By Dani Babb, PhD
Many doctoral students have an inaccurate picture of the role of their dissertation committee chair. These misconceptions will usually be straightened out within a short period after they start working with their chair. However, it’s best to be clear about them up-front to not lose time and to avoid awkward scenarios. Here are the Top 5 things I find that dissertations chairs will not do that frustrates students due to misconceptions from the get-go!
1. Tell you how to conduct your research.
Remember, this is YOUR research. If you are expecting your chair to hold your hand throughout the process, you will be quickly disappointed. You can consider your chair to be a confidant, guide, counselor, and likely even a friend, but it is ultimately your journey. You will likely feel alone at various times, but this is normal. Your chair can’t be available 24/7. Many chairs are not employed full time for dissertation work, which is much more time consuming than teaching. When you receive your diploma, only your name will be at the center.
2. Edit your file!
Many doctoral students struggle with using the proper tone in their writing, APA formatting, and even paragraph composition. While your chair can point out such issues in general terms, the chair is not an editor. Therefore, you are expected to address these issues separately, usually with the assistance of writing resources provided by the university (which, unfortunately, are often inadequate or stretched too thin) or with a paid editor (this is the preferred approach). Consider using an external editor like those we offer, or others!
3. Allow you to run the show.
Some doctoral students believe they can dictate the terms of the relationship with their chair, as if the chair is an employee of the student. It is never a good idea for a student to approach the relationship in this manner, as most chairs would take offense to it. Committee chairs are experienced academics who, in most cases, have served on dozens (sometimes hundreds like your team here!) of doctoral committees. It is best to defer to their expertise when it comes to the rules of engagement. However, you are certainly free to share your preferences and limitations.
4. Accept rapid-fire revisions
Nothing is more frustrating to a chair than to immediately receive a revised document from his or her mentee very shortly after spending significant time explaining concepts and/or extensively editing the document, because it is taken to mean that the student did not put forth the needed effort to absorb the information and make informed changes. As a chair, myself, most of the time I find that students do not even make the changes that I’ve suggested. In these cases, a chair is may take more time to return a revision in order to force the issue. Dissertation chairs expect that you will work with an editor or thoroughly understand the changes and even keep a change log to show what you’ve done to address their concerns.
5. Work with you during periods of non-enrollment
During the dissertation journey, there will be various breaks in the process. These could be part of the university’s academic calendar or due to a decision taken by the student to not enroll for a particular term. The latter can happen when the student feels that enrollment during the term would not be fruitful (e.g., during the data collection phase), so it would be best to not pay tuition during this time. Whatever the reason may be, the student should be clear that no guidance can be given by the chair during such times. Therefore, the decision to take a semester off should not be taken lightly and students should not expect their chairperson or committee members to respond to their work or read their work, unless they volunteer or offer themselves. Dissertation chairs are often paid incredibly low to begin with, and nothing if you are not enrolled.
While some of these realities may seem harsh when first reading them, I have found that many students have a misconception about these rules of engagement and doctoral mentors discuss these issues in committee meetings amongst themselves. Most of us consider being a committee chairperson charity work. We will read thousands and thousands of pages of pages per student for very little pay. Most of us do this to give back because others did it before us — and we enjoy it. Being aware of the aforementioned tips ahead of time can help you tremendously!