From PhD student to PhD candidate

By Tiffany M. Montgomery | 12/19/2014

I have waited for this moment for three long years.


I am excited to announce I am now a PhD candidate! I have waited for this moment for three long years. For anyone who doesn’t understand the significance of advancing to candidacy, let me explain. To move from being identified as a PhD student to being identified as a PhD candidate, I had to 1) submit a 20- to 30-page paper at the end of my first year of study, 2) complete two years of full-time coursework, 3) write the introduction, theoretical framework, literature review, and methods chapters of my dissertation, and 4) successfully defend my dissertation proposal to members of my dissertation committee. Advancing to candidacy gives me the green light to begin my dissertation study. It is the first of two important rites of passage, the second being successful defense of my dissertation.
Many in academia and research fields recognize PhD(c) as a title for those who have advanced to candidacy. This distinction is equivalent to “all but dissertation” or “ABD,” an informal title given to PhD candidates. I love the term ABD because it accurately describes the status of PhD candidates as those who have completed every requirement for the PhD, except the dissertation.
When I began my PhD studies, I looked forward with excitement to the point in my program where I would move from student to candidate, because I knew that, once I advanced to candidacy, I could use PhD(c) as part of my credentials. Listing PhD(c) in my credentials would let the world know I had successfully completed two-thirds of my PhD program and that I was on the final leg of the PhD marathon. I knew enough not to list PhD(c) too early, lest I offend those who had already advanced to candidacy. Improper use of credentials is a major pet peeve of mine (see “The 5 no-nos of alphabet soup”), so I have been patiently waiting for the day I could update my credentials.
In the weeks leading up to my oral qualifying exam, it dawned on me I wasn’t required to use PhD(c). I also recalled that using MSN(c) in the last semester of my MSN program had felt strange, as though I was claiming the degree prematurely. I thought, therefore, long and hard about whether or not I now wanted to use PhD(c) as part of my credentials. I even looked for other authors’ opinions on the matter. In doing so, I came across an interesting Advances in Nursing Science blog post on the subject of proper credentialing, and that sealed the deal. As much as I once looked forward to writing PhD(c) behind my name, I finally decided I would not use this distinction.
First, I tend to be very traditional when it comes to special occasions and ceremonies. I don’t open Christmas gifts before Christmas morning. I don’t think brides and grooms should see each other on their wedding day prior to the ceremony. I don’t wear white skirts, white pants, or white shoes between Labor Day and Memorial Day. I’m a traditionalist at heart. For the same reason, I don’t want to use the PhD(c) designation.
I don’t want to become comfortable seeing PhD behind my name until my PhD degree is hanging on my wall, and hope that waiting to update my credentials will motivate me to continue working hard toward graduation. In addition to holding off for tradition’s sake, there are a few other reasons why using PhD(c) might not be in the best interest of a candidate.
PhD(c) isn’t recognized by some of the entities that matter most. Several professional organizations and publications, including the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International, do not permit use of degrees in progress when listing credentials. It makes sense. Why would these organizations allow us to use credentials we have not yet earned? If I chose to use PhD(c), I would constantly have to revert back to my former string of credentials, which lists MSN as my highest earned degree. I see that as extra, unnecessary work. So, instead of complicating things and taking the chance of listing unacceptable or unacknowledged credentials when submitting a journal article or conference abstract, I’m choosing to keep it simple. I’ll update my credentials when I am no longer a candidate, but a full-fledged Doctor of Philosophy.
Finally, it is widely estimated that 50 to 60 percent of PhD students never complete their PhD. While it is unclear how many PhD dropouts are ABD, what is clear is that ABD is a means to an end—an end some people never reach. PhD programs, like all other academic programs in higher education, have time limits. Most programs require completion of the terminal degree within seven to 10 years of starting the program. Even if a person has advanced to candidacy, he or she can be asked to leave the program if progression toward final defense takes an exorbitant amount of time. I’m not superstitious, scared of jinxing myself, or fearful I will be put out of my program for taking too long to graduate, because I’m only at the start of my fourth year. I just recognize PhD(c) is a status symbol, not a real credential.
I am proud of myself for reaching this milestone in my education, and I will continue to refer to myself as a PhD candidate, ABD, or, as I’ve heard a few nurses say “PhD, little c,” but I will not include PhD(c) with my credentials. There is something special about a person who has earned a PhD. It is, indeed, an honor. I don’t want to use a credential I have not yet earned. Instead, I want to save the joy of updating my credentials for the moment my PhD is actually conferred. I want to wait until my committee members refer to me as Dr. Montgomery before replacing “MSN” with “PhD” in my alphabet soup.
Montgomery_announcement_SFWI feel no less accomplished or excited to advance to candidacy not using PhD(c) than I would feel if chose to update my credentials now. Nor do I fault people who choose to use PhD(c) as one of their credentials. It’s a personal choice. I choose to wait.
Tiffany M. Montgomery, MSN, RNC-OB, C-EFM, a women’s health nurse since 2005, initially worked as a labor and delivery nurse before broadening her focus to obstetrics and gynecology. She is now pursuing a PhD in nursing at UCLA.
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