Still Here, Still Fighting: My Nonlinear Journey to 'ABD'

Photo:  AdobeStock

Photo: AdobeStock


Before I even started my PhD program, one of my advisors told me that I needed to be “stubborn” in order to finish. At the time, I was still a senior in college, so I didn’t quite understand what she meant. But her tone was too stern for her words to go in one ear and out the other. So I held on to them, saving them for later, waiting for them to make sense. That was three years ago. And now, as I prepare to begin my fourth year of graduate school, I finally get it. She was right. You don’t finish this marathon by simply being smart; you finish by refusing to quit.


This past academic year, perhaps the most pivotal for students in my program, was challenging at best and miserable at worst. Not only did I have to find a way, mentally and spiritually, to bounce back from failing my qualifying exams, and then failing my dissertation prospectus defense, but I had to do so after being hospitalized because of stress, being told by a professor that I “lack oral dexterity,” losing my grandfather to lung cancer, and witnessing one of my best friends walk away from grad school entirely. So yeah, to say that the year was discouraging would be an understatement.


I cleared the last remaining hurdle―the prospectus defense―a few weeks ago, which means that I can finally start working on my dissertation and officially say that I’m a “PhD Candidate.” And while I’m certainly proud of this accomplishment, for it was long overdue, I’m still reflecting on all of the pitfalls along the way. At times, my physical health suffered; other times, my mental health. But as Nayyirah Waheed reminds us, “we need to share our wars.” So here’s a snapshot of my nonlinear journey to “ABD.”

Getting a PhD is a test of endurance. It’s not enough to just be smart. You have to be stubborn.
— Dr. B (2015)

In order to advance to the final stage of my program―writing the dissertation―third-year students must pass their qualifying exams, which are used to test their general knowledge of the field, and then successfully defend their dissertation prospectus. Months before the qualifying exams, we―the students―are given a list of over 150 academic books. The list includes some books that we’ve encountered during our first two years of coursework, and some that we haven’t. Our job is to read and take notes on as many books as we can, and then we take the exam in December. The exam comes in two parts: a written part that asks us to write four 10-12 page essays in one week; and an oral exam that tests our “oral dexterity” and ability to answer random questions about those essays.


The dissertation prospectus, on the other hand, is a written document about our own research. It outlines what we would like to write our dissertations about, and states how it’s different from other research projects. The point of the prospectus is to demonstrate that we are writing something that is “new” and builds on the work that’s already in the field. After we write it, we must successfully “defend” it by adequately answering our dissertation committee’s questions. If we can do these two tasks, we are considered “ABD.” And those who can’t, well, they are placed on academic probation, and potentially asked to leave the PhD program. Essentially, shit gets real in Year Three!


I was determined to pass my qualifying exams and prospectus defense on my first try. Other grad students told me that I’d “be fine” because I was smart, and that “everyone passes.” So even though I was stressed about the uncertainty of it all, I was confident that all of my preparatory work would pay off. But life had other plans, unfortunately.


The day before my written exams were due, I went to one of the grad student lounges to finish up my work. By 1:00am, I was revising one of my essays, and writing about the particularities of blackness in the United States. By 2:00am, I was clutching my chest, and trying to massage away reoccurring sharp pains. By 3:00am, I was lying in a hospital bed, and wondering why my heart felt like it was going to explode. The doctors concluded that I had anxiety, and told me that I suffered a panic attack. They said that the sharp pains, which began earlier in the fall, were all stress-induced.


What saddens me about that whole episode, though, is that my only concern was getting to a computer to finish my essays before the deadline, not my health. “How am I going to explain all of THIS to them?” I asked my friend, arms outstretched, wires dangling. The thought of having to talk to the faculty, and acknowledge my shortcomings, caused my heart rate to speed up. After building up my confidence, I eventually told them, and I was given an extension. But before I left that hospital, I made a promise to myself that I’d never allow the demands of grad school to get me that stressed again.


I submitted my essays by the new deadline, answering three out of the four questions. And since I submitted them after the original due date, I had to wait until January to do the oral exam. No problem. I saw it as an opportunity to finally relax after a stressful fall, and a chance to review all of my exam notes. But during that winter break, exactly a week before I was scheduled to do my oral defense, my grandfather abruptly lost his fight with cancer. We all thought that he had more time. And in the midst of trying to console my family, I had to somehow find a way to continue preparing for my exam.


Related: “The Grieving Grad: Loss in Graduate School” by Samantha Dawn Martin


The hour-long exam went horribly. Staring at the four senior scholars who were bearing witness to my floundering, I contemplated giving up after the second question. I was demoralized, but I found a way to finish. Days later, one of the professors sent me an email. I was told that although I didn’t have to retake the exam, I “lacked oral dexterity” and basically needed to learn how to talk to people if I wanted to get a tenure-track job. For a job in academia is one of “professing,” not just writing. I stared at that email for days. And after resubmitting a revised version of my incomplete exam essay, I came to the conclusion that I was no longer interested in pursuing a career in academia.


In early February, I learned that I passed my exams. I didn’t even celebrate. I was frustrated. My grieving process was now stifled, and thanks to a qualifying exam that felt like sanctioned hazing, my progress to ABD was stifled as well. I retreated from the world during this time―only comforted by the company of my friends, only heartened by my new side project, Just Tryna’ Graduate. I gave myself a few weeks to try to heal, but my passion for graduate school never returned. Still, I had to find a way to begin working on my dissertation prospectus, the new task at hand.


For months, I buried my head in books, reading everything that I could get my hands on for my research. And every week, I tried to send my advisor a revised document. I even set up a mock prospectus defense with other graduate students and professors because I knew that I’d have to eventually defend the prospectus in front of my dissertation committee. Since I was finally working on stuff that I found interesting, this was supposed to be the “fun” part. But it wasn’t. I was tired. And when it was time to finally meet with my committee in May, I didn’t even care anymore. I just wanted to be done.


That oral defense went poorly, too. My progress to being ABD was delayed, yet again. I was given the option to continue working on the document over the summer, and I reluctantly accepted the new terms. I was honestly tired of trying. I couldn’t afford to sit around and mope, though. My brother was graduating from high school the following day. So I left campus immediately to head to the airport.


When I got to Tampa, I was greeted by my mom. “How was your flight?” she asked through a smile, hugging me. I didn’t know whether to tell her that I had just failed my defense, that I was going to leave my program, or that I was so frustrated by everything that I slept during the whole plane ride. So I just replied “good.” Over the next five days, I kept my plan to leave grad school to myself, and I focused on celebrating my brother’s achievement. When it was time for me to return to Chicago, I felt grounded.


But I told myself that I needed to take charge of my dissertation process, and only develop a project that was interesting to me, not my committee. By June, my advisor was on board with my new direction. And I worked on developing the new prospectus throughout the whole summer. By August, I had clarity. I knew that I still wanted to finish my grad program, so I continued to work. But I also knew that I was going to leave academia immediately afterward, so I lowered the stakes. Going forward, my time in graduate school was going to be time for me. And rather than trying to be “competitive” on the academic job market, I decided that I was going to focus on doing the things that I wanted to, meaning no more scholarly publications, no more fancy grants and fellowships, and no more presentations at “this” conference and “that” conference. All of that time and energy was now going to be invested in other interests, other opportunities.


Going into my second prospectus defense in September, I was in a completely different place. For the first time in a long time, I felt confident in my abilities. And although the journey took longer than I initially expected, I finally passed.


Through adversity, I learned a lot this past academic year. I learned that “success” isn’t always linear. Sometimes magic only happens after a few setbacks; sometimes breakthroughs only come after defeat. I learned that it’s important to appreciate your journey, even with its imperfections. And I learned that certain milestones are simply delayed, not denied. But if I learned anything at all this year, I learned that my college advisor was right. Life does not stop just because you’re a graduate student. Shit still happens, and that has nothing to do with how smart you are. To finish this marathon, you just gotta’ be stubborn and fight.


About the Author

Bennie is a fourth-year PhD Candidate at Northwestern University, where he is studying African American Studies. He created Just Tryna' Graduate to help Black students get to & through graduate school. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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