Inside Higher Ed must be having a slow news week.[1] Today, they are reporting on the APSA 2014-2015 Graduate Placement Survey as if it’s brand new.  The report actually came out in early December.  Oh, well. When I read the report – and shared it with my grad students –in December, I was struck by something that the Inside Higher Ed editor highlighted today:

“More ABDs are starting full job searches, and fewer of those in the expanded pool are landing faculty positions, study finds.”

That finding is technically true.  About 32% of ABDs[2] were “not placed” in any job – tenure-track, non-tenure track, postdoc, nonacademic – in the 2014-2015 academic job cycle.  Of those with a PhD-in-Hand, only about 10% were not placed.

Upon reading the Inside Higher Ed story and some of the story’s comments[3], one could be left with the impression that all a student needs to do to get a job in political science is actually finish their PhD.  I mean, right?  Once it’s in hand, you are way more hirable!  I don’t think so.   I don’t think the correct conclusion is to advise students to finish their PhDs before going on the market.

Here’s what I think is happening:

  • The academic market is clogged. Lots of people are not placed or underplaced.
  • Universities are getting by with fewer tenure-track faculty.
  • ABDs are having trouble getting positions, of any type, but especially tenure-track positions in the current environment. While our advisors-advisors used to be able to get a position with just a phone call and a letter about how great a dissertation is, it now takes multiple top-tier publications to even make it to the long list.[4]
  • ABDs thus have to fight for a few VAP[5] or post-doc positions. The ones that get the positions then file their dissertations (receiving their PhD) and then go back on the market the next year with their PhD-in-Hand.  Hopefully, these individuals get (a) more things that make it through the peer-review process and/or (b) more teaching experience during this time period.
  • It’s the added stuff during this year – the added peer-reviewed publications and, for some positions, the added teaching – that makes those with a PhD-in-Hand way more likely to be hired than their ABD counterparts.

So, if my thoughts are correct, the PhD-in-Hand isn’t really making that much of a difference on the market.  It’s just the fact that the PhD-in-Hand is correlated with someone having more experience as a researcher/teacher. It isn’t that ABDs with experience as researchers/teachers are being ignored in favor of someone with a PhD-in-Hand that isn’t a proven researcher/teacher. And, letters of recommendation can definitely indicate that the dissertation is fully drafted but just not filed – I have seen it on multiple searches.

All of this brings me to an important point that I’ve repeatedly had to make to ABDs in my time as DGS:

In most circumstances, don’t file your PhD until you have to.

Of course, if you strike out on the market a couple of times and just need to have it to be done with the whole affair, then file.  But, if you plan on going back on the market in the next year and have no prospects for a job during that year, I don’t think you should file your PhD.  I don’t think it’s going to boost your job prospects in any real way. Instead, in many instances, it’s just going to make you an unaffiliated scholar, with limited access to any university library and with no chance of getting continued graduate assistant positions.  It also could make your student loan repayment countdown start.

I’m interested what others think.  I posed this question on Facebook[6] this morning and got a lot of interesting responses.  One of my colleagues remarked that it’s not “’degree-in-hand” that matters so much as “publications-on-the-CV.””  Another colleague, this one from a small liberal arts college, remarked that they “care more about pubs than done [dissertation] assuming good progress and likely completion by start of the job. Oh, and the person should have actual (demonstrably good) solo teaching experience.”

Of course, my colleagues mentioned that getting a PhD and leaving graduate school can help one’s scholarship, like would happen if you had a postdoc or a research position and interacted with new colleagues with new ideas.  Key in this, however, is the availability of the postdoc or research position.

As one colleague summed it up, in this environment, “publication is king.”  That should be the most important thing you focus on, not on whether or not you file graduation paperwork this spring.

All else equal, I contend that a published ABD is going to beat out a non-published PhD at most colleges or universities in this country.  I wish APSA’s report had provided more information on publications and the likelihood of placement.

[1] What? No Mizzou stories today?  You could really do a special issue on us this year!

[2] Mom, that stands for “All But Dissertation.” It’s the last stage in the process to a PhD; it’s after classes, after comps, and typically after a whole committee of professors have approved your dissertation outline or prospectus. But, wait, seriously, Mom – why are you reading this blog?  Don’t you have something better to do in retirement? Aren’t there squirrels in the attic?

[3] This is something I need to learn not to do.  Reading comments about the Mizzou disaster this year has really made me question the sanity of my neighbors.  I had to step away.  And, join the adult coloring book craze.

[4] Mom, the “long list” is the list of about 10-15 possible candidates that a search committee wants to look it.  They’ll invite only 3-4 from this list for on-campus interviews.  That’s the “short list.”

[5] Visiting Assistant Professor.  Or adjunct.  Basically academic hell. There are a lot of people to blame for this.

[6] Friend me!  You’ll see cute animal pictures.  At least 30 a day.