To summarize the article, 45-55% of people who embark on PhDs don’t actually complete their degree. Some don’t begin the actual dissertation work, others begin a dissertation that takes years before they give up. This, I have no real problem with. The point of the PhD is that it’s supposed to be substantive, state of the art, and (as much as possible) novel. All of those things are difficult to do well under the best of circumstances. Actually obtaining a PhD is a signifier that you know a lot about what you do (but not necessarily anything else). Along the way, some people find out they’re not cut out for the PhD, some find out they don’t WANT to be a PhD… particularly folks like me who went straight from undergrad into a graduate program. I know I could be making a lot more money if I went into industry, but that world is no bastion of perfection and ease either.
What I do have a problem with is the departments that abandon and ostracize their All-But-Dissertation (ABD) students, refusing to write letters of recommendation and shunning them. Every time I hear about aspects of academia like this, I find myself very glad that I’ve had the good fortune to have been in supportive departments, where I’ve never been a mere cog in someone else’s machine. I have seen all my mentors writing letters for and supporting people leaving academia. Still, lest I be accused of a “not all scientists!” moment, I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to say those experiences aren’t a problem. This is the sort of problem you hear about around the lunch table with “I’m glad I’m not them” undertones.
Yeah, sure, if you’re a tenure-track faculty member, your PhD mentor and all your teachers were tenure-track faculty members, and you made it into standard academia too and are surrounded by tenure-track faculty, so CLEARLY that’s the way to go for a real scientist such as yourself, and the people you want to mentor. Their “job” was to get the degree, and if they couldn’t do their job, well… But, unless they quit very early, it’s not like you didn’t get anything from them. Writing papers, helping undergraduates and less senior graduate students, representing the team at conferences, going out on observing runs/digs/whatever, running data reduction* pipelines… No, they didn’t get the degree, but it’s not like they didn’t do anything (unless you were a really poor mentor). And didn’t you get lots of support and assistance while you were doing your dissertation? I know I did.
Unless the ABD has left really early in the process, they probably were doing lots of those things, and HAVE contributed materially to the advisor’s and the department’s work. After all, there are NUMEROUS reasons why people leave academia that have nothing to do with scientific ability. I personally know of one case where a student gave up their graduate career because they got divorced and needed something better than university-supplied health care to keep up their medical treatments (which is another problem in and of itself), and another two where they just didn’t want to get the PhD. All of the people I’ve alluded to are still employed in scientific pursuits, just not tenure track faculty ones, by the way. A decent private-sector job would give them a nice letter of recommendation for all they accomplished, and as one of the academic set, I’d very much like academia to be that decent place. The fact that academia rewards effort and skill is something I like. It bothers me greatly when it doesn’t. I’m fortunate enough to have seen multiple examples of scientists with empathy and character, and I will be following their leads.
* I’m not entirely sure where the term “data reduction” comes from; it always sticks out at me as one that someone outside academia won’t know. It’s data processing. I guess much like a sauce has to be reduced by boiling off water, a data reduction process might take a terabyte of incoming data to get one number out.