Should you use an academic credential before completing the degree?

By | 2021-05-07T14:49:32-04:00 December 8th, 2017|4 Comments

To ‘(c)’ or not to ‘(c)’? Each time I see a “(c)” behind someone’s initials, I pause and sigh. My advice: You shouldn’t do it, and this is why.

What’s the big deal?

What is a (c), you ask? It is a symbol used by individuals who have earned, through coursework, status as doctoral candidates. These students are approved to work on their final projects in their course study. Each degree seems to have a point at which someone becomes a candidate, such as PhD (c), DNP (c), MBA (c), and even BSN (c), among others.

What is the problem with this? First, it is not a degree, credential or formal status that any university or college confers. Second, being a candidate can, for some, be forever. These unfortunate forever candidates are also known in the PhD world as ABD’s or “all but dissertation.” Unfortunately, about 50% of doctoral students leave school without finishing! These individuals could call themselves PhD (c)’s forever.

Last, it perpetuates an environment for incomplete degrees for instant gratification. I have seen people use “PhD, ABD” on their credential line for an unspecified time.

Seriously, if your degree is about having the credentials, then you may be pursuing it for the wrong reason.

Many professional organizations and publications do not allow you to note credentials of degrees in progress.

Don’t shortchange the finale

Having completed my PhD, I endured the amount of work that must be done to get to that point — and it’s a lot! After the course work came the comprehensive exams. Once I passed those exams, I had oral comprehensives. For an hour, five faculty members asked questions that expanded on my essays and the course (three years’ worth) of learning. After passing the oral exams, I became a “candidate” and could continue to work on my dissertation.

In my doctoral program at the University of Arizona, if the associate dean of research ever saw you use “PhD (c)” after your name on anything, she would call you on it. So, we didn’t do it.

For PhD candidates, as well as other doctoral candidates, even after all the studying and challenging work, this is where the real work begins. This is where these students bring together all that they have learned into a yearlong (at least) research study or project where the rubber meets the road.

Believe me, after all that work, I felt I deserved something! But I understood that using the (c) wasn’t an actual degree or title. Using the (c) would have been shortchanging the actual completion of my doctoral education for early gratification.

What can you call yourself that gives you credit for all the hard work that you have done? Call yourself a PhD or DNP student, or PhD or DNP candidate. Write out the word “candidate” or “student” behind the initials. The university has not yet conferred the degree to you, and no university confers the (c) initial.

You will eventually finish your degree. And that day will become all the sweeter when you do get to use the initials after your name, the ones conferred by the university, officially documented on a degree, and fully recognized by your colleagues.


Courses related to ‘pursuing a degree’

CE758: Passion Meets Preparation: Delineating Terminal Degrees for a Fruitful Pursuit
 (1.2 contact hrs)

A key element of the Future of Nursing report focuses on the need to double the number of doctorate-prepared nurses by 2020. The recommendation stems from the need to increase the number of nurses eligible to fulfill roles as faculty and researchers. Attaining this single recommendation is projected to create downstream effects on other key recommendations of the report such as increased nurse commitment to lifelong learning, empowering nurses to spearhead changes across the profession, and enabling nurses to collect and analyze data pertinent to heath care. In theory, this is a win-win situation, but in reality, the doctorates earned need to align with the professional goals and passions of the nurse to meet the needs of the nursing profession outlined in the FON report. This educational activity will provide information on three terminal degrees relevant to nursing practice, PhD, DNP, and EdD, in terms of typical scope, purpose, and career progression.

CE171-60: Earning Degrees By Distance Education
 (1 contact hr)

Advancing in the nursing profession, and in some cases even maintaining a current position, may require a return to academic education. Returning to school can be daunting for adult learners. Balancing work, family, and traditional classes feels like an impossible burden. These factors make distance education a viable, a desirable, and often the only alternative. This module will provide nurses with information about obtaining academic credentials through distance education.

60080: Who Will Teach Our Nurses
 (1 contact hr)

The Institute of Medicine called to increase the proportion of nurses with bachelor’s degrees to 80% by 2020, and our nation is in the midst of a significant nursing and nurse educator shortage. The good news is that applications to nursing programs, enrollment in programs and numbers of graduates have increased during the past several years. The bad news is that despite several consecutive years of increased enrollment, too many qualified applicants are being turned away, mostly because of insufficient faculty. The growth of the aging population and sophisticated patient-care technology continue to drive the country’s need for more nurses.


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About the Author:

Jennifer Mensik, PhD, RN, FAAN
Jennifer Mensik, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, is division director of care management at Oregon Health and Science University and instructor for Arizona State University College of Nursing and Health Innovation DNP program. She also is treasurer for the American Nurses Association. Formerly, Mensik was vice president of CE programming for published by OnCourse Learning. A second-edition book she authored, "The Nurse Manager's Guide to Innovative Staffing," won third place in the leadership category for the American Journal of Nursing Book of the Year Awards 2017. Author, Jennifer Mensik, does not endorse, recommend or favor any program, product or service advertised or referenced on this website, or that appear on any linkages to or from this website.


  1. Avatar
    Cecile Cherry December 18, 2017 at 3:31 pm - Reply

    Good piece Jennifer, and this is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed. When I was in a DNP program I saw classmates use DNP(c), but most of our professors discouraged this practice. I realize that there is a formal process for admission to PhD candidacy, but nothing like that process exists for DNPs, MSNs, MBAs, etc. I agree with you – people should wait until they have earned an academic credential to use that credential in their signature!

  2. Avatar
    Rod Donovan October 9, 2018 at 3:15 pm - Reply

    Interesting. So, after two chapters on my dissertation, I’m told I’m out of money. I have finished all the course work, written, and published two papers. Is this all for naught? I know I am not a PhD. But 6 yrs. of studies, and the completion of all course work should at least stand for something.
    $300,000 in debt, and short 3 chapters. Wow. I will call Walden U. and ask if they assist an alumnus senior veterans with this. In the mean time. ABD it is.

  3. Avatar
    kofi January 11, 2019 at 11:11 am - Reply

    Jennifer Mensik, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN?? c’mmon ur name is too long..I call you FAAN. lol

  4. Avatar
    Tonya June 17, 2020 at 3:26 pm - Reply

    A manager I had once started using DNP(c) before she finished. I was like, What does that mean, lol. She was insecure.

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