jesus. And because my future did not ultimately hinge upon my dissertation, I could approach my research with freedom, gratitude, and joy.
Still, the pull to become self-absorbed in my research or run away from it would creep up from time to time. In a rare, quiet moment (when I finally ran out of things to clean), the Lord brought to mind Genesis 2 and the work he gave Adam and Eve to do. God gently reminded me that the work he gave me was also good — an act of worship that was for His glory, and for my good. He made no guarantees that my dissertation would be easy, successful, or published into a best-selling book. But he promised to hear my voice (Psalm 55:17) when the work became hard. Sure enough, the work was hard. But he indeed heard my voice and consistently pointed me back to my ultimate purpose.
God does not promise you an easy road as an “ABD.” But he does promise you the presence of his glorious Self, amidst your small everyday battles. We can take courage as we enter a series of unknown places — with his help and the love of others — knowing that God can use us in every aspect of our life and research. Through this, we can and will flourish.
To hear more of Grace’s experience and read more of her writing at The Well, see Small Everyday Battles and Unknown Places.