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From the Viewpoints column in the December 2000 Perspectives

Rethinking the ABD Gap

Michael Werner, December 2000

The general thrust of discourse about the "ABD gap" seems to be that doctoral students need to finish their degrees as quickly and efficiently as possible. Beyond one's fifth or sixth year as a graduate student, it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain funding; indeed, long-term graduate students often face such punitive measures as the loss of student loan deferments and ineligibility for student housing, not to mention the opprobrium of family, colleagues, and faculty advisers.

We all are familiar with lurid stories about graduate student malingerers who take years or decades to finish, if they finish at all, yet are determined to milk their privileged status for all that it is worth. Such characters doubtless do exist here and there. But my sense is that the graduate student malingerer has become the "welfare mother" of academe—a convenient bugbear who is used to foreclose substantive discussion of the broader aims and political economy of graduate education.

How will we respond to dwindling resources, a contracting job base, and declining institutional prestige? Will we pull up the drawbridges, tighten admission standards, and weed out long-term "malingerers"? Or will we fundamentally rethink the meaning of graduate education, encouraging students to branch out beyond traditional career paths and giving them the time and resources to explore? All too often, the scapegoating of "graduate student malingerers" prevents us from even considering the latter option.

I certainly am not going to challenge the proposition that many graduate students (myself included) need to be strongly encouraged to rethink their priorities and focus on their academic work. However, I wonder if this "five years or else" mentality takes a too narrowly teleological view of graduate education, assuming that the end point of doctoral study is simply the dissertation defense. All too often, this mentality inhibits graduate students' time-consuming, but invaluable, exploration of ideas—in research and writing, in teaching, in community work. Not only is this exploration vital to students' intellectual, professional, and personal development, it also is crucial to the nurturing of a vibrant, diverse scholarly community.

The "five years or else" mentality also overlooks the structural impediments that many graduate students face as they negotiate the ABD gap: lack of child care, health care, or a reliable source of funding for day-to-day living expenses. I think that many readers will be all too familiar with the trap of the part-time circuit. We all know how it works: an advanced doctoral student without funding takes on a series of part-time jobs. This makes it difficult to focus on research, which in turn makes it far more difficult to obtain funding. So the student takes on another part-time job, and the cycle continues for another year.

A second set of structural impediments stems from the conflicting institutional politics underlying graduate programs, particularly at more research-oriented institutions. Here we might highlight how many universities are pouring resources into infrastructure and cash-generating undergraduate, terminal masters, and professional programs, while bleeding money from non-technical doctoral programs. This means that fewer resources are available to departments that traditionally have focused on training doctoral students.

These institutional politics also have had a powerful impact on how resources are allocated within departments, reinforcing the "star system" in academe—the concentration of wealth in a small (and shrinking) academic elite, even as day-to-day teaching and administrative tasks increasingly are shouldered by a growing pool of non-tenured (and often part-time and ill-paid) academic employees, including graduate students. These politics also have reinforced the rush to professionalization in the way non-technical programs train graduate students. Many departments fear that if they do not place sufficient numbers of students in full-time jobs, their very cause d'être will be called into question.

I should emphasize that I still regard graduate students, and academics in general, as a fairly privileged group. However, I do not think that they can be isolated from broader social trends in American life—most particularly the casualization of labor and vastly increased workweeks of the 1980s and 1990s.

These changes affect graduate students negotiating the ABD gap in three ways. First, they often mean that graduate students face a loss of support from family and increased difficulty in supporting themselves through graduate school. Second, the increased competition among graduate students for a small number of jobs vastly increases graduate advisers' power as gatekeepers. Third, tenured faculty increasingly are obligated to act as middle managers over nontenured academic employees, including graduate student employees. All of these changes undermine the collegial exchange of ideas in universities, departments, and classrooms.

Supportive departments and dissertation committees can to some extent, mitigate the destructive potential of these trends, both for graduate students and the scholarly community as a whole—at least this generally has been my experience at the University of Chicago. But these trends can never be entirely eliminated. They highlight the importance of our work as public intellectuals in the broadest sense of the term: first, as members of a larger public; and second, as advocates for a more just society. Our graduate study needs to be seen as a way to develop this broader work, not simply as an entrée into the professoriate.

We also need to consider how the "five years or else" mentality and the consequent scapegoating of graduate student malingerers plays off of destructive trends in American culture, especially the ugly recrudescence of anti-intellectualism. We need to reassert the importance of process over product, exploration over efficiency, education over training—not simply for the sake of graduate students or even the broader scholarly community, but also for our society as a whole. All too often, the question asked about "the ABD gap" has been, "Can we afford to allow students the time and support they need for their intellectual, professional, and personal development?" Perhaps the question that we need to be asking is, "Can we afford not to?"

—Michael Werner is a graduate student at the University of Chicago.