Re-Constructing a Graduate Community at Large: The Long-Distance ABD Experiment

[Now in Progress]

Working on your dissertation at a long distance from your home university makes for its own set of problems and stresses, namely, the loss of camaraderie and community. The organization "gradsatlarge" was founded with the aspiration that graduates working at this distance would: re-connect; make their presence, concerns, and survival tactics known; and be academically re-invigorated to maintain accountability for their progress toward completion in a community of at-a-distance peers.

The Community

Jennifer Marie Powers,
Department of Spanish and Portuguese

Cameron J. Turner,
Department of Mechanical Engineering

Katrinka Cleora, Caroline Travis Rankin, and Joel Matthew Silverman

Our Story

If as David Sternberg relates in his well-known survival guide for Doctoral Candidates that everyone likely knows at least one story of a struggling or failed ABD ("all but dissertation"), one of those stories might well be that of a failed long-distance ABD, whose physical separation from the university at the critical juncture of Doctoral Candidacy led to non-completion or termination. While discrediting stories circulate, we would like to recount for a university community disenchanted by the "at a distance" candidate and, specifically, for those presently at that distance the stories of six (potentially) successful graduates and the self-driven organization that is allowing us to see the dissertation at the end of being ABD.

Before we were a "we"--that is, six ABDs sharing the goal of completion--we were six individual candidates unaware of our common presence and predicaments and, as was the case for many of us, potential scholars who had made the critical mental disconnect from our community of peers and mentors. And we were, as unfortunately perceived by that community, a dispersed and unaccounted for "at large" subset of ABD's with supposed little chance for advancement beyond candidacy.

"I've been a long-distance ABD for the last year, and I think I've been pretty successful at it. While long-distance, I landed my dream job and wrote my entire dissertation."

While not being able to reconstruct the home university stone by stone to find the driving force to produce within its halls, what we have done or hope to do with our present mechanism in place is to re-create the essence of it--particularly by maintaining an organized space where peer meets peer and peer holds peer accountable for turning out the pages. Our grass roots organization was initially formed as an offshoot of a listserv hosted by the University of Texas' Intellectual Entrepreneurship initiative (IE), that is, the frequented "DISSLIST." This list serves dissertation writers and was organized under the rubric and ideology of undergraduate and graduate professionalization via self-accountability and ownership of learning--among other IE guiding principles.

The spirit of the educational model was contagious, for we took the context of the community engagement that we found on "DISSLIST" and made it our own: it was then that we formed "gradsatlarge" ABD writing group, committed to a complete dissertation draft by the summer's end--a description now too narrow for what it has or could potentially become. "Gradsatlarge" is heading towards a broader and imagined community supporting a continual rotation of semester workgroups and where long-distance ABD's are made aware of and challenged by each other on a very personal basis to commit to writing and research goals.

"I've had what I perceive as a tremendously rough time adjusting to the "distance" issue. (FYI: I think it has been just as frustrating for my advisor.) Although distance has taught me much about independence, it has been near impossible trying to have routine meaningful exchanges with each of my committee members. Sometimes I get terse replies to my email and sometimes I get no reply at all. Nonetheless, it is my responsibility to prompt such exchanges if I am in need of help. If one of them refuses to answer (or forgets), then it is my responsibility to remind them of my need."

Our Operation

In form, it takes up a real part of cyber space, as a community organization in the web network system "Blackboard" at the University of Texas (and at other universities), providing each student and faculty member with a pre-formulated website, dynamically linking student and professor colleagues. On this system, "gradsatlarge" operates as an information base to inform ABD's of others of their kind; a bulletin board where members post overall project plans, weekly timelines, and questions on professional strategies and style etc.; and--most significantly--as a medium for a real-time weekly dialogue or collaboration, where members self-evaluate their progress and discuss relevant issues.

Sharing Lessons, Tips and Advice

As a means of providing the general community with a glimpse into our organization and in the hopes of sharing our lessons learned with other ABDs, we have collected advice and practical tips from long-distance ABDs as well as topics of interest from our weekly "gradsatlarge" collaboration sessions. These entries are organized by topic below.

Writing and Research
Writing StrategiesWriting TipsKeeping WritingWriting Strategies: 4 Hour Rule
Writing with MusicWriting versus EditingLinear and Nonlinear Writing
Pioneering ResearchOutlining

Dealing with the EditorRewriting ChaptersRevisions

CommunicationScheduling IssuesWhen to submit a draft?
Submitting Drafts to CommitteeCandidacy Issues
Handling Committee Changes from AfarBalancing Teaching and WritingJob Searches Getting Job RecommendationsPost-Dissertation Publications

Dissertation with Kids?Social Life?Emotional CoachingFinding Support
Maintaining FocusMaintaining Writing DisciplineProcrastinating Journal Keeping
Sources of Assistance at UTMaking the Jump to Off-Campus ABD Status

If you are a long-distance ABD affiliated with UT who would like to join our working community, contact either:

Jennifer at


Cameron at

The group asks that all members submit project abstracts and project a finishing date for a complete draft.