Is there a good way to list an ABD instead of a PhD on a resume?
January 31, 2013 6:36 PM   Subscribe

About a decade ago, I had a quarter-life crisis and decided to drop out of grad school in science... how do I deal with that now?

I went to an Ivy League university and then a very prestigious grad school for chemistry. I spent about 3 years earnestly working towards a PhD, but the work seemed to become unrewarding and my prospects in academia looked bleak (I hit that 3rd year wall... really hard). I was mentoring an undergrad who was applying for grad schools and he came to me one day with a letter of recommendation from our PI -- and it was not glowing. It was actually the opposite of glowing. I was shocked. (This undergrad had gotten a "backup" letter of recommendation from another professor and used that one... but wanted to let me know what my own advisor thought of our work together.)

That was the data point in my mind that made me think that I really needed to quit and do something else. (Other grad students in this lab had quit before me, and I heard I wasn't the last one to quit after I left, either.)

So I've been at a couple of jobs now, but I haven't really built a "career" in my mind. I may still be stuck in a mindset that I don't have any credentials to show that I'm a PhD-level employee. I don't really regret my somewhat rash decision to quit a PhD program (and I quit it totally, without getting the consolation master's degree). But I've take jobs so far, where I haven't needed to really demonstrate an advanced degree. And now I think it's time to try to move forward a bit more career-wise.

I don't want to go back to school for anything. I just want to start exploring my employment options more, but I still haven't sorted out how to explain this non-PhD on a resume. Do I leave it off entirely? It's only 3 years of a PhD, after all. Is a 3 year gap right after college a no-no? Or do I leave it on my resume (and even list the publication that actually has my name on it, even though I didn't finish that work...)? How do I really explain the quitting to an interviewer in a way that doesn't sound like I'm blaming my advisor or that I'm prone to making rash decisions? (I wouldn't even call it a rash decision because I really did actively decide to quit my PhD program for the sake of my best emotional well-being at the time.)

Hive-mind, let me know if there's a way to sweep this under the rug now that it's a decade old... or help me figure out a way to explain my situation that.. presents me in the most favorable way to someone who doesn't know me at all.

Thanks in advance.
posted by lostguy to Work & Money (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You should list is under your education, but please don't put 'ABD' on your resume. It looks tacky, and as people who've done a PhD will tell you, the 'D' is the biggest chunk.

When I see resumes that list 'ABD' and the person isn't in the process of completing the degree right now, I definitely look at them differently.
posted by yellowcandy at 6:40 PM on January 31, 2013

List the years you were at school, but don't list any kind of degree (obviously) or "ABD." It should be pretty clear what happened, but if they ask, tell them you realized that you didn't ultimately want to work in that field, and you left to pursue a job in [field you are now applying to]. If you are applying in the same field you would work with the PhD, this becomes much more difficult to explain, because although it shows you had the credentials to get into a PhD program, you aren't actually a "PhD level" candidate.
posted by murfed13 at 6:45 PM on January 31, 2013

Put it on your resume! My department of 7 includes 3 people who left science Ph.D. (although we all got consolation masters, but honestly that's not a big deal). My education has been well-regarded by everyone I've interviewed with, and an explanation of "I thought I wanted to go into academia but I realized it wasn't for me, so I left after 2.5 years" has raised nary an eyebrow because it's so freakin' common. I listed it under my education and under my job experience (as "research"), because I didn't have anything else for a while, and it's totally good.
posted by brainmouse at 6:46 PM on January 31, 2013 [5 favorites]

My school gave me a PhM for my ABDness. See if your school has an actual degree it can give you.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:47 PM on January 31, 2013

I dropped out of a master's program, but was there for a significant enough chunk of time that I list [Institution], Graduate Coursework, 20XX-20XX on my resume, below my undergraduate degree.
posted by freeform at 7:03 PM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I would list it as a job, Graduate Research Assistant or whatever your title was, perhaps with bullet points mentioning graduate-level coursework and the publication resulting from your research -- although if you have a separate section with other journal articles, that's a better spot for it.

I'm a recent PhD in a field not too far from chemistry, and we list our graduate work both under Education (as a degree) and Work Experience (the research assistantship and any teaching experience). You didn't get the degree, but you completed some courses and you were not unemployed for those years.

Depending on what kinds of jobs you're interested in, you could highlight various skills/accomplishments from your RA position. Even if you aren't going to work at a bench, the ability to do lit searches and generally communicate with scientists could be useful in lots of industries. You have some mentoring experience (the undergrad), writing experience, and possibly teaching experience. Were you in charge of lab safety, purchasing chemicals, etc.? Anything that flowed into your jobs since then and plans for the future?
posted by ecsh at 7:13 PM on January 31, 2013

Best answer: I think it depends on the heading of that section of your resume.

If the heading is 'Degrees', definitely do not list even an ABD. But if your heading is 'Education', you ought to be listing all the ways in which you've been educated, degree or not.

"Withdrawn in good standing from doctoral program" or "Doctoral research (withdrawn in good standing)" always seemed to me like a good way to phrase it, since (a) you ought to include something about it (lest it seem misleading), (b) that wording makes it clear that you didn't flunk out, and (c) it in no way implies that there's still a 'D' in the works.
posted by matlock expressway at 7:22 PM on January 31, 2013

Depending on your school and how far you got through the dissertation process, you might be qualified to use "Ph.C.", which means Candidate of Philosophy. Otherwise, I think I would stick with listing the school, the years you were there, and "Graduate Coursework" (or "Postgraduate Coursework" if you're outside the US), and whatever you actually did in terms of projects under your work experience and publications.

"I may still be stuck in a mindset that I don't have any credentials to show that I'm a PhD-level employee." You need to focus on the jobs you've had and demonstrate that you have sought out added responsiblity, functioned with increasing independence and taken on supervisory and higher-level activities to sell your "equivalent experience" argument convincingly. Not all years working in industry are created equal, and your worst problem with the ABD is that the credential is shorthand for the capacity to initiate and complete a project independently.
posted by gingerest at 7:57 PM on January 31, 2013

I list it with the explanation "dropped out of grad school" (plus what I worked on and the awesome thing I dropped out for).
posted by zippy at 9:03 PM on January 31, 2013

Using ABD strikes me more as a humanities thing, maybe - over there, in many programs, you go into the program only after already earning a master's, and you can claim ABD status only after completing all coursework and passing all comps. The idea is that you've left the program with only, like, one year to go...and might return to finish and defend a dissertation, even many years later. I know of one person who did, 20 years later! I'm amazed that his committee was intact.

If you don't have a master's, and aren't at that point, I dunno if ABD looks appropriate. And it should 't be used as a degree, certainly.

I like matlock expressway's wording. It's both honest and smooth.
posted by vivid postcard at 9:17 PM on January 31, 2013

I work at a place where LOTS of PhD dropouts end up. Many of them finagle a master's and list the master's on their resume, along with something about their position as a research assistant at that university that accounts for the time spent. Most people can read between the lines. I think everyone knows there are a lot of reasons grad school doesn't work out, not all of them having to do with what a useless quitter you are, and won't hold it against you.

There is one special case, though, which is that in my field (and specifically in my region) there are a few schools that are well-known for having reasonably good undergrad and PhD programs along with really worthless diploma-mill MS programs that graduate colossally clueless kids. I know a woman who dropped out of her PhD there and she literally has "MS (PhD dropout)" on her resume because she doesn't want people to think she thought the MS degree at this particular university was worth paying for. Which is wise, because when I see that I have to interview someone with a master's from this school I typically roll my eyes and groan.
posted by town of cats at 9:38 PM on January 31, 2013

On a similar topic.
posted by Medw at 9:41 PM on January 31, 2013

I left an MA program without completing my thesis (long sad story) and I list it in my education section as

Graduate Studies in (program x) at (University y), 2002-2004
posted by kaybdc at 11:02 PM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think "withdrew in good standing" is the polite/formal way of saying "dropped out," and (as a bonus) emphasizes that you really did leave voluntarily and weren't kicked out for some bit of horrible unprofessionalism.

List your research assistantship or teaching assistantship as work experience, and mention somewhere that you "withdrew in good standing" from the program, and you should be fine.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 5:15 AM on February 1, 2013

Best answer: I have a PhD and have hired engineers/scientists. I would follow ecsh's advice above and list your research experience as a job (only). (It's not totally uncommon for someone to get a BS and then work at a lab as a tech or research assistant for a little while, to feel out the academic research lifestyle.) This allows you to highlight the positives: skills and work experience. Listing anything under the education or degrees section, in my opinion, only highlights a negative--that you weren't able to finish a degree program as designed (for whatever reason). And I don't think there's anything to be gained from listing 10-year-old classes.

If I saw a resume that listed a BS in science followed by a few years in a lab, I would think you're a grad-school-type person who ended up not actually pursuing grad school--and that's essentially the case here, expressed without unfortunate statements like "dropped out," "incomplete," "left in good standing," etc., all of which would start me imagining scenarios that are not to your advantage as a job applicant.
posted by Mapes at 7:23 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

> ... expressed without unfortunate statements like "dropped out," "incomplete," "left in good standing," etc., all of which would start me imagining scenarios that are not to your advantage as a job applicant.

See, I think all of this hinges on what a person views the purpose of a resume to be.

If a resume is simply a list of what qualifies you for the job at hand, then, sure, pick and choose what you want. But if it's meant to be a chronology of education and work, it seems a bit disingenuous to drop whatever suits you just to save face. (That job you were let go from? Why not omit it, too?) IMO, it's always safer to take the path of least misrepresentation, or of anything that might be construed as misrepresentation.

And as for imagining a candidate to be less suitable due to withdrawing from an academic program, I think this reveals just as much about the reader as it does the applicant. Someone might read no more into it than they would about any change in career path, and an omission could just as easily lead to hypotheticals about why you didn't want them to find out about it. In this case, being forthright is much more likely to help you.

(Of course, this all depends on broader standards of what is and is not acceptable to include or omit on a resume in a given field.)
posted by matlock expressway at 2:00 PM on February 1, 2013

As a hiring manager, I wouldn't bat an eye at something like "Graduate Studies in (Field) at (School), 200X - 200Y."

I also want to to echo sm1tten that you'll want to think about how you present your reasons for leaving the program if it does come up. Keep the explanation brief, and don't bring up the number of people who also quit from that lab - you have no need to make excuses, and you definitely don't want to come off as bitter or predisposed to blaming. Make yourself the hero of the story - "I had an exciting opportunity to work in (X), which was more in line with my interests than academia" or "I realized that academia wasn't the best fit for me, so I left to pursue (Y)" get to the point, while staying focused on your actions and on positives rather than negatives.
posted by polymath at 7:25 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

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