PhD's who are A.B.D. (all but dissertation)

Thursday, July 28, 2005
Frodo Baggins, A.B.D.
When I was A.B.D., I tried to motivate myself to write my dissertation by
setting deadlines that corresponded with the premieres of Peter Jackson's
cinematic interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic trilogy, The Lord of the
Rings. My goal was to have a first full draft of the dissertation written
by the time the third movie, The Return of the King, came out at the end
of 2003, and to watch all three films back-to-back in Times Square in
celebration of the achievement.
I didn't exactly meet that deadline. But once I had finished my
dissertation and successfully graduated, I watched all three movies again,
this time on DVD, and was struck by how closely the story mirrors the
experience of writing a dissertation.
For those who have not read the books or seen the films, the significant
parts of the story center around a long journey made by a hobbit named
Frodo Baggins. He travels across a land called Middle-earth to throw a
ring into the middle of a volcano called Mount Doom -- an action that, for
doctoral students, is known as "filing the dissertation."
Like many a dissertator, Frodo's terrible and treacherous mission has a
dual nature. He cannot, and does not, accomplish the goal without the help
of others, but ultimately, he must bear the great load alone.
Frodo is accompanied on the journey by his hobbit friends Sam, Merry, and
Pippin. Merry and Pippin are like fellow graduate students still doing
their course work. Their carefree nature disappears along the journey,
however, as they begin to recognize the impending doom of becoming All But
Dissertation. By the end of the second movie, The Two Towers, Merry and
Pippin have passed their comprehensive exams and gained a greater
maturity, but it is not clear whether they will go on to the dissertation
phase. Maybe they've decided that an academic career is not for them.
Frodo, on the other hand, has made the decision that he wants to go all
the way. His most important companion is Sam, who is the equivalent of
Frodo's "partner."
Sam is not a Ph.D. student, and more than anyone else, he has the terrible
burden of being the one closest to the ring bearer. Sam's own fate is tied
to that of the ring yet he is helpless to determine his future in a direct
manner. He cannot make Frodo finish; he can only try to make it easier for
Frodo to do so. He is the long-suffering hero whom every ring bearer
thanks at the beginning or end of the acknowledgments of the dissertation
-- the one about whom everyone writes "I couldn't have done it without
On their way to file the dissertation, Sam and Frodo separate one time.
The separation is the result of a deception spun by a fallen soul named
Gollum -- aka, the doctoral candidate who will never finish.
Gollum lived with the ring for many years and it destroyed his life, mind,
and well-being. Gollum is the living image of what Frodo will become if
Frodo cannot complete his task. Frodo in fact pities Gollum, while Sam can
only feel disgust and distrust for the miserable creature.
If the ring is to be destroyed -- and the dissertation finished -- new
alliances must be formed. Without that fellowship, Frodo's quest is
doomed. But a partner alone cannot provide enough support for the
difficult mission.
For example, he is stabbed three times during the course of his journey by
disgusting and horrible creatures. He is hounded by terrifying beings
called the Ringwraiths. Those attacks are the equivalent of the
dissertator's endless financial struggles. Each loss of funds prevents him
from paying enormous photocopying costs, expenses for travel to archives,
bills for books and supplies, health insurance, and campus fees. They take
a toll on his morale and his health and increase his stress and
One of Frodo's key supporters who tries to protect him from those problems
is a wizard named Gandalf, who, for our purposes, represents Frodo's
dissertation committee, usually made up of three people.
Gandalf is instrumental in running interference for Frodo and making sure
that he can complete his mission. He writes recommendations for grants and
letters of introduction to libraries. He critiques drafts, locates
possible sources of money, and feeds his student whenever possible. Most
important, he offers intellectual guidance and moral support. Gandalf has
his own challenges, however. In the Mines of Moria, he faces down a
horrifying demon called the Balrog -- meaning he must also teach,
research, publish, and serve on committees.
Frodo's "fellowship" also includes family, friends, dissertation groups,
fellow doctoral students, professors, undergraduates, and archival and
administrative staff members. They provide counsel, writing deadlines,
good company, book references, housing, theoretical critiques, and other
key assistance. There are even filmmakers like Peter Jackson who provide
incentives around which dissertation deadlines can be set.
Yet while all that support is critical, the mission of the ring is still
Frodo's alone. Even with help, can he achieve his goal?
The drama of filing the dissertation is heightened at the end of the
process, in those last months of writing, editing, and formatting. A
critical scene in The Return of the King highlights the deep emotional
struggle between Frodo and his alter ego, Gollum.
Frodo and Sam have finally arrived at Mount Doom, which means that Frodo
finally has the full draft. But he looks terrible; he has been defeated
emotionally and spiritually by the burden of carrying the ring. He has
reached the end of his long journey, but will he file?
At the volcano, Sam yells to Frodo to throw in the ring. But by this time,
the strain and burden of carrying the ring for so long has damaged Frodo's
mind; he doesn't want to let go. He looks at Sam with a crazed look and
says, "The ring is mine!" which, translated, means that he can't or won't
finish; he has more research to do, more editing; the dissertation is just
not good enough; he must reformat the page numbers.
He has taken the step toward becoming Gollum. He will remain A.B.D.
forever. Sam cries pitifully. His life is ruined, too.
All of a sudden, Gollum appears and wrestles Frodo to the ground. They
struggle for the ring and Gollum bites off Frodo's finger. Gollum has
unwittingly forced Frodo to rise up and save himself from himself. As they
struggle, they fall from the ledge, and the ring falls into the molten
lava (along with Gollum). The deed is finally done. The dissertation is
But Frodo has completed his mission unwillingly. The year of carrying the
ring has damaged him and taken the joy from his life. He has completed his
quest, but he's not happy. Can he recover?
Several years later, Frodo is back in his comfortable home in the Shire
and has completed the book manuscript for the story of his journey, called
The Lord of the Rings. But he confesses to Sam that he is still not at
peace. He leaves the Shire on a big boat to find peace and be with his
mentor, Gandalf, and other associate and full professors in a faraway land
called tenure.
Having shared my Frodo allegory with my dissertation group and my fellow
graduate students, we've started to refer to the dissertation as the
"ring." When we share stories about writing 12 hours a day for months on
end with little human contact, or about feeling angry with people who have
the time to eat in nice restaurants and go to the movies, we say, "That's
the power of the ring."
The moral of the story, because there is always a moral to these kinds of
stories, is to take care of your health and appreciate those around you.
Unlike Frodo, we all have the job market to go through, too.
Susie J. Lee received her Ph.D. in history from Cornell University in
August 2004.