The term ABD stands for "All But Dissertation," and it has a purpose. It designates a student's progress toward a doctorate in her chosen discipline of study. The term has come to be known as the final step before receiving a doctoral degree, but the term has, in some academic circles, become a disparaging term for students who fail to continue their doctorate studies.
"All But Dissertation," according to academicladder.com, means that a doctoral candidate has completed all of the coursework and requirements necessary for his doctorate degree. At this stage, all that remains for the doctorate candidate is to complete his dissertation and the public exam, thus the ABD designation.
In a paper called "Challenges of Joys of Earning a Doctorate Degree: Overcoming the ABD Phenomenon," authors Dr. Bahaudin Mujtaba and three co-authors relate a statistic that 30 to 70 percent of students who start a doctorate program tend to become ABDs, or don't finish their dissertation.
The authors conclude there are many reasons for a student's failure to finish the doctorate program. Those reasons include dropping out after the first year of the program, the student's relationship with her dissertation chair, the potential problems and stresses of selecting a dissertation committee and a lack of focus on the dissertation topic. The Graduate Theological Association reports that there is a high dropout rate in the doctorate fields of theology and religious studies.
The authors also related in their paper that the opportunities for doctoral candidates are shrinking. The College of Graduate Schools reported in 2002 that 39,955 students completed doctorates in 2002, the lowest number in a decade. The authors report that some schools are shrinking their doctoral programs. Plus, the issues of finding qualified teachers for doctoral programs has led to the use of part-time or adjunct faculty teaching doctorate classes. This, the authors assert, makes attaining a doctorate more difficult.
Despite the obstacles, the authors have some recommendations for staying on track once a student has reached the dissertation phase of his studies. First, take the comprehensive examination as soon as course requirements are complete. Students should leave themselves plenty of time to study, as the authors say the coursework might not prepare the student for the exam. Then, select the doctoral dissertation question carefully. The question should be succinct and be something the student is excited about and motivated to answer. It should also be important, timely and potentially add to the papers already published in the field.