Hacking the ABD Life: Part 2 — The Intellectual Virtues


The academic life has an intellectual component. Duh. But what does that mean?

It means, in part, that an exemplar of the academic life manages his or her life with intellectual virtue. An intellectual virtue is a character trait that improves the chances of believing well—of conducting inquiry in a responsible way and living responsibly on the basis of what is learned through inquiry.

I believe that all members of the human community are called to intellectual virtue, insofar as they are able. Intellectuals should be models of acting from intellectual virtue. I question whether a perceived intellectual is a genuine instance of such a person if he or she is severely lacking in intellectual virtue. The true intellectual must have a suitable measure of intellectual virtue. Diplomas are no assurance of that.

The Ph.D. candidate has already been initiated into academic life—the life of the guild, as it were. One can only hope that this also has included initiation into the intellectual life. The ABD life is a test of intellectual virtue, and an opportunity to grow in intellectual virtue. Certain particular virtues are especially salient to commendable intellectual practice at the ABD stage in one’s career. Here are three of them:

  • Curiosity
  • Courage
  • Moderation

Intellectual curiosity is a natural goad to dissertation research. Intellectual courage is needed to sustain research and overcome obstacles. The virtue of moderation curbs excesses of various kinds. Dissertation research tests the expression of these virtues.

Curiosity stimulates creativity and supplies the initial energy to launch a dissertation project. It’s often difficult to sustain that level of curiosity throughout the research and writing process. The Ph.D. candidate needs to have ways of staying engaged with the chosen topic. As long as new questions emerge with the progress of research, there is evidence of curiosity.

Courage helps the researcher stay at it. The intellectually courageous person believes in the good to be achieved by the research that has been undertaken. Courage fills the void when curiosity dries up, and finds fresh sources of curiosity in the act of persevering. This virtue is threatened in numerous ways. Among the most sinister are the negative judgments of others.

Moderation is probably the least appreciated of the three. Moderation protects the researcher from excesses that would lure him or her away from efficient realization of the primary objective. One can research to excess. The sociology of the ABD experience reinforces the sense that it isn’t possible to “over-research” a topic. Turning over every rock, however promising it may seem in advance, feels responsible; but it is really counter-productive, and hence irresponsible.

Future installments on “Hacking the ABD Life” will focus on specific intellectual virtues. Please chime in with thoughts you have about the connection between the intellectual life and doing scholarship from virtue. Let me know what virtues you think are most salient to realizing that dream of passing from ABD to Ph.D.

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Hacking the ABD Life: Part 1 — “Good” Means “Good Enough”


ABD—”All But Dissertation.” This label has a distinctly demoralizing drum to it, especially as a designation for someone—the Ph.D. candidate—who has accomplished so much, usually comparatively early in life.

Of course, writing a doctoral dissertation is a huge undertaking in its own right. And it can make or break a Ph.D. candidate’s academic career. There are two main challenges. The first is as much psychological as it is anything else. You have to have “internal fortitude,” the ability to take small steps toward the completion of a big project, to manage hurdles and set-backs, and to survive the comparative loneliness of the process.

Second, you have to impress your dissertation committee with the quality of the finished product and with your prospects as a scholar. So the work has to be good. This, obviously, relates closely to the first main challenge.

Let me repeat the best advice I received while writing my Ph.D. dissertation: “Think of your dissertation as the last paper you write during your formal education, and keep in mind that it really doesn’t have to be longer than a hundred pages.” It didn’t hurt that this counsel came from a member of my dissertation committee.

The suggestion about length is probably situation-specific. It would be wise to consult with your committee about appropriate length. And “consultation” is the key word here. You should be able to share your own ideas about appropriate length, given your topic and the way you plan to organize your material. It is generally believed that the best dissertation topic is a narrowly focused topic. It would stand to reason that in many cases narrower focus translates into fewer total pages. There’s a saying, “Don’t beat a dead horse.” There’s another saying, “If the horse is dead, dismount.” The goal shouldn’t be to come up with a topic that will require X number of pages, but to come up with a topic that makes a worthy contribution to the field and establishes the author as a capable scholar, regardless of word count.

The more general principle in my advisor’s comment is that the dissertation isn’t a book. It’s not even a published paper. I caution against approaching your dissertation as if you were writing a book manuscript that will be ready to submit to one of the top academic presses. Your dissertation committee is large enough with the three to five people that play that official role. No point trying to write for the vague target audience for a book on the same topic. Save that for later.

Let me put it this way. You’ve got three people on your committee. Maybe one of them knows quite a lot about your topic. The other two are conversant. Are there others in the discipline who have go-to expertise on your topic? Probably so. Will they be in the room during your dissertation defense? Probably not. So you can forget about them.

Your work has to be good. I said that before. But how good does it have to be? Answer: good enough (lower-case “g”). So estimate how good that is and make that your goal. And I do mean estimate. Don’t calculate. Members of your committee have responsibilities. They should be able to advise you about what their expectations are. No one else’s opinion really counts, especially if they don’t see the work before the defense. (That includes the expert on another continent, and it includes your doting grandmother and admiring spouse—if you happen to be married.)

If you’re ABD, let me know your thoughts. If you’re on a dissertation committee for someone who is ABD, your comments would be especially valuable.

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