All But Dissertation: What Is It?

Doctoral graduate holds diploma

If you’re wondering about all but dissertation (ABD) status, then you’re likely already a doctoral student or you’re thinking about heading back to school to earn your terminal degree. Like other terminal degrees, a doctorate represents the pinnacle of academic achievement in any given field. Having a PhD or other post-nominal doctorate title instantly confers prestige and professional recognition.

Earning your doctorate can also open the door to greater professional opportunities further up the career ladder. Yet, there is a reason why comparatively few people earn a doctorate compared to those who earn bachelor’s degrees: It takes a lot of time, hard work and resources to complete the degree. Unlike a bachelor’s degree, a doctoral degree requires both coursework and the completion of a dissertation. During this process, a doctoral learner may find themselves with an ABD status. What is ABD? Read on to find out.

What Is ABD?

If you’ve begun researching the process of earning a doctoral degree, then you’ve likely come across this acronym and are wondering what an ABD is. All but dissertation is a status that a doctoral learner achieves after completing all of the required coursework and passing the qualifying exams. It means that all the learner has left to complete is the dissertation, hence, “all but dissertation.”

Is There an ABD Degree?

Many people confuse ABD status with an ABD degree. There is no actual ABD degree — it’s not a specific course of study. ABD is simply a status that refers to where a particular learner is on their doctoral journey.

There is another way to indicate a learner’s ABD status. When a doctoral learner is working through the coursework, they are referred to as a “doctoral student.” Once that person achieves ABD status, they are then referred to as a “doctoral candidate” or a “PhD candidate.”

However, again, there is no ABD degree. ABD status can refer to a doctoral learner in any type of doctoral program in any field. It refers to a person who is just beginning the process of dissertation topic selection, as well as to someone who is about to step in front of the dissertation committee to defend their dissertation — the final step in the process of earning a doctoral degree.

Here’s a quick look at the typical doctoral degree process:

  1. Complete the required doctoral coursework
  2. Pass the qualifying exams
  3. Propose, research and write your dissertation
  4. Defend your dissertation before the dissertation committee
  5. Receive your doctoral degree (and celebrate!)

Is There an All But Dissertation Completion Program?

In academia, the word “program” typically refers to a “degree program.” Although you won’t find an all but dissertation degree program, you likely will find a system of support for doctoral completion at your school. However, your school might not refer to that system of support as an official program. 

Different universities establish different types and degrees of support and resources for doctoral learners working toward finishing an all but dissertation completion program. Some schools, such as those that offer online coursework, will also offer on-campus residency programs, for example.

Even if your school’s on-campus residency program isn’t mandatory, it’s always a good idea to take advantage of them. An on-campus residency involves visiting the campus for a period of time in order to collaborate in person with your advisor, the rest of your dissertation committee, other faculty members and your peers — fellow doctoral learners.

On-campus residencies are an excellent way to refine your ideas, gather some new perspectives and explore areas of your dissertation topic that you might not have thought of by yourself. You may also attend seminars and workshops, and you may have the opportunity to present your preliminary dissertation research and ideas. These presentations will prove to be invaluable practice for defending your dissertation later on.

Why Do So Many Learners Struggle With All But Dissertation Status?

Not all doctoral learners complete their degree. Some of them will complete the coursework, achieve ABD status and then remain in perpetual ABD status. This is unfortunate, and there are many possible reasons for it, including the following:

  • Lack of structure: Some doctoral students may do well with the coursework, but they can struggle with the lack of structure associated with ABD status. As a doctoral candidate, you won’t receive class assignments any longer; instead, you’ll have to give yourself assignments and hold yourself accountable.
  • Time management: Upon first achieving ABD status, it might seem like there’s suddenly plenty of time to research and write your dissertation. Yet, it’s all too easy to fall into poor time management habits.
  • Finances: Some students may decide to return to work full-time for a while before returning to school to work on their dissertation. However, not all of them do return.

There are other common reasons, such as a lack of support, difficulty with scholarly writing and imposter syndrome. If you’re aware of the potential pitfalls of ABD status in advance, you may be better positioned to handle them and successfully complete your dissertation. Another smart strategy for staying on track with your dissertation is to enroll in a doctoral program that has the dissertation process integrated directly into the coursework, so that there isn’t an abrupt shift between attending class and beginning your research.

You’ve Achieved All But Dissertation Status. What Now?

All but dissertation status doesn’t have to be intimidating. The best way to avoid getting into a quagmire is to begin writing a rough draft right away, even if you aren’t completely sure of your topic yet.

Many doctoral candidates do an excessive amount of research first before narrowing down their topic and beginning their own original research. They might not write a word of their dissertation until their original research is complete. This seems like a rational, linear way to approach the project, but it can also lead to writer’s block when the candidate finally sits down to start writing.

Instead, set aside 20 minutes each day to write. It’s likely that you won’t use any of your initial writing for the final draft of your dissertation, and this is perfectly acceptable. The important thing is to start writing as soon as possible in order to generate some cognitive momentum.

Here are a few other tips to help you move from ABD to doctoral candidate:

  • Create a dissertation map that includes every major step you need to complete your work.
  • Pair your dissertation map with a monthly schedule of milestones you need to reach. Then, break those milestones down into weekly goals.
  • Develop a daily routine for task completion and stick with it. 
  • Rely on your support network when things get challenging.
  • Have a designated place to work, ideally where you won’t have visual or auditory distractions. (If you lack a quiet place to work, position yourself to face the wall and use noise-canceling headphones.)
  • Make use of your school’s doctoral resources and support system.

Lastly, remember that you won’t get your dissertation done in a matter of a few months. You’re in it for the long haul, so don’t burn yourself out early. It’s important to practice self-care throughout the entire process.

Strive for work-life balance by taking some time off when needed. For example, you could designate 10 minutes each day as “me time” for meditation, prayer, light reading or even funny pet videos on YouTube. Try to eat well and exercise regularly, and make time for friends now and then.

The College of Doctoral Studies at Grand Canyon University provides extensive, structured support to doctoral learners as they complete their studies and their dissertation. Our dissertation process is integrated directly into the curriculum, which means learners begin working on their research project before completing their classes. This provides a greater degree of support for our students, who also benefit from our scholarly network, faculty support and on-campus residency opportunities.


Approved by the Dean of the College of Doctoral Studies on Dec. 16, 2022.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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