Visit any college campus in spring and you are likely to see students frolicking in the sunshine, tossing Frisbees, sitting under trees reading or just playing hooky.
Not so easy to find are the graduate students who are enduring the most stressful and challenging period of their academic life huddled in front of a computer, physically drained, emotionally wrecked and socially excluded. It’s all to complete a dissertation or thesis that could be hundreds of pages long.
For Amy Hollingsworth, caffeine, smoking and high anxiety took their toll as she aspired to having on her resume “Ph.D.,” not the dreaded “ABD” — All But Dissertation.
“Some people like to say, ‘Well, you went through all of your course work, who cares if you didn’t do your dissertation?’ ” she said. “Well, that’s the mark of shame. ABD is the worst thing you can be,” she said.
Ever-present in her mind was her understanding that 80 percent of students pursuing education doctorates at the University of Akron fail to finish.
Thousands join the ABD class each year.
Kent State enrolled 3,932 master’s candidates a year ago and 1,460 graduated. Of Kent’s 1,307 doctoral students, only 147, or 11 percent, graduated.
The University of Akron bestowed 110 doctorates last year while enrolling 814 doctoral students. UA awarded 1,106 master’s degrees from an enrollment of 2,933.
The time needed to complete doctorates varies widely but it must be done within 10 years. UA said its completion performance is in line with national rates.
Not all postgraduate degrees require a dissertation or thesis.
Pursuing a doctorate is far more difficult than the Western Civilization class many people remember from their freshman class.
Here’s the title of Hollingsworth’s dissertation:
“Q Methodology as a Needs Assessment Tool for Biology Graduate Assistants Participating in an Instructional Training Program.”
She was a scientist, serving as UA’s natural science biology lab coordinator, while studying for her education doctorate. She did it as a single mother and longtime diabetic.
“I got to the point where I was taking anxiety medication because I was so nervous,” she said. “I was so wound up at the time that I was grinding my teeth at night. My blood sugars were out of control. I physically was in pain all the time. Not only does it affect your mind, it affects your soul. It is a time when you search yourself and you say, ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’ And it’s because you don’t get the prize, which is the ‘Dr.’ in front of your name, unless you go through this process that tears you apart.”
Learning how to cope
Finding time to concentrate and write often is the tough part.
Hollingsworth learned to take her daughter to the Green YMCA day care for a couple of hours each morning so she could have quiet time with her computer.
Still, her stress kept taking its toll.
“I’ve always been a coffee drinker,” she said. “I did start smoking again. Over the course of my final two months of my dissertation, I hadn’t smoked in seven years, I had totally quit smoking and then I smoked six packs of cigarettes to make it to my final defense because that was the only way I didn’t crack up.”
Then she quit again.
Hollingsworth approached the issue like a student.
“Because I’m a researchy kind of person,” she said, “I went and checked out 15 ‘Get Your Dissertation’ kind of books here at the library.”
She also hired Kathryn Paterson, who works for a Los Angeles company called The Dissertation Coach.
In talking to the smartest people in the world, Paterson found many of them flummoxed when it came to academic writing, a skill they should have learned years ago.
“Because you are just struggling to keep up with what you have going, you don’t learn the skill of daily writing,” she said. “I think that’s something most of us just do not learn. … That’s really the skill that I think, in the end, separates people who finish a dissertation from people who don’t.”
In Hollingsworth’s case, it meant adapting the writing style learned as a scientist as an undergraduate to the more graceful form educators prefer.
Learning and meeting the demands of the academic adviser is a key, according to Paterson. In some cases, that adviser is more of a supervisor who might even demand the paper follow themes they select. Many students have their own idea of what they should pursue.
“You kind of have to do what your adviser wants you to do,” the coach said. “And nobody actually comes out and says that.”
Because dissertations are often expected to break new academic ground and add to humanity’s understanding of a particular issue, many students become overwhelmed. Paterson teaches them to focus, realize the pursuit of perfection can be an enemy and become realistic about goals.
Managing their adviser also can be crucial. If an adviser dies or leaves the school, a doctoral student might have to start from the beginning again. If possible, students should anticipate that before they get too far. Doctoral candidates also complain that advisers can be picky, mean, overly demanding and absent when they need advice.
“I’m kind of horrified by the level of apathy in some of the advisers,” Paterson said.
However, some of the same students add they love the advisers for how hard they made them work.
‘Star in the sky’
Mark Dalman also is a single parent. His twin girls are 6 years old. He hopes to obtain a biology doctorate at UA in time for a job he might have lined up for August. That translates into a deadline to finish his work on obesity in zebra fish. He tries to stay mentally locked in, even under family stress and other demands like the need to exercise.
“I can’t relax from the state of mind,” he said. “I can’t just talk about girls or movies or whatever. It always seems to be related to science or something like that.”
He also experiences the dream/dread conflicts.
“Seeing people fail is a good incentive because when you see this Ph.D., it’s this star in the sky,” he said. “You’re all excited, you’ve been working this hard to get into the Ph.D. and to see some people choose otherwise, it then becomes real.”
Hollingsworth graduated debt-free in November, mostly because she worked as a waitress through her undergraduate years and was entitled to tuition-free classes as a university employee.
In addition to supervising the lab, Hollingsworth is writing biology curriculums for several colleges. She hopes to go into business advising science students. She’s also repairing relationships.
“I wrote letters to five or six people apologizing for being a jerk,” she said. “I was really mean.”
Through it all, Hollingsworth and Dalman said the experience has been worthwhile.
“It is a very large task,” Dalman said. “If it was easy, everyone would have a Ph.D.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.