Will Your Degree Read “ABD” or “PhD”?

Will Your Degree Read “ABD” or “PhD”?

Here you are, ready to undertake the most challenging “peak” in your academic career! Only a small handful of people ever successfully climb that peak, but with a focused effort, it can be done!

ABD stands for “all but dissertation,” a description of a student who has finished coursework and passed comprehensive exams, but has yet to complete and defend the doctoral thesis. Today, the Ph.D. Completion Project estimates that the ten-year completion rate (that is, someone’s status a decade after they begin) is 55–64 percent in STEM, 56 percent in the social sciences, and 49 percent in the humanities.
- via Slate Magazine

By now, you have completed your undergraduate work and most likely are either finishing or finished with your master’s degree. You are at the end of one part of your academic journey and are now moving to the next.

Steps in the Academic Journey

Baccalaureate Degree- Introduction to Higher Education

At the undergraduate level, education was more about gaining a foundational knowledge of a subject. While your professors hopefully challenged you to do more than regurgitating what you learned in class, the focus was still the same: learn the basics and synthesize those into your particular understanding of the subject.

Master’s Degree: Mastery of A Particular Body of Knowledge

Moving to a masters level gave you opportunities to refine your perspectives and develop your philosophy about the specialty being studied, improving your position to gain more than a general understanding of the subject. Your goal was to "master" the subject area, to learn where you "fit," your niche in the larger academic community.

Doctorate: Creating New Material for a Body of Knowledge

A doctoral education presents you with the opportunity to move from your place in the academic community create a “piece” of that scholarly structure. You are moving from being a consumer of knowledge to a creator of new knowledge that others will use in building their philosophies. You will add to the infinite puzzle that makes up a topic within a subject area.

The goal of every doctoral student should be to find that small fragment of an issue that is still not clearly explained by existing studies/theory. Somewhere in the mass of published works lay those fuzzy areas that emerge while conducting research, those things that catch the attention of researchers but cannot be addressed at the time. Every topic has these bits and pieces, some fields more than others, that are waiting to be developed into new research proposals. Finding them requires a considerable amount of scholarly digging to map the existing literature. Once done, the "holes" or gaps are clearly visible.

How to Develop a Dissertation-Worthy Problem

A source of frustration for many dissertation students is attempting to build a research plan on a poorly formed problem statement. Defining a clear, concise, and precise problem is critical to a successful dissertation proposal and many posts about the importance of finding a particular research problem. Instead of adding to that list, I want to discuss some foundational points to help identify that research problem when the time comes to start the dissertation.

When Should You Start Looking?

Hopefully, by this point, you realize that education is more than going to class; it is a continual process, a never-ending activity. So when should you start looking for the specific problem on which you will later base your dissertation? You probably have already begun the search. Moving through your education experience, you found things that grabbed your attention, those things that both interested you and left you with questions. If you were fortunate enough to have a colleague or professor who saw that and fed your interest, you most likely have a strong desire to focus on some aspect of that area. Consider yourself fortunate!

If you were less fortunate, don't despair. Instead, start now to gather material to feed your curiosity.

Two Things I Should Have Done

While there are several things that all new students should regularly be told, two immediately come to mind. Had I done those two things early in my academic life, things would have come easier later in my doctoral work. Wherever you are in the journey toward your dissertation, incorporate these two things into your academic activities starting today.

The Notebook-journal

First, start keeping a notebook journal. I am not talking about a diary (keep one of those if you like); the journal is something in which to record all things related to your academic journey. It could be class notes that might become useful later on. Ideas will come to you in almost any possible situation. Coffee shops, a drive or walk home after class, reading a new article, discussions with friends”; virtually every situation will yield bits and pieces of information that may be useful later on. Diagrams, notes, pictures, anything can go in the journal. This is part of the process of finding that tiny piece of the larger puzzle on which you will focus. The journal will accompany you through your academic journey to the dissertation and possibly beyond it. Most of the noted scholars in any field of study use journals in much the same way.

Literature Competence

Second, stay current with the literature about your area of interest. The reason so much has been written about the importance of having a deep, thorough knowledge of the literature is that so many lack when undertaking the dissertation process. Much has been written about the importance of having a deep, thorough knowledge of the literature because many students neglect it. Almost all the problems experienced by dissertation students stem from this deficit. Part of the reason for this is that students wait until they begin the dissertation process to start a more focused search of the literature.

Instead of waiting until you begin your dissertation, start now to take small bites of the literature. Make it your goal each week to find five new articles that might be useful to you later in the process. Take some brief notes and file them electronically in a place where you can find it later. Consider using reference management software to do this; a little each week will save hours later.

A Different Approach to Writing a Quality Problem Statement

Four Basic Parts to a Problem Statement

Before discussing some alternative activities to develop a quality problem statement, I want to review the components of a problem statement. While the format for presenting a problem varies a bit from one institution to another, all should have for basic parts.

The Statement of the Problem is a relatively brief section that identifies a particular problem in the topic area for which more information/clarity is needed. If the problem is an important one, there will be multiple, current scholarly studies, i.e., peer-reviewed studies whose authors recommend further research about the specific problem. Another way to view this section is like telling a story:

1. Here is the ideal situation, the way things should be.

Linking words/phrases: "However,"   ""¦but"¦"  "Unfortunately,"

2. Something is wrong (reality does not match the ideal situation)

Linking words/phrases: "Consequently,"  "As a result"

3. Has consequences/adverse effects such as xx or yy (that will continue unless the particular problem is addressed).


4. Current studies show that there are still unanswered questions about this problem that should be addressed.

How Do You Clearly Present the Problem?

Once you have the supporting studies and are ready to write the problem statement section of your paper, rather than starting to write it, try doing the following first.

Brainstorm Possible Statements

Brainstorming means what it says. It is a "storm in the brain" that rains thoughts and ideas. Write words or phrases about the particular problem without stopping to analyze them. This is a good exercise for pen and paper to avoid correcting yourself while writing. Do this for five or ten minutes to make sure you have "dumped" all of your thoughts about the problem. Don't worry about duplicates now.

Eliminate Duplicates

Now you can yield to your left brain that wants to maintain order. Review all the things you wrote and eliminate duplicates by drawing a line through each. Be careful not to omit similar items, only duplicates.

Narrow to Five Possible Statements

From what you have remaining, write five versions of a problem statement. Make sure that the literature will support what you write! These five statements may only be rearranging words or phrases. Remember that you must clearly and concisely present the problem to the reader, and your entire research proposal will be designed to address this problem.

Take a Break

Stop and walk away from your work. Go for a walk, to the coffee shop, a bike ride, anything that will get your mind off the work and away from it. It's not going anywhere but you should. Taking a break allows your mind to reset and clear any thoughts that might be blocking an open-minded approach to your work. It will also keep you from rushing through to get done, an effective trap into which many students fall.

Come Back and Reread Each Statement

After some time away, revisit your previous work and see if what you wrote makes sense. If necessary, rewrite some of the statements and draw lines through the old ones.

Have Someone Else Read It

When I write, I use 2-3 different editing apps to proof my work, but one critical step after that is to have someone else read what I wrote. That would be my wonderful wife who always manages to find something that isn't clear or has awkward wording; she is the last editor. Find someone who is willing to take the time to read what you have and will give you honest feedback about it. Pick someone you trust to be frank with you.

Write the Problem Statement and Accompanying Parts

Now it’s time to write the entire section, using the best version of your problem statement as the framework on which to hang the other parts. Once you have a version of this section, repeat the steps above to get the final version.


The Problem Statement is the heart of the dissertation; without a clear, concise presentation of what is wrong and needs to be addressed, it will be impossible to write a strong research proposal and successfully defend it. I have labored with students over this one section for weeks, giving them feedback and sources to consult. Only when they take the time to return to the literature to have an in-depth understanding of the topic will the specific problems become evident; one of those becomes their focus.

Unfortunately, some never reach this point. Of course, there are multiple reasons why a student is unsuccessful in completing the dissertation. So many things can get in the way and the time and effort it demands are too much to manage, but many fail because they overlooked these simple things. Don't be one of them!


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