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From the Viewpoints column in the December 2000 Perspectives

A Dialogue on Negotiating the ABD Gap--Scholarly Voices

Melanie Gustafson, December 2000

Editor's Note: This essay and the essays by Jennifer Brier and Michael Werner are based on presentations made at the forum arranged by the AHA Task Force on Graduate Education at the 114th annual meeting of the AHA in Chicago, January 6–9, 2000.

Employment issues dominate the discussions of many ABDs in history. This should not be a surprising fact. ABDs are being given the message that even as they work hard to complete their dissertations and as they meet other immediate professional and personal obligations, they must also expend energy on deciding their career path, thinking about when it is best to enter the job market, and preparing for the competition at all stages from submitting their dossier to going through the interview.

The anxiety shared by those who are preparing for, or are already moving through, the professional steps of the ABD stage was evident at the January 2000 AHA roundtable, "Negotiating the ABD Gap." This anxiety seemed to escalate as those in the room shared information and gave advice. Disagreements about how long it should take to complete the PhD, whether to take part-time teaching jobs or other jobs outside the profession, the benefits of taking time to write grants or other nondissertation writings, and other issues were evident among the panelists and the audience. There are no "right answers" to all the questions facing ABDs today. The roundtable actually provided evidence of the fact that if you have a wide circle of advisers, you will get a variety of answers to the most basic questions about how to move from ABD status to being fully employed as a historian in academia or elsewhere.

Upon reflection, there were many important points made at the roundtable but two seem of principal significance. First, it is important that everyone has knowledge of and is honest about the reality of the tight academic job market. All ABDs should be reading up on the state of the profession in publications like Perspectives, which has published numerous articles about academic hiring. On first reading, these articles may be discouraging to many ABDs, but they should be supplemented by the anecdotal evidence from sessions such as the January 2000 ABD Gap roundtable. There are jobs out there and, in some cases, the people competing for them are the people gathering at these professional meetings where they are learning more about how to prepare for and land the job. Reminders about the competitiveness of the job market should help ABDs face the fact that the completion of the dissertation and thereby the achievement of PhD status is increasingly necessary for getting a job. We can all recite cases of the ABD who got a job but the reality is that this is a rare occurrence.

The second point is intertwined with the first one. It is important to emphasize that while everyone faces the same job market, each person does so differently. Numerous factors—including job experiences, willingness to relocate, and scholarly achievements—make each individual's situation unique. That uniqueness might account for one ABD getting a great tenure-track job but it might also account for another not being considered by the same department. The one factor that levels the playing field is the completed dissertation.

How do ABDs get to the stage of a completed dissertation? Much of the discussion at the roundtable that was not taken up by the job market focused on this question. The advice given by both the panelists and audience fell into two categories. On the one hand were those who believed that you take every chance before you to get your foot in the door and prove your professional abilities. For some people, that might mean taking on teaching jobs; for others it might mean participating in a research project that is beyond the dissertation area. Such opportunities are out there and can provide numerous rewards. But one person's reward might be seen as another's distraction. Such a view led to those who advised ABDs to keep their heads down over their dissertations, minimize outside diversions, and finish the research and writing in a timely manner. These two positions can be seen as being on opposite ends of a yardstick. Comments from the audience demonstrated that for most people, neither of these positions is a possible or even ideal option. Most ABDs would cluster closer to the middle than to either end. One man spoke about how he taught in adjunct positions because his family has to eat. A woman introduced the subject of isolation, and people agreed that the need for support networks justified taking a full day to travel to a reading group.

Everyone who has completed a dissertation in our profession has stories about the process, just as everyone who has a job has a story about how they landed their first one. What I see as different today from the situation seven years ago, when I got my first tenure-track job, is a greater discussion of jobs outside the academy. This is no doubt due to changes in the academic job market and academia itself, but is also a result of the growth of the field of public history and exciting job opportunities there. In some areas of public history, the distinction between ABD and PhD status is a less defined variable in hiring and achievement, especially for those who have knowledge of new media technology. How this generation of historians will negotiate the ABD gap, or how they will transform its meaning, remains to be seen.

—Melanie Gustafson is an associate professor of history at the University of Vermont. She is the author of the AHA's popular guide, Becoming a Historian: A Survival Manual for Women and Men, which she is currently revising.