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I have started and completed 4 years in a theoretical physics PhD program. I was ABD ("all but dissertation") and have published a couple of papers on that topic and been employed in a research project. I quit about 1 year before completing it and was considered ABD because all that was left was to write up my PhD thesis.

I had been considering switching to Computational Neuroscience for a while then, and because there was a project hiring PhD students in a lab that I really wanted to work in, I decided to abandon my first PhD and switch to Computational Neuroscience. This second PhD I completed and am now a second year postdoc at the same lab.

So for my current position, the CV was not much of an issue. But now I am thinking of applying for other positions and grants and I wonder how this sort of "gap" in my education section will look to people evaluating my CV and how to declare what I did during those 4 years. Do I list my PhD and say that I was ABD? Does that even mean anything to people outside of the US? I'm in Europe now and my current advisor did not know what ABD means and suggested I just leave out my first PhD program. Does that feel right to people? Going from physics to computational neuroscience is by no means uncommon but I feel like completing 4 years in a PhD program to then go do another one is.

If anyone has experience with a similar situation, I'd appreciate pointers!

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    ABD = "all but dissertation"? So you defended your work, but you just didn't write it up in a thesis? Commented Apr 13, 2023 at 15:51
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    No, I guess ABD is ill-defined. At my old university it meant you had done your quals and all the course work but did not write a thesis nor defend it. I wasn't aware that it means defending work and not writing it up elsewhere and I'm not sure how that would work since you need a thesis to defend. Commented Apr 13, 2023 at 15:54
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    This is in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: "a doctoral candidate who has completed required courses and examinations but not a dissertation" merriam-webster.com/dictionary/abd Commented Apr 13, 2023 at 22:06
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    @AzorAhai-him- That's how the term is used at my university: A candidate who has defended their work, but either hasn't submitted their thesis yet, or hasn't made the changes required by the committee (or the committee hasn't accepted them yet). Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 3:19
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    You're thinking a bit sideways. Don't look at how to get credit for it on your CV. Think of how you can include the info on your CV without having it look like a major unfinished project. Commented Apr 15, 2023 at 0:52

4 Answers 4

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Just say what you did:

2000-2004 Graduate student, theoretical physics:

Completed qualifying exams and published two papers (referenced below). Employed by the University of the Universe's Dark Matter Antidiscrimination project during this time. Left this program when I decided to switch to, and complete, my PhD in Computational Neuroscience.

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    This sums up some of the main points from the answers and comments above and is the most honest and comprehensive solution. Thanks! Commented Apr 15, 2023 at 21:51
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To me, "ABD" is mostly a fancy way to say you didn't graduate; it provides almost no information, because the thesis/dissertation is the central part of your PhD; far more interpretable that you "published a couple of papers on that topic and been employed in a research project". It's like saying you're a novelist, but haven't written a book, or saying you're an actor but you've only ever auditioned or competed against family members in charades and never actually acted.

I find its use within academia in the US to be fine to describe your in-progress situation; people know what it means, and I think generally understand that the meaning varies between programs and is often informal. Outside of academia or possibly outside of the US, it's a little tricky, I've seen some examples where people write something like "PhD (ABD)" and it's quite misleading, as if you have a PhD and "ABD" is some secondary characteristic. Even for someone who knows what it means, though, it may look like you are attempting to mislead. I'd just stay very very far away from that. For you, though, you aren't really "ABD" anymore: you withdrew. You're not in the program. You didn't earn half a degree, you quit. For some people in your position, it may have been possible at the time to apply to exit with a masters degree, but if that wasn't an option or you didn't go through the paperwork, you don't get an "almost PhD" as a consolation prize.

On your CV, I wouldn't bother touting the "ABD" designation; published research and employment can be listed in other sections (e.g., "Research Assistant"). I'd probably list it clearly in the education section, maybe like:

Education

Computational Neuroscience University, PhD Computational Neuroscience 2022

Theoretical University of Physics, PhD Theoretical Physics (withdrew)

State University, BS Physics 2013

I think for some things, especially outside of academia, it might be fine to just leave it off, though the rest of your CV would probably still have signatures of your time there, such as employment as a TA/RA. For grants, check carefully about any requirements to list all past education.

In either case, you should be prepared to answer questions about why you left the first program, but I think that'll be pretty easy now that you've completed another degree, you can simply say you switched to a different program that interested you more, and point to your accomplishments there. You can also make clear that this was your decision, rather than some sort of discipline, and you have some productivity from that time to point to as well. Overall I can't see it hurting you, the only thing that would hurt is if someone gets an impression you're misrepresenting.

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    Those 4 years academic gap isn't as big a stigma as a job gap. You know what you did so if it came up during then interview, then talk about it. Otherwise, leave it off the resume. The point of the resume is to be an introduction, not to exhaustively list everything you've ever done. You have approximately 15 seconds to generate interest, for a maximum read time of maybe 2 minutes, and seeing an incomplete PhD is too much of a distraction to gain any real value.
    – Nelson
    Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 3:24
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    @Nelson It's more common for resumes outside of academia to pick and choose a bit what you show; within an academic CV, there's more expectation that you would include all relevant academic activities including all education. Your advice about 15 seconds to generate interest sounds to me more like you're talking about resumes outside of academia.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 3:58
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    To me, even "PhD Theoretical Physics (withdrew)" is misleading. You worked at a lab or vent to grad school in theoretical physics. Nothing more.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 13:38
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    @usr1234567: To me, even "PhD Theoretical Physics (withdrew)" is misleading. -- To me also, now that you've pointed it out. (It seemed OK to me earlier.) Maybe something like "PhD candidate Theoretical Physics (2013-2017)" would be better, since this also better fills in the gap years. Indeed, "withdrew" could give the impression of less than a year, maybe even just a few weeks -- 4 years is much more significant for providing evidence of a nontrivial background in physics. Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 17:31
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    Yeah, I agree there might be better ways to present it. Adding "student" is another option I'd say, and year ranges are pretty common as well.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 17:47
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ABD indeed means nothing in Europe, this is the first time I hear of the term. I would refrain from even having the word "PhD" in the description of that time period on your CV, because having the actual awarded title in there can come across as misleading, even when followed by "withdrew".

So I would either be more specific (PhD student in theoretical physics, not completed due to personal reasons) or more vague (xxx lab at yyy university).

In the first case you can expect questions about WHY you quit and in the second case about what you did there exactly. Either won't be a major issue after you have actually completed a PhD, it's just about making sure that time period on your CV is covered.

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  • Thank you that helps! That's precisely what I thought, that Europeans do not have the notion of ABD, as some of my colleagues didn't even do coursework or anything besides a thesis for their PhDs. Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 10:19
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    I would think that taking 4 years to achieve a BA to be more problematic. That's what that reads as, to me.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 10:35
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    @CGCampbell maybe in this formatting, but it says BA 2008-2011. That’s three years, which is extra fast in the US, if anything. Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 18:26
  • Yeah, I'm not sure why I posted that. If you actually received your BA, then you're right, three years is fast for that. My apologies.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 10:12
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For the theoretical physics, OP can state (withdrew) or (incomplete). I suppose, withdrew might sound better though, but not ABD.

All but dissertation is a US thing where you complete your course work and passed the qualifying exam. At that stage, ideally all that is left is to write up your thesis.

In Europe, things are different.
In lot of places on the mainland and Scandinavian, as a PhD, you are actually in a (university) employment.
In some, you're simply a student.
In others, you are in a sponsored project.

The ABD is unknown in Europe. That is not to say that academia (in Europe) might not understand it. So, it's either it (PhD) was completed or incomplete.

Rather, speak to the relevant research project(s) you've done. Talking about 'relevant', theoretical physics can relate to aspects of computation neuroscience.
See Theoretical physics professor wins NSF grant in computational neuroscience

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  • Yes, the link is fairly common in Computational Neuroscience. Many of my colleagues are physicists by initial training. That is less of an issue. Any hiring committee will hopefully know that. And yes, I was considered more like an employee who also does a PhD in my second PhD but more like a student in the US. That made me consider putting it in the education section in the first place. Because I did study during that time, so it would naturally belong in that section. Commented Apr 14, 2023 at 10:25

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