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anonymous grad student

I agree with most of what you say here. Just one note: I don't think it's true that many US schools give their students "unlimited adjuncting" (or anything close to it). It may be that some large state universities can do this, but even the ones of those I am familiar with don't offer that to students who have finished, or do so competitively (a small number of students will get adjunct work in the department). In many private universities--including mine--there is no such possibility at all, for anyone. Anyway, this isn't to disagree, just to say that I think the situation is equally as bad for most US grad students! (Perhaps depending on geographic area--for example, while my university doesn't have such opportunities, it does seem to be not super hard to get adjuncting work at places in the surrounding area, because we happen to have a very dense concentration of colleges and universities here.)

Anonymous Bosch

The requirement to have a PhD in hand is unconscionable and is one more sign, as if we needed it, of the declining labor conditions that are destroying the profession. It does stack the deck in favor of those who are well-off and against those who, like you and like myself, aren't well-off. And it's only one of a number of such exclusionary aspects prevalent in academia. Rest assured you're not venting. I have multiple publications, prestigious awards, and am actually finishing the PhD 'on time' (i.e., 6 years), etc. but may well be out of the profession before I've had a chance to really begin just because I can't afford to travel around the country doing low-paid temp work at one school after another while I hope for a 'real' job - you know, one with benefits where you're not let go the minute they no longer 'need' you. If I wanted that kind of treatment, I could have received it as a high-school dropout.

SC member

Thanks for the post, Justin, and best wishes on your upcoming job search next year. As I understand it, "Ph.D. in hand" is usually understood to mean "Ph.D. by time of appointment." You've probably thought about this, but in case others haven't, here's one scenario we're trying to avoid on search committees: we hire an ABD candidate, and she spends the first year wrapping up her dissertation. The difficulty is that as soon as she steps on our campus, the tenure clock is ticking. She's just lost one year of her research time on her dissertation, which places her at a HUGE disadvantage for her third year review (which must go well if she is going to be allowed to complete the tenure run). At this point she has lost a year (out of three) of her research time. Let's say she squeaks her third-year review, with a stern letter saying, "you had better make up for lost time for an unproductive first year and get publishing." Even so, she has one less year on the tenure cycle to do what she is supposed to do. Remember, she has to apply for tenure at the beginning of her sixth year, so she really only gets 5 years to make the case for tenure. If she spends the first year on the dissertation, she's lost 20% of her time, and now must do all of the work in only 80% of the time. This is not a recipe for success. Departments do not want unsuccessful tenure runs. Unsuccessful tenure runs can lead to loss of tenure-track lines due to administrative decisions. So, hiring an ABD brings risks to the candidate and to the department. I hope this makes sense. Just my $.02. The job market is brutal, so best wishes next year, and thanks again for your comment..

anonymous grad student

SC member: unfortunately I've got strong evidence (e.g. members of other SCs telling me) that many people really do mean 'PhD in hand at time of application'. I take it that's what Justin's post was responding to. I don't think there's an issue with people requiring someone to have a PhD when they start a job--that seems totally reasonable to me (even if in the old days it was common for people not to have defended by the time they started a job). I took it that Justin was responding to a practice that seems to be becoming more widespread of first-cutting/ignoring applications from people who don't have a PhD at the time of the application deadline. Departments really do do this!

hieronymous bosch

I wasn't all that clear in my earlier post. What's truly reprehensible is not that a TT-track job would require a 'PhD' in hand by the time of hire. I have no problem with that. The thing that has been making my stomach turn as I peruse job ads in recent month is the number of ads I'm seeing that require applicants to have a PhD to even be considered for the job at all - and I'm talking about non-TT-track jobs - lectureships, VAPs, and the like. I'm seeing jobs that pay in the 35k range with a teaching-heavy load (as much as 4/4 or 5/5) with no guarantee of employment beyond 9 months that are requiring or strongly 'preferring' PhDs in hand for even consideration of the application. That is completely unacceptable.

SC member

anonymous and hieronymous: Thanks for the clarifications. I wonder if one of my points still holds: if you are spending any of your time on the dissertation during your time of employment with us, then that is detracting from your duties at our institution. If you don't have the Ph.D. when you apply, then there is a chance (small, large, who knows?) that you won't have the Ph.D. when you show up here. Then the risks I mentioned would obtain. Even for a VAP, we want you to be publishing and improving your teaching evals so that you do become a better teacher and have a richer CV to get a tenure track-job after being with us. Any time spent dissertating while you are here detracts from what you should be doing.

I agree it would be problematic to disregard an ABD candidate's application if the candidate has a firm dissertation defense date set. In the absence of a firmly -stated defense date, then there is some ambiguity about whether or not the degree will be completed in time for the job.

Here's one scenario I have seen: since jobs are hard to come by, both candidates and directors are very, very optimistic in cover and recommendation letters about ABDs, saying things like "the dissertation is almost done" in cases when the dissertation is not almost done. I've seen such optimism in cases where not a word of the dissertation is written. (The problem of hyperbole affects all aspects of letters of recommendations and for this reason some people put little stock in them). NB: my experience is with SLACs, not R1s.

So, here's a question for you: if you are ABD, how can you assure the SC that you will have the degree done before the start of the job in the absence of a firm dissertation defense date?

Josh Mugg


I was in the exact same position at York University (Toronto) last year, and it is very frustrating. Here is a question, though. A couple of things. I wonder if having a defense date set might help. Last year when I went (softly) on the market, I had no defense date, but this year I did. I did better this year (though I had another publication too).

Second, you write: "I have a TAship scheduled for the Winter semester but that will be cancelled if I defend and get the PhD before the semester begins." The antecedent of the conditional (I defend AND get the PhD before the semester begins). Suppose that you only do one of the two (i.e. defend).

At York, if you get minor revisions (which most folks do), then you have 6 months to remain a grad student and do them. If you get major revisions, you get a year. Even if you get no revisions, you still have to do a 'final camera-ready submission' and then APPLY to graduate. So the defense is the end of the story in terms of real work, but no in the eyes of administrators. Is there a way of scheduling your defense such that you can take your sweet time getting the final paperwork done?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Justin: I feel for you and the other ABD candidates who are in this position, and agree with you in principle. However, following 'SC member', I think we need to be sensitive to the kinds of realities that led search committees to adopt this kind of policy in the first place--for what is right in principle and what is right in practice, given unintended consequences of policies, can be very different things.

Although I do not know how often the kinds of cases SC member describes occur, I know that they do occur. I have personally known a few people whose committee members said in their recommendation letters--overly optimistically--that they would be done with the dissertation and have degree in hand if hired. But they were just that: overly optimistic. The student didn't defend in time, and had to spend most of their first year on the job (in a TT position) still finishing their dissertation. And unfortunately, as SC member explains, this screws everyone over. It screws over the candidate, who will almost certainly struggle to get tenure; and it screws over the hiring department, for the same reason.

Now, of course, the natural thing to say here is that "committees and candidates should not exaggerate how close to completion the student is." But the problem is, although that sounds right in principle, there are strong incentives to the contrary. Students and their committee members--no matter how well meaning they may be--often have strong incentives to be overly optimistic. If a student is coming up against the end of their funding, for instance, their committee might feel bad for not supporting the candidate on the market immediately (and hence say--honestly, in their own mind, but overly optimistically--that the student will be done). Etc.

So, that's the problem. It would be great if candidates and their committees weren't overly optimistic about whether ABD students will have degree-in-hand by the time they start jobs they are hired for. Indeed, if they didn't have a tendency to be overly optimistic in this regard, there would be little risk to departments hiring these candidates--and there would be no need for "degree in hand" requirements for consideration. But the problem, again, is the job market incentives candidates and their commitees to *be* overly optimistic--and this has caused (or so I hear) many a department to be snookered into hiring candidates who still have to work on their dissertation after being hired; something which, again, is very bad for the candidate and the department that hired them.

I suppose one final option is for hiring departments to not have a policy requiring degree in hand, but for them to make really, really sure the candidate will have defended by time of hire. Yet here too there is a problem: how are they to be really, really sure? Once again, candidates and their committee members can have incentives to be overly optimistic. Suppose an ABD candidate is interviewed or receives a fly-out, and the committee then phones the candidate's committee and asks, "Are you really, really sure the candidate will be done?" Obviously, the committee has strong incentives to be overly optimistic, as they won't want to tank the candidate's chances. So, it seems, we're back at square one.

Given that I agree with you in principle that search committees should be open to hiring ABDs, I think it would be great if there were a way to resolve the above problems. I'm just not sure what those ways might be. Do you have any ideas?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Josh: I'm not sure that having a set defense-date resolves the problem. I knew a few students who had defense dates more or less set, but who for one reason or another (their simply not being done by the defense date, or their committee being unsatisfied with the dissertation) had to push their defense date back. Indeed, as you note, committees can request revisions that allow 6 months to a year for completion--something which might force a candidate to spend most of their first year on the job revising their dissertation.

just a thought

There is a potential conflict that is being lost in this discussion. The original poster is concerned that ABDs are not given adequate consideration. Many many posts on this and other sites have emphasized how unfair the job market and search committees are to people who have been on the market for a while (so-called stale PhDs). Clearly, any committee concerned with the fate of the one group (the PhDs that are getting stale) will tend to overlook the other group (ABDs).
I am sure when the original poster (if he is on the market for many years) will see the need and value in preferring non-ABDs.

Justin Caouette

Thanks everyone for the comments and the discussion. I'll just add a few things:

@anonymous grad student - I have similar evidence. Thanks for your comments, it's good to know others share my disdain for these sorts of practices and that you clearly see what I am getting at.

@SC Member - I understand your concerns about working on the dissertation while employed and having this work affect on'e ability to gain tenure. I think those concerns are warranted. I was thinking there are 2 kinds of ABD candidates. First there is the ABD candidate that has a bunch more work to do and then there is the 2nd type of ABD candidate, one that has all but defended their dissertation and the defense date is set before applications are even considered. SO, in my case I will defend my dissertation some time in October or November. But, given that many jobs apps are due around this time I will not have defended by the time I send out my packet. Given the strong pull many SC members have about having the diss in hand this causes my app to get chucked into the bad pile. The purpose of my post was to push against throwing me (and others like me in a similar position) into the bad pile. Now, most positions start in August or September. I don't think it's a legit worry of I defend in November that my dissertation corrections (if there are any) will take that long to complete. Do you think that's a legit SC concern to have (worrying about the diss affecting tenure), if one is defending as early as I am?

@hieronymous bosch - keep spitting the truth!

@Josh - I'm currently looking into that option. As it stands, we have a month to make corrections (minor or major). But, there might be some loopholes that I can exploit (thus, I'll be looking into those instead of publishing - I'm joking of course *sorta*).

I have more things to say to Marcus and 'just a thought'. I'll put my responses in a different comment.

Thanks again to everyone that chimed in, the discussion was helpful and productive. I think folks can see my concern much more clearly thanks to the comment thread.

Justin Caouette

Thanks for the comment and of course for the venue to ask such questions, Marcus. This site is an excellent service to those of us who are most vulnerable in the profession. I think such service ought to be recognized by tenure committees, but, that's for a different post. One that I hope to get to this summer (though I have a lot of dissertation writing to finish ;)).

Re: your response to Josh - I think you're right. Having a date might not be enough. However, if I bust ass and defend in September or early October and my letters say that I defended but that I won't have the PhD until I submit the final draft to grad studies, do you think it's still legitimate to hold it against me because I do not have the PhD in hand? Again, many who chimed in when I posted on this via Facebook claimed that I need to be Dr. Justin Caouette in order to get people to look at my application seriously, and this seems off to me.

To your general comment: I guess I'm not a big fan of pointing to a few cases and saying "see the concern is legit". At the end of the day life happens sometimes. I'm sure there are many letter writers who say that candidate X is a joy to have in the department but when candidate X arrives to their new job they are not the joy the letter writer described. I don't think what follows from this is that we take the letter writer with a grain of salt. I think life happens and people can change. Maybe candidate X lost their mother or child before starting. Maybe candidate X is having an existential crisis that they were not going through when the letter writer was writing their letter.

The point, for me, is that having a few candidates not live up to their letter is not grounds for discharging the content of the letters written by others for others. I'd guess that most of what is said in a letter is more or less true of the applicant. Sure, there are those that may exaggerate a bit, whether it's on how the letter writer regards the candidates ability to finish up or how collegial they are in the department, but that shouldn't push others not to take letters from other professional philosophers seriously.

I wonder though, if one thinks that the overly optimistic letter writer re: ABD students forces one to discredit the content of the letter, then shouldn't one also think that the letters for PhD holders should be discredited in the same manner given that we can point to anecdotal evidence that suggests PhD holders don't live up to the great things that letter writers have said?

Re: any ideas I might have. Well here is one: If there is a date set to defend the diss, that date should be roughly 6 months from the time of the starting date of the position. So, if positions start in August or Sept (as they typically do), then you should have a firm date set by February. This ensures that even if things take longer than expected that things are very likely to be done by the start date and this should alleviate concerns that SC member alluded to in this thread.

Also, in order for a date to be set in my department it must be made official with the graduate school. But, before we set the date we must make plans with our outside examiner (we have one examiner outside the University) so we can be sure to fly them in. Once a date is set in Calgary (and most of Canada) that date is pretty much locked in given that we have to fly in someone from Europe or the States in order to have them sit in on our defense.

I'm not sure how many schools require registering the date with the graduate school, so this recommendation might not be universal, however, for those that do, I think candidates should show this evidence if they are ABD to help alleviate some concerns that SC members may have about completion. And, I think this ought to alleviate their concerns and ABD candidates be taken seriously if it can be shown.

Justin Caouette

Thanks for the comment @justathought

It's not at all *clear* to me why a committee member that is concerned about the fate of "stale PhD's" will or should overlook other groups (ABD's). Maybe you could speak more to why being concerned for both is incompatible. If the thought is about fairness, then that applies to both groups. Just because one has their PhD doesn't mean it would be unfair to select someone that is ABD. Maybe the PhD holder took 8 years to finish and then adjuncted for 5 years. Maybe they have 2 pubs and minimal service. Maybe the ABD candidate has only been in grad school for 5 years total and is giving key note addresses, has 10 pubs and a book deal, and , and, and... If one is worried about fairness in hiring, then one should be concerned about ALL GROUPS, and not just one. Or, maybe I am missing the point?

Given that ABD's do not yet have a PhD, these folks are as vulnerable (or worse off) than their PhD counterparts. So, if the concern for the stale PhD holder is that they are being driven out of the discipline without a fair shot, well, that concern applies to some ABD folks as well. Given that some ABD's don't have the luxury (some see the struggle as a luxury they wish they could persevere through) of being on the market for 5 years because they do not have spouses that make good money or have kids to feed, it seems that they should be looked at like those concerned for the stale PhD should be looked at in that both might not have a shot in the field. Also, some of us ABD's are the same age or older than a PhD holder who has been "stale" for 5 years and we took longer to get to this stage because of financial hardships or because we were forced to help out our families instead of focusing on school at an early age. So maybe you could say more as to what motivates the concern for the stale PhD and that could help me see why the concern for ABD's is different in kind. I'm thinking that they are not different in kind (at least not in any significant way) and that to assume that they are is to assume a lot about someone who is ABD, or vice versa.

Marcus Arvan

Justin: Your response to my comment seems reasonable. I wonder, though, whether your response to 'justathought' really speaks to their fundamental point--which is that it is very likely that you would change your estimation of what is fair/unfair, just/unjust depending on your standpoint.

Personally, having been someone who was once ABD and then (later) a person who had been on the market for a number of years, I can attest to the difference.

When I was ABD, I might have shared your concerns, thinking it unfair to not consider ABDs. But, after being on the market several years, my views entirely shifted in the opposite direction. It then seemed to me profoundly *unfair* to hire ABDs because, typically, ABDs have worse publishing records and little solo teaching experience comparable to someone who has been working full-time for a few years. I don't expect you to share this viewpoint, obviously, since you haven't been where I've been (as it were).

Given that your views about what is fair would plausibly change were you on the market for a few years (and I think this is almost certain, seeing how every 'stale PhD' I've known chafes at ABDs being hired in front of them), doesn't this call into question your standpoint? How can you be confident in your judgment about what is fair, from an ABD perspective, when your views about what is fair might shift in a few years when you find yourself in a different perspective? (Notice this is an interesting point of 'standpoint epistemology').

hieronymous bosch

It would be nice if, instead of fighting amongst ourselves like a pack of dogs over scraps, we'd actually come together to challenge the corporatized university's causalization of academic labor. Predictably, as in many other industries, the bosses have made the working conditions terrible in the interests of concentrating wealth and the workers are left to squabble with each other over who deserves a decent job. The answer, of course, is that both talented ABDs and many PhDs on the market already for years, both should have the jobs they merit. But the rigged system works a lot better when those with PhDs complain about the ABDs and the ABDs for their part complain about their 'stale' counterparts. That helps encourage a race to the bottom where you now have very talented scholars competing for terrible jobs, ones with no job security, minimal benefits, and 5/5 teaching loads. This discussion has helped clarify for me that not only are the interests of tenured (and TT) professors different than those of their contingent, casual colleagues and too often opposed, but that there are opposed interests amongst the intellectual lumpenproletariat themselves. Together we might stand, divided we're already falling.

Marcus Arvan

Hieronymous Bosch: I do not think it is right at all to say that the interests of tenured (and TT) faculty are opposed to the interests of contingent faculty. Far from it. Every place I've been, tenured and stay faculty are fighting very hard for more well-paying, full-time jobs. The problem is that tenured and TT faculty are relatively powerless to effect change. It is not as though tenured and TT faculty set budgets for TT and other full-time, well paying positions. It is administrations that make those decisions. If you have any realistic, feasible ideas to effect real change, I am all for it--and suspect that many of our readers would be too. The problem is that many/most of us do not see any such means available.

Justin Caouette

Marcus: I'm always open to the fact that my stance may change. I've changed my views on lots of things over the years so I'd be surprised if it didn't change a bit. That said, in this scenario my stance is that we should try to eradicate unfairness when we can. Requiring the PhD in hand seems unfair for the reasons I mentioned and I doubt that it will suddenly become fair to me if I sit on the market for 5 years without a bite. What I think will become *more* salient at that point is that the process for those with a PhD is more unfair than I initially thought (when I was an ABD). I didn't take myself to be comparing who has it worse, only that it is pretty bad for ABD's as well, if not worse in some cases.

Also, the point you're making about stand point theory is quite interesting and one I've been discussing with colleagues over the past month or so and in light of the Rachel Dolezal case. I'm not sure how I feel about stand point theory yet so I'll wait to voice my views on that until I've read more as to how it's supposed to work.

hieronymous bosch

Marcus Arvan: I didn't say that the interests of contingent faculty are opposed to those of tenured faculty in any absolute sense, just that the interests have diverged and too often end up opposed. For instance, in the grad program I attended the grad student community's general interest lay in directly challenging the administration on a number of issues - occupations, strikes, protests, picketing, other forms of public action. Meanwhile, tenured and TT faculty's interest seemed to be to find rather tepid compromises that just served as temporary expedients - on issues ranging from tenure itself (or failure to win tenure, as the case may be), to procedures for self-governance and transparency, to proper compensation for teaching, to the lack of health care as a benefit for grad students who often taught more classes (and taught them better in some cases) than senior faculty. Tenured faculty have capitulated to corporatized university administrations - this isn't my opinion, it's been substantiated in a variety of recent work, from 'The Fall of the Faculty' to 'How the University Works', 'The Last Professors', etc. They've allowed their working conditions to be degraded and for tenure itself to be on the verge of extinction. Universities aren't absolute monarchies; administrator's aren't absolute tyrants. What could they have done differently? Well, for one thing there's a powerful word at their disposal - 'No!'. If that doesn't work one can add a 'Hell' in front. Maybe they could have paid attention to national movements that organize labor and that now provide better labor advocacy for janitors, housekeepers, and kindergarten teachers than they do for their current graduate students, adjuncts, and VAPs/lecturers. As for what is to be done, I hardly need to rack my brains about it, it's not about me or you or a few other people - there's a national movement afoot that is currently winning better way and working conditions for various classes of contingent academic labor. Faculty Forward and other organizations are mobilizing adjuncts, grad students and other non-TT academic workers for public demonstrations and other forms of action, sometimes tied in with other mass movements underway for higher wages for other forms of poorly paid service work. They'll be coming to a university near you soon, I'm sure.

Shane Wilkins


I don't want to wade into the thorny issues going back and forth in this thread. Instead, I just want to pass along a small bit of practical advice about how to "pitch" your degree status in the cover letter so that you count as "PhD in hand" that I was given when I was in your shoes last year.

Most apps aren't due until Nov 1. Say you are going to defend Oct 25. Put that date in your cv, and add a line to your cover letter to the effect of "I successfully defended my dissertation Oct 25, with no revisions required." The last caveat is important, because it fends off worries articulated above. You can have all of the cover letters for these different schools *written* before Oct 25, of course, so long as you wait to send them until you have actually defended and passed with no revisions required. Then you just spend the next week doing the tedious uploading stuff.

I think this will make you count as a "PhD in hand" for the purposes of almost all search committee members. As faculty, they are used to byzantine processes in the university taking time. The important thing from their point of view is that the diss is done and you are going to be working on that great second project you outline in your research statement that is going to help you get tenure. I don't see a SC committee member reading the phrase "PhD in hand" so legalistically as to auto-reject someone who is *done* but not yet *graduated*.

I'd welcome those who have actually served on such committees to chime in here whether they think this cv tweak is going to turn the trick or not?

SC member

When I applied for jobs (now over a decade ago), I was ABD and I sent my applications out prior to having my dissertation defense date set. However, within a month or so I did get the date set, and at that point I sent a letter to each search committee indicating that I was updating my application in light of the new defense date. It is possible that such second contact could help a candidate, at least insofar as it might give a candidate's application a second look.

Regarding the "stale Ph.D." theory: in my experience, Ph.D.s don't get stale, but candidates do. If you defended six years ago, and since then you have been adjuncting and keeping up a scholarly agenda with publications, we would not view you as "stale." If you defended six years ago, but haven't published anything since grad school, we would wonder about your ability to do research (and hence have success here) and so you would not likely be considered. Again: the degree date is irrelevant, but the record of scholarship and teaching is not. Everybody knows - especially SCs - that the job market is bad and excellent candidates apply many years without getting a job. NB: from the perspective of SLAC, not R1. (Perhaps a separate thread on this "myth of the Stale Ph.D." would be warranted. If (as I assume) the "Stale Ph.D." is a myth, let's bury it so as not to cause job applicants unnecessary worry.

Justin Caouette

Shane: Thanks for the advice!

Sc member: Thanks for the anecdote. If I don't defend before I send out my first wave of apps I think I will do the same!

Also, I agree that the stale PhD "myth" is just thta and that a new thread should be focused on it. Though, if I recall, Marcus may have already posted on this some time ago. FWIW, I only used the term in response to @justathought because they referenced a class of PhD's that way.


For what its worth, at my university we once lost a tenure track line because we extended an offer to an ABD. It was a conditional offer - regulation prohibited us hiring anyone without a PhD, but we were assured by the candidate and committee they would have the degree in August. Well, August came around and the candidate had not defended. So we were unable to hire this person, it was too late for go to another candidate, and a few months later the administration froze the position so we could not search again the next year. So when we finally got permission for a search 5 years later, we of course only looked at those with PhD in hand.


I just finished my PhD and came across your post as I'm in exactly this situation: I was so overwhelmed in the last year of my (three year!!) PhD program that I couldn't focus on the job hunt. I am now PhD in hand and looking for work--and unemployed. Luckily, I am able to scrape together a tiny bit of income and live rent-free (and I have no student loans).

Anyway, here's something to consider: your experience is Canadian/North American. This is not how all countries operate. I got my PhD in Hong Kong, which is UK-style. These are very different PhD programs--you're basically self taught, and your success is HIGHLY dependent on the quality of your supervision. Many people at my university did not do well on their defense. Just to put this in perspective, I was one of only two people in my cohort to complete my dissertation on time--and the other person had 6-9 months of revisions. I almost got a straight pass were it not for the external examiner, and my supervisor told me this was unheard of in the department.

Given that academia really is an international job market...I don't think it's totally unreasonable for universities to expect PhD in hand. I'm just offering this as insight--I, too, feel the job search is brutal, confidence-destroying, and entirely overwhelming. It is unfair (and classist, as you mention) that I will likely be unemployed for an entire year before finding employment. I see this all as sheer Survival of the Fittest (Most Masochistic).

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