An ABD's confession

Note: ‘ABD’ is a term PhD candidates use to describe their “All-But-Dissertation” status. That means they’ve finished all their requirements except the dissertation – it’s the final stretch.

I’ve been ABD twice. Once in early 2007, then again in early 2008 because I decided to change my topic after realizing the first topic was unfeasible. But I’ve been dragging my feet with the dissertation. In fact, I had been dragging my feet since I cleared the comprehensive exams. Now I finally found the courage to admit – I don’t think I should be doing this PhD.

The signs have been there for years. I was ever only lukewarm to conferences – I was frequently bored. I wasn’t really excited by any of the courses I took – nor did I find the work I did in grad school particularly intellectually challenging or fascinating. More importantly, I didn’t really care about any of the topics and themes I came across. I had to psyche myself up to be interested. While fellow grad students passionately devoured any reading material remotely linked to their topic of interest, I never once read anything related to work unless I needed to. I read voraciously still – but not on my work.

Why then did it take me so long to realize I might be in the wrong place? Perhaps the main reason was that I was doing very well. I had a full scholarship from the university. Later on, I won a fellowship from the Canadian government. I felt obliged to see it through – after all, I’ve taken money. The fact that there’s no bond doesn’t make me feel any less obliged.

Then, there was the expectation of my professors and fellow students – all who believed in what a strong dissertation I would produce. And when I presented my papers at conferences, they were always well received. What was odd is that I always met professors and students who were more interested in my paper than I myself was.

As the years went by I began to feel more and more like a fraud. The truth was that I was unmotivated and increasingly disinterested in my PhD work. But somehow I kept managing to produce enough work to keep up appearances. I never submitted any article to even one journal for publishing because I didn’t care enough to do so. But somehow I was fortunate to be invited to publish my work in one book, and was asked by a professor to submit a paper for another edited book. That was all. But even getting published didn’t really make me feel excited.

Over the years I have seen senior students who had been doing less well than I getting their PhDs. That made me feel that I have no reason not to finish what I started – because would it not be a major failure if I gave up? If I quit, would I think less of myself and regret it in future and wonder if I gave up because I couldn’t do it? What mattered even more to me was – wouldn’t I be letting many people down? Disappointing those who had believed in me? Wouldn’t people think less of me?

The truth is that all along I was seized with anxiety every time I started considering if I should continue. I couldn’t even let myself think it, let alone talk about it to anyone, not even Zibin. I clung to every reason possible to convince myself to finish it. But the inertia just grew greater and I became less and less happy. I felt like my life cannot begin until I finish my PhD. But the future after I finish did not hold joyful anticipation for me either. I felt that I should get a university teaching job naturally – but that seemed a default decision as well. I’ve been told I should just finish the PhD first and then see what I want to do afterwards. I tried to convince myself I believe I should do that – but I didn’t.

The moment I acknowledged that I was unhappy, I was able to do some real soul-searching. And I recognized that doing the PhD was never really my choice. When I was graduating from my bachelor’s degree, my professors in both psychology and philosophy encouraged me strongly to apply for grad school. My parents encouraged me to go to grad school. Zibin was supportive if it was what I wanted to do. The truth was, I had wanted to return and start work first to give myself time to decide if I wanted to pursue a PhD. But I was persuaded that the best thing to do was to go straight on to grad school so that I can finish my studies before starting a family. It sounded reasonable to me, so I did it.

And so I chose Philosophy of Education because I didn’t want to do ‘pure’ philosophy or psychology. I didn’t know anything about what the program was. I aced my M.A. thesis and was even given early admission into the PhD program, so I figured I’m doing well – why not continue? But the more I studied and saw how my fellow grad students were almost all so passionate about something, the more I began to lose interest and motivation in my studies. I saw the difference between those who had chosen to do a PhD because something had excited them and I – who had chosen to do a PhD for the sake of doing it and who was desperately trying to get excited about something.

For the first time now, I can imagine myself giving up my PhD studies and I don’t feel anxious or fearful about telling this decision to my professors and family and friends. It is because I have realized that my struggle with my PhD studies is a symptom of the deeper issues I have about myself. The issues that have had me live my life almost compulsively by obligation – by doing what is ‘right’ or ‘best’ and by listening to others. To clarify, nobody ever coerced me on to this path. But neither was I free when I made my choices because I wasn’t able to make a truly free choice. I was bound to winning approval.

I don’t blame anyone else for where I am today – neither do I blame myself. Because I am realizing all this as I am learning to be honest with myself and to accept what I see. I realize I was sick because of complex reasons. I actually feel so much lighter now that I can declare here what I have long feared to say out loud even in my own thoughts.

What will I do now? I believe things will become clear as I continue my path of self-discovery and healing. I know that whatever choice I make about my PhD will be made without fear, and with freedom. And this time, I will really believe what I choose, and no one will sway me once I am certain.

Even as I contemplate quitting my PhD studies, I feel a growing sense that whatever work I undertake in future must have a strong intellectual and hopefully also spiritual component. I love to read and to explore ideas and to apply those ideas in my life – I also (as is evident from this blog) love to write. I just don’t know yet what such a vocation might be.


  1. It has not been a wasted journey. I’m sure you had inspired many along your journey – myself included :)

    Good that you have made your decision. All the best to the new direction that you choose to head out! :)

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