I didn't fail my PhD defense, but I didn't pass. Should I quit?
September 30, 2016 10:38 AM   Subscribe

I got a "reconsideration" on my PhD defense, which is essentially "you have to do major revisions to the dissertation." This is pretty much unheard of. I don't know a single person this has happened to. My adviser had NO CLUE this was going to happen, and we both thought I was going to pass easily. More below.

My department is a complete garbage fire, and my adviser has been 100% negligent and unhelpful the entire time I was doing my PhD. I had to pull teeth to get him to do anything, even meet with me to discuss my progress. I have wanted to quit many, many times, but knew that I could probably finish if I put my mind to it. I got a job at the beginning of last year and started writing while working full time. It has been absolute hell.

I finished a draft in August and sent it to my committee in September. My adviser told me it was great and would pass with minor revisions. I believed him because even though he is a terrible adviser, he is a well-known researcher in my field and does excellent work and publishes often. He is the chair of our department, for goodness' sake! I was very proud of my work and thought it was a good contribution to the field. I thought my defense went very well, and that the committee members' questions were just your run-of-the-mill academic nitpickiness. Imagine my surprise when I did not pass, and was told I needed major restructuring of the dissertation!

My committee members never said a thing during the month leading up to the defense. They let me schedule it. They did not give any indication they would not pass me during the pre-defense meeting, and let me do my presentation. One of my committee members even smiled, gave me a thumbs up, and said "you got this!" when I started, and said "you write extremely well" during the discussion section.

I emailed every committee member to ask if they could give me specific revisions, because they all left silently before my adviser even started talking to me about revisions. I had to be the one to ask "wait, did I not pass?" I have only heard back from two of the members I emailed. Two have not replied at all after two days. One of the ones I heard from (the one who enthusiastically "you got this!"d me) said "you should plan on graduating in the spring because many of us will be too busy to reread a draft even if you get it in by November." Isn't that. . .your job?

So the one unknown I have left is how extensive these revisions are. My adviser just gives me vague answers and won't tell me anything until we have a "strategizing" meeting.

I'm trying to decide whether or not to quit. I do not need the PhD for my career anymore. The very idea of going back into the hell that is all-evenings-and-weekends, no social life, no exercise, no leaving the house dissertation writing, even for a couple months, makes me want to throw up. But everyone around me is trying to convince me to just hang on, that it won't be so bad, and I only need to put up with it for a little longer. I have been working on this a long, long time, and obviously a part of me would be sad to walk away.

But I'm also angry. This should never have happened. If my adviser clearly was not judging my work or guiding me adequately before the defense AND my committee members were so disengaged, what's to motivate them to help me now? I don't want to pay for another semester just because my committee can't take a few hours to read my revisions with a month of lead time before December deadlines. I'm generally fed up with this department's complete dysfunction and negligence. My adviser should never be allowed to supervise a PhD student ever again, famous name or no.

I tried the "what would you tell your friend if she were in this situation?" trick, but all I can think, knowing how my department operates is "quit. Eff those you-know-whats and run. You have a great career and a great life. It's not worth it anymore."

I need advice.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (38 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, I feel your pain! First, though, it's not "unheard of" for thesis committees to ask for revisions before accepting a dissertation, so don't beat yourself up over that.

What I would do is have that strategizing meeting with your adviser, and wait til you hear back from the other committee members. Assess what exactly is meant by "major revisions." It might not be as bad as you're thinking. But if it looks like it will be a huge amount of work and delay your life for yet another year, and if your dream career doesn't require the degree, it might be most prudent to walk away. Ask whether the department will grant you a master's degree if you don't complete the thesis -- this is pretty common in the sciences, although it may vary for other subjects.

Good luck!
posted by phoenix_rising at 10:52 AM on September 30, 2016 [16 favorites]

But everyone around me is trying to convince me to just hang on, that it won't be so bad, and I only need to put up with it for a little longer.

I need advice.

I agree with everyone around you. (I might have a different opinion if I knew what field you were in, because I can only relate to my close academic friends who are all in a certain field where even though a PhD isn't "needed," it really helps, and the small few who have quit regret it with every ounce of their being.)
posted by TinWhistle at 10:52 AM on September 30, 2016 [8 favorites]

Ok, the first thing is this isn't nearly as unheard of as you're making it out to be. Yes, your committee should have given you a heads up if they thought they weren't going to pass you, but "revise and resubmit" is something you're going to have to get used to if you want to spend any more time in academia. Stopping at this point would throw away all the work you've done for what is really a minor stumbling block. Press hard for meetings with each member of your committee and get them to specify exactly what they need to see from you to pass you, and then bang it out this semester.
posted by MsMolly at 10:54 AM on September 30, 2016 [41 favorites]

Can you be absolutely sure that having a PhD will never, ever help you in your career?

A couple of months of misery sucks while you're at it, but in a year you'll have some perspective and you'll also have a PhD... I think you'll end up regretting not sticking it out.
posted by Huck500 at 10:55 AM on September 30, 2016 [17 favorites]

Buckle up and stick it out. No one wants to spend the rest of their life explaining, even to themselves, that they "nearly got a phd but..." My phd isn't "needed" but I'd be aggravated if I had a frustrating story rather than a pointless title.
posted by Shutter at 10:58 AM on September 30, 2016 [7 favorites]

Your anger is understandable; I'd feel the same way. Frankly, the most annoying thing about your situation is you have not yet been told what revisions are necessary, the whole thing seems a little Kafka's-Trial-esque.

But I'd advise you not to quit now. You are so close! Meet with your advisor, nail down a document of the necessary revisions, and get his take on the scope and length of time it would take to complete them.

Angry as you may feel, a 'strategizing meeting' is exactly what you need now. Try to make full use of it, and don't feel shy about repeat-pestering your advisor and committee until you get the info you need.
posted by splitpeasoup at 11:05 AM on September 30, 2016 [11 favorites]

I agree with the majority here. Yes, this is completely and utterly frustrating and you're in the absolute throes of fuck-it-all-ness. Totally understandable (and justifiably warranted, it sounds like). But as with any strong initial emotional reaction to a situation it can often wreak havoc on the ability to make rational decisions.

You've come this far. You can push through. Here's the thing - you won't regret finishing, but there's a high likelihood six months, two years, ten years from now you will sorely regret not pushing yourself to clear the finish line.
posted by bologna on wry at 11:08 AM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Well, all I can do is give you advice from your perhaps future self-- I had pretty much the exact same thing happen to me 17 years ago, except maybe that I really liked my department and my advisor.

I needed more work on my thesis and I needed more prep on the defense itself. I went home, depressed, and came back a few days later and buckled down, studied more of the fundamentals for stuff in my thesis, boned up on some of the questions that my committee asked, came back 3 months later and did fine.

Career-wise (I'm in the sciences), the degree really helped me, even if I don't feel that I necessarily use what I learned on a regular basis. In my field, at least, there's a real benefit to having those three letters after your name and I'm sooooooo glad that I stuck it out.

[one little anecdote that might help you: after the failed defense, I was whining to my advisor: "Maybe I never should have even GONE to grad school!" and he replied, "Well, that very well could be true, but you are here now and you're going to finish!"]
posted by gregvr at 11:10 AM on September 30, 2016 [25 favorites]

Might be worth dropping in for a chat at the graduate school office if your committee members continue to be unresponsive, since it sounds like your department chair won't be helpful. The grad school may at least be able to give you a break on tuition / a diss-finishing grant, something. Don't run down your department to them, try to just state the facts and ask for concrete help. They'll probe if they want to know more.

Once you finish, they can't take your PhD away. You never know what the future holds and when a terminal degree might come in handy, and you're so, so close.
posted by momus_window at 11:15 AM on September 30, 2016 [16 favorites]

If nothing else, it's a matter of respecting yourself and the work you've spent already to get to this point:

Just do the revisions

Do it on the basis of the feedback you already got, or will get if you ask politely:
I would maybe call selected committee members (a little depending on the actual circumstances).
I would also sit down with the adviser and ask him how he thinks he can best help you in this particular situation, or whether he has any smart ideas about who else might be able to help you. Important: frame it as an "how do we solve this" type of thing and not a "you did wrong" thing.

And I agree with others, this is not at all unheard of (including the "lame adviser" part. Well, it's you who writes, not your adviser, so there's that). And you still "got this" -- with revisions (note that the terms "minor" and "major" revisions are subjective. Maybe for a committee member the suggested changes appear to be "minor", but for you in your anger, perhaps they're not).

All this said, part of a lesson like this one is to learn to cope with this exact type of frustration, because that's what's gonna happen again at every turn of an academic (and many other) career(s): funding application? Turned down, hone, improve, apply again. Book manuscript? Accepted with major changes. Journal article? Peer reviewer was peeved reviewer and wants you to re-write every sentence. And so on.
posted by Namlit at 11:22 AM on September 30, 2016 [11 favorites]

I was likely in a different field than you are. So my advice is probably a bit off.

It is unusual for someone to defend with encouragement from their advisor and committee and then be asked to do significant revisions. Something went wrong in the room with your committee after your defense. It may have something to do with your dissertation but it may have nothing to do with your dissertation. The unwillingness to discuss what they issues are leads me to think that there's something going on that is not related to your thesis. Your committee's refusal to work with you leads me further in that direction. I'd spend a little time looking into departmental gossip. It is possible that your advisor has pissed off more than one member of your committee and they're taking it out on you.

When I was selecting a thesis committee I had a faculty member who based on expertise should have been on my committee but refused because my advisor had pissed her off by refusing to be on the committee of one of her students. This is the kind of BS you may be experiencing.

Have that meeting with your advisor ASAP.

Your committee isn't doing its job. Generally I'd suggest going to the department chair but he's your advisor. Go to the university ombudsman and see what they suggest.
posted by sciencegeek at 11:23 AM on September 30, 2016 [56 favorites]

I know nothing about getting Ph.D.s, so use your judgment on this, but: could you possibly take 2-3 weeks vacation to unstress and get your life more in order, cook and freeze some meals, repair loose buttons, clean your house, fix the broken knob on the stove, etc.? Maybe that would make revising more tolerable, and it would give you perspective. Maybe you could even go to a beach.

I realize that setting everything aside means losing some of your immersion and flow; but it sounds like you're ready to quit, anyway, so maybe a little distance wouldn't hurt that much.
posted by amtho at 11:25 AM on September 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

I was you a few months ago. I have never been so angry, truly. Having committee members who were incommunicado for months show up at my defense with "major concerns" about my dissertation was astoundingly frustrating. I passed "with revisions" - but they were extensive enough I had to enroll over the summer.

But I stuck it out and finished the revisions and have my degree as of last month.

My advice:

1. Have the "strategizing meeting" with your advisor. Right now you're doing a lot of speculating and it might well seem worse than it is.

2. Your advisor needs to be your champion right now. Even if you're justifiably angry with him or her and their incompetence. They are the one who will get you through this. A reasonable advisor at this point should feel pretty damn bad about what happened to you and focused on getting you through. It also looks bad for your advisor if they have students not finish - they're invested too.

3. I stopped communicating with individual committee members pretty much at this point. I let all notes for revisions go through my advisor and we triaged them together, rather than having a bunch of individual conversations (that frequently gave me conflicting advice).

4. After the strategizing meeting, you need to leave with a very clear set of notes for moving forward and very clear deadlines.

5. Be angry, but don't let it overwhelm you. Being able to say "eff this garbage fire of a department" while walking away with your degree in hand feels so much better. Trust me.
posted by pantarei70 at 11:25 AM on September 30, 2016 [32 favorites]

Hang in there. This is very frustrating, but a completed PhD will help you in most careers, even if it's not really required. I know a lot of people who have used their PhD in non-academic careers to negotiate for a higher salary, so don't throw it all away over a couple more months.

Also, stuff may be happening behind the scenes. With a revise-and-resubmit, there *will* be feedback from the committee to tell you what they actually want from you. It is possible that some more informal feedback is given to your adviser, and that's what he will talk about with you at the strategizing meeting. Also, it seems like there may have been only one person on the committee who really disliked something in your thesis, as the other committee members seemed quite positive. This may very well mean that there is only one chapter or so that needs some additional work; but you won't know until you've met with your adviser. By the way, I *have* heard of (competent) advisers who got completely blindsided by a committee not passing their student. It happens, it sucks, but it is fixable. Good luck.
posted by CompanionCube at 11:26 AM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think it will depend a lot on what the revisions are, and whether those revisions are of the "is all-evenings-and-weekends, no social life, no exercise, no leaving the house dissertation writing" type, or whether there's just some little literature review addendum they want that you can bang out in a week of evenings. You don't know what it is yet. Go and meet them all in person. Bring a physical copy of the thesis, and maybe the slides from your talk as well. Get specifics.

Honestly? If they give you some monster list of revisions, experiments to redo, etc, and you already have a job lined up? This could totally be a way to get you to leave without the degree. More likely, though, is that one prof got a bug up their butt about your not including their favorite thing. I got blindsided in a similar way in grad school, although at an earlier point, and I am so, so glad that I kept all the screaming and crying at home, because the feedback was good and served me well later. While you may not need the degree, the job recommendations will be helpful, and burning those bridges won't be. I am super sympathetic to wanting to go and be done, but I think you need more information, and I think that this will likely be a learning experience once it's behind you.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:27 AM on September 30, 2016 [5 favorites]

uggggh. You are being treated horribly, and I'm sorry that you have to put up with this.

But, I also think that you are catatrophizing.

The very idea of going back into the hell that is all-evenings-and-weekends, no social life, no exercise, no leaving the house dissertation writing, even for a couple months, makes me want to throw up.

Until you know what the extent of the required revisions is, you don't know that you will be in for two (or more) months of hell. It's bullshit that they haven't given you enough information to figure out what needs to be done on your own yet, but you don't have the information, so you can't make an informed decision about quitting.

Have the strategizing meeting. Figure out what you need to do to pass, and better yet, what you need to do to pass in December. Ignore the committee member who told you to wait until Spring to graduate for now, but if it gets brought up again, ask about what your options are for redefending earlier.

If you can't redefend earlier, then think about what doing the revisions on a more relaxed pace could mean for you -- I understand the tuition thing, but what if you only had to work on this on Saturday mornings for 4 hours over 20 weeks, as opposed to 20 hours every weekend for 4 weeks.

Figure out what your options are, take some time to think, and if you still want to quit, go ahead.

illegitimi non carborundum
posted by sparklemotion at 11:30 AM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Take this with a grain of salt, because I quit a similar dumpster fire and don't regret it (but post proposal defense, not quite this late): I think you should postpone any decision about this until your strategizing meeting. You'll know more then and can make a more informed decision.

In the mean time: SERIOUS self care. Academia can really fuck with your head and your self-worth so take a few days to get right with yourself. You will be fine no matter which way you go -- you already have a sustainable job, so you can make this choice from a position of "I can do what I think is best for me," not "everything is horrible and unless I do this it will only get worse," or wherever your head might'be been before the job.

You totally can walk and be fine. You could maybe make some survivable edits, defend again, and be fine. Take a deep breath, get the full story from your advisor, and the make your decision.

This too shall pass, you will be ok!
posted by Alterscape at 11:32 AM on September 30, 2016 [13 favorites]

Good news! This isn't unheard of because it happened to me!

First, one of my closest friends said to me, "No one would hold it against you if you walked away." No one will! I'd probably be richer right now if I walked away into law school and became a patent lawyer or took the software job that someone offered me around the same time. Or gone to med school.

In any case, I did the following: scoped out with each committee member what changes they wanted and what additional work they required. Emailed those things out to the committee to ensure they all agreed. Then I worked my ass off for another semester, rewriting a couple of chapters and rebuilding my experimental infrastructure so it was capable of running the experiments I needed to do. And finally I got my thesis signed. The "done" thesis is always better than the brilliant thesis.
posted by deanc at 11:34 AM on September 30, 2016 [11 favorites]

Firstly, restructure and rewrite what you already have is not 'major revisions'. It actually falls under minor revisions, just the same as correcting a few spelling mistakes (albeit a lot more annoying and time consuming). Minor revisions can also be anything in between, I had to completely re-write my conclusions for example. Major revisions is when you have to re-enrol for at least six months and generate new data and write at least one new chapter.

It's also fairly common to have to re-write like this, and it gives you a chance to make a much better thesis with what is really not that much work compared with what you did to get this far. I know quite a few people that had to do this, and none of them were this spitting mad about it. They all just sucked it up and got on with it. Because really the thing is very nearly done at this point even if it doesn't feel like it, you have everything there, you just have to present it better. And learning how to do that is a good skill to have on it's own.

I also know two people off the top of my head that had to do real major revisions, so both of them took another full year to finish. In both cases they were let down by poor supervision, and in both cases they were able to pass no problems the second go around. They went through with it because they needed the degree.

I also know people who started writing, then just gave up somewhere along the way and never finished for various reasons. I'm sure they're all happy with their lives (the ones I keep in contact with certainly are) and don't regret it. But they are a little bit looked down upon by their now-ex peers because they are seen as not having the fortitude to finish.

So yeah, as one of the aresholes looking down on those people I think you should suck it up and get it done. You're so so close. And once you have that degree they can never take that achievement or the skills it taught you away from you. But maybe you don't care about the opinion of people like me (I wouldn't), so if you decide not to and move on with your life instead then do so in good spirit and decide to be happy and just let it all go.
posted by shelleycat at 11:36 AM on September 30, 2016 [7 favorites]

I don't know how it works at your university but I was given a final list of revisions at my PhD defence. Seems strange that you are being asked to make major revisions without any indication whatsoever what those are, given that your committee members should have already evaluated your thesis before your thesis defence and at the very least have met prior to or immediately following the defence to agree on what said changes are.

If it was me, I would look up what the policies are at your university and see what your rights are here.
posted by piyushnz at 11:37 AM on September 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Also, people up there are talking about re-defending, Unless you add substantial new data you probably won't have to do this.

So yeah, your number one step is to sit down with your supervisor and find out exactly what is required to move forward. You can't make good decisions about anything until then.
posted by shelleycat at 11:41 AM on September 30, 2016 [7 favorites]

I can not speak of course for your committee or your advisor. In my case, my advisor accepted as final my work and then had it passed around to the committee and they accepted it, perhaps mostly based on my advisor's ok. I would by all means go the distance. Find out specifically what is suggested for revisions, etc. and do it! You have invested time and energy and are very close to the finish line. Cross that line.
posted by Postroad at 11:51 AM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

My instinct was to say "Major revisions" are actually pretty common and not a big deal.

However, before responding, I did point this question out to someone I know who has been working to re-write their dissertation for some years now, after a defense that went badly. This person was working under the British system. They were emotionally devastated, of course, and so aren't up to responding themselves, though they said that on the one hand, they really wanted to reach out to you, on the other hand, it just cuts too close. With their permission, here are some quotes from what they said to me, and gave me permission to share here:

"Their situation is so similar. I wish I'd quit years ago when this first happened. It would have been awful, but better than this, especially since my advisor also noped out of helping me complete."

"Maybe you could write, anonymously, about my situation? I can't even go back and look at the thread. This was the worst thing that ever happened to me. It was incredibly traumatic, and the first instinct of everybody was to go 'oh buck up, it'll only be a few months work, go get 'em' and basically not believe me when I told them what happened. But it's not just a few months work when you don't have an advisor, and when you're committee doesn't care enough to give coherent direction."

"I also got major revisions with no direction on how to do them. Basically, they were like 'restructure your thesis so that it's on a different topic'. They actually made things worse by specifying a general topic are (which wasn't my thing) but not specifying that it was a general topic area so that it sounded like they wanted me to cover the whole topic. Major revisions with no clue on what or how to revise is wose than a fail, actually, because it basically forces you to quit or give up the rest of your life."

"You might add, by the way, that my advisor noped out, in part, because he was utterly humiliated by the failure. He was an extremely eminent man, and this was a huge slap in his face. I wish I'd been able to save that humiliation, somehow, as he might have been more interested in helping me. But maybe not."
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:10 PM on September 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

You didn't specify what field you're in, but "revisions" are honestly not uncommon. What *is* unusual is that you were in contact with your advisor through the process - major revisions are usually needed only when the student has gone off on their own and done some stuff and the committee sees some obvious problem that could have easily been addressed months ago if only the student had talked to them first.

So I have to second this comment upthread:

It is unusual for someone to defend with encouragement from their advisor and committee and then be asked to do significant revisions. Something went wrong in the room with your committee after your defense. It may have something to do with your dissertation but it may have nothing to do with your dissertation. The unwillingness to discuss what they issues are leads me to think that there's something going on that is not related to your thesis. Your committee's refusal to work with you leads me further in that direction. I'd spend a little time looking into departmental gossip. It is possible that your advisor has pissed off more than one member of your committee and they're taking it out on you.

Unfortunately - and it sucks to say this - I think that may be right. Whether it was some disagreement on the spot, or some other inter-personal issue, someone on the committee has a problem, and it probably is a problem with your advisor. Since he's the department chair, this should be surmountable. I'd start by asking other professors in your department that you're friendly with if there's something you need to be aware of.

Or talk to the other committee members one on one - put on your best hurt and puzzled expression and ask them for their honest advice. If you find that one of them refuses to talk to you, maybe arrange for a minor accident.

Obviously, don't quit - you're nearly done.
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:39 PM on September 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

What are "MAJOR" revisions? In my experience (I'm an assistant professor), revisions are really typical.
posted by k8t at 1:33 PM on September 30, 2016

You don't know how big the revisions are.

Full stop.

Don't make decisions until you know what is required. If you need to edit, then that's a nuisance but surmountable. If you need to redo research and start again with IRB...well, that's a different story.

Oh, and I get how defeated you feel. After I had scheduled my defense, I had to rewrite my entire Chapter 4. The results were correct, but I hadn't structured the chapter correctly, and neither my chair nor my editor caught the structural issue in the review draft. It was a crushing blow because I thought I was DONE WITH WRITING THIS POS. I had to do a huge edit under a tight deadline to meet my distribution-to-committee date. It wasn't so much the deadline as the OMG I CAN'T WRITE AGAIN.

Take a break until you can meet with your chair. Do no work on this at all. You are on a full mental break. When you meet with your chair, find out what revisions you need and how the revisions will be assessed. Do you need a second defense or just an all-clear from your chair?

I'm not someone who generally advises people to do things that make them miserable. That said, finish your disseration. Everyone, at some point in the process, hates their chair. You are close enough to the finish line that it's worth dancing to what tune they are playing.
posted by 26.2 at 1:41 PM on September 30, 2016 [5 favorites]

Something went wrong in the room with your committee after your defense

Just to return to this bit: there's no way to know whether or not that's the case without actually having been in that room. It can just as well be that the democratic process (unexpectedly for some) tipped the balance. I had that happen once when I was a student. My point is: getting to know the gossip that eventually trickled through hurt my feelings back then, and 30 years later it still hurts when I think of it.

Try not to fall into the trap of trying to get hold of who-said-what. Concentrate on what actually can be done to get your work approved. Be angry and frustrated once you've received your degree.
posted by Namlit at 1:51 PM on September 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm not in academia, but I did once have a completely shitty experience in school, where I felt I was on the receiving end of serious injustice, my academic (and therefore professional) career was set back two years, and a totally incompetent asshole was able to crush me with her little finger, even though everyone around me said she was wrong and I was right. What's worse, I was a broke single parent at the time.

I looked at giving up or totally changing courses, but ultimately decided to eat shit and come back and repeat her class and graduate.

I'm glad I did for professional reasons (eventually got a great job I love that I could not have gotten otherwise), but also for personal reasons. In retrospect, this whole thing was a Life Passage, in the way that leaving home at 18, or having a child, or major relationships have been life passages.

This shitty experience of failure and injustice was the fire that birthed me into a phoenix. I became a different person - in some ways more jaded, but in other ways more powerful, focused and resilient.

I don't know you, but my instinct is that if you look back at this in 10 years, you will be glad and proud that you powered through this bullshit to get your PhD.
posted by latkes at 1:54 PM on September 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

In a similar (but earlier in the process) situation, I decided to quit. Best thing I could have done for my health and sanity, and 10 years later I have a great career. Feel free to memail me if you want that perspective....
posted by Valancy Rachel at 2:39 PM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have a PhD that I don't use. I almost didn't get it, took time off, and finally had a friend who kicked my ass and shamed me into turning in a Minimum Viable Dissertation that was accepted. Assuming you can get the scope and confirm it won't be years, do everything you can to finish. It's been worth it for me and my self-esteem, even though I don't use it, to have the PhD, and not to feel bad about an ABD. You deserve that.

If it's going to take years more to finish, then F- that. I both like having the PhD and also think I spent way too many years on it.

Grad school is crazy making. Keep in mind that, while you're in the midst of it, everything feels horrible. This is true for everybody with a few freakish exceptions. It will look better in the rear view mirror.
posted by troyer at 3:43 PM on September 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

The flip side of the observation that you shouldn't resubmit in November because committee members will be too busy suggests that the recommended revisions won't be terribly onerous... because it implies that you could complete them by November. That's only 4-6 weeks away! Have the meeting and then decide on November or Spring based on both practical and political considerations. You've got this.
posted by carmicha at 4:12 PM on September 30, 2016 [5 favorites]

Non grad student here, but I'm thinking you need to find out specifically how much work they want (and if it's doable) before you make a decision. If it's reasonable and you can get them to be specific and you can see how to do it and there's a light at the end of the tunnel, then stick with it for another year (or however long this shit goes).

However: if your situation is like if I only had a penguin's friend....and I'm kinda getting that similar vibe...I wouldn't advise you to stick with if. If you're gonna get a bunch of shrugs and "I just don't like it, fix it. ""Fix what?" "I don't know, I just don't like it," kind of shit...then what's the point? If that is what is going on, the entire enterprise sounds doomed if they don't like you, or your advisor. If the whole thing sounds vague and doomed, then I say feel free to nope on out.

But you have to find out the whole situation first before you decide. Take some chill pills, watch some bad TV, and do whatever you need to do to calm down a bit before you find out.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:06 PM on September 30, 2016

Hang in there. You're quite close to the end, even if it feels miles away at the moment. "I very nearly got my PhD" isn't something your future self would enjoy saying. Be nice to your future self and work those extra months now. <3 You got this.
posted by figgy at 8:20 PM on September 30, 2016

I thought a bit more about this question last night. Over that last few years, I've talked to a lot of people who completed or did not complete their dissertation. Based on my recollections and applying some broad a posteriori coding, I think the ABD narratives fall into three categories*:

1. Pursuing this degree was a mistake from the start. These people are happy they stopped pursuing something that didn't make sense. If they have a feeling of remorse, it's about the decision to start the degree and not the decision to quit.

2. Life got in the way and I stopped my degree to do x. These people are a mixed bag of feelings about quitting. I can't draw any conclusion here based on my recollections.

3. Chair issue/lack of department support/dumpster fire. I can think of 4 people in this category. (1 had his chair leave, 1 had a program shut down, 2 are just dumpster fires.) All of these people seem to have lingering resentment. It doesn't seem to matter if it was years ago or if they found meaningful work in their field or if they feel leaving was the correct decision, there is still some residual resentment about the years/cost/frustration/unfairness. All four also express some doubt about it.

You aren't category 1 or category 2. Based on my small observation set, I'd do whatever it takes to not be in category 3.

*Of course, this is only a convenience sample and it's based on recollection of a biased observer. Plus, we don't know if the subjects recollections are accurate (did they really reprioritize or did they craft a narrative that made them a proactive departure rather than a victim of a bad chair?) I'm actually interested in studying this formally now that my brain is churning on it.
posted by 26.2 at 1:34 PM on October 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have a PhD. In my program most people had to do dissertation revisions before finishing.

Do what you need to do to finish the PhD. And I'm sorry for your experience. I know how difficult this sort of experience in grad school can be.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:14 AM on October 2, 2016

I emailed every committee member to ask if they could give me specific revisions, because they all left silently before my adviser even started talking to me about revisions. I had to be the one to ask "wait, did I not pass?" I have only heard back from two of the members I emailed. Two have not replied at all after two days. One of the ones I heard from (the one who enthusiastically "you got this!"d me) said "you should plan on graduating in the spring because many of us will be too busy to reread a draft even if you get it in by November." Isn't that. . .your job?

(0) Have a sit-down meeting with your advisor.

(1) As a faculty member in a department with a graduate program, I'm really angry on your behalf. One of the most critical jobs of faculty in graduate programs is helping graduate students succeed, and it does not sound like your faculty are being helpful. However:

(2) Two days is maybe too short to get careful, written feedback about the desired revisions. And at least in my department, the beginning of October is a really, really busy time. Emails can get pushed off or lost. Sad to say, you're probably not the top deadline your committee is dealing with, now that the dissertation has passed (even if your revisions should be a higher priority, two days is just not very long).

(2a) Schedule meetings with your committee members individually, or show up to their office hours. But don't rely on email for this first conversation.

(3) Revisions are a fact of life. Do not despair until you know what they're asking for.

Do you need to do a second defense, like did you actually fail, or do you just need to revise the thesis?

(4) The crack about having to graduate in the spring is frustrating. It's lots of money. Depending on the quantity/type of revisions you are asked to do and your funding situation, you might try to emphasize to the committee members that it's important that you graduate in the fall, so you don't have to pay specific $X in the spring (tuition/fees/housing...). However, often there's a possibility of only taking 3 credits or something to finish, and sometimes there are "finish up the dissertation" funding pots.

Conversely, I don't know how long your dissertation is or what your field is, but I probably would not have time to carefully read a 500 page dissertation again between now and November. (on the other hand, my dissertation was only 85 pages.)

(5) It's too bad your advisor is the department chair. Is there anyone else in the department you can go talk to about this? Someone you feel comfortable with, who is involved in the graduate program, but who is not on your committee? See just how whack this is in terms of department practice. If something's messed up politically, then maybe that person can help.

Or maybe (although this is more unlikely) there's someone neutral you could talk to at the graduate school.

If it is politics, there's always the dean of the graduate school to talk to, although I'd rather have a faculty member who is willing to stick up for you go to that meeting with you.

I'm generally fed up with this department's complete dysfunction and negligence. My adviser should never be allowed to supervise a PhD student ever again, famous name or no.

This really is something that it would be helpful to bring to the attention of the gradaute school, or of the dean of the college your department is in. But it would be better to wait until either you've definitely decided to bail, or (ideally!) until after you've graduated.
posted by leahwrenn at 10:30 AM on October 2, 2016


First time poster. I had a similar situation, a kind of never ending dissertation. My adviser was incredibly smart and completely disinvested in me graduating. Every time I went out into the field, it was the "last time", only to have to do it 10s more times. I went through two advisers, causing me to have to start over. I had to replace a committee member due to politics. I had to do revisions repeatedly because my paper ruffled a member's feathers. I didn't sign a piece of paper in time (because my adviser never cared to inform me about deadlines), so I had to wait an entire YEAR before I could apply again for review. I almost had to do it again before I got a copy of the department deadlines from the admin office. My funding was cut, then reinstated. At one point, I literally tracked down a committee member with a piece of paper and a pen and CORNERED them, physically, as they were leaving their office to sign off on a damn paper because they were ignoring me like a child. I could go on, but I did stick it out as these people said and eventually got my PhD.

I can say that I was jaded about the entire thing (and still am), but I'd be much more jaded if I walked away empty handed. People care a lot about paper. I have a friends that left without theirs, and no one cares if you almost got a PhD or about all the experiences put you close to it. No one will care about how hard it was or how jerky everyone was to you. No one will care how long you tried. No one will cry with you. No one will care. All they will care about is the paper.

Stick it out. 1 or 2 more years makes the next 30-40 better, or at least less bitter.
posted by Ragnarok at 9:40 PM on October 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I hate to say it, but even if getting a PhD won't really help you in your career, I suspect that spending several years in grad school and then *not* getting the degree could in fact hurt you. You have a job now, and it sounds like they didn't hire you contingent; but the resume you sent them said "PhD expected 2016". The next resume you send out will say something like "worked at company X 2015-2019, in school 2010-2016, highest degree Master's 2013" which is just not as strong.
You're currently in school, you're almost there. Your advisor has screwed you over, it's true, but failing to graduate is not going to teach them a lesson. Your best course is to start working with all the professors on the committee and not just your advisor; if you can be as pro-active and professional as possible, then it will be obvious that the fault lies more with the advisor than with you, which is about as much revenge as you can hope for.

Call up the grad school office and double-check their calendar. At my school there was a spill-over on the semesters, such that I was a student fall semester, I turned in the written dissertation in December, and filed paperwork for a January defense, wrote the defense talk over Christmas, did the defense date before the school's deadline in January, and got the revisions done and approved before their final "paperwork complete" deadline in February, which meant that I wasn't paying spring semester tuition, I started my post-doc job in March, and by the time my "graduation date" rolled around in May, I didn't give a crap and skipped the ceremony.
posted by aimedwander at 9:32 AM on October 3, 2016

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