Dissertations - Written by on Saturday, January 8, 2011 9:04 - 0 Comments

The Role of the Dissertation Chair

The dissertation is the hardest part of any doctoral program because it forces the student to leave his/her comfort zone and embark on what some call a voyage of self-discovery. At the center of the doctoral student’s dissertation experience is the dissertation chair, a professor who plays several roles and wears a number of hats.

There is no doubt that some dissertation chairs are good and others need improvement. What separates the good ones from the great ones is the chair’s ability to assume a role appropriate for the situation. The one-role chair will likely not see a student through a program. Most of the roles a dissertation chair plays fall into four categories.

The Advocate

A dissertation chair is a champion of the doctoral student’s cause. If the chair doesn’t believe in the student’s competencies as a researcher, the student is doomed to endless dissertation revisions. Since the dissertation is a social process, the chair is the doctoral student’s first line of defense against people and circumstances pushing the student off track.

Ask any good dissertation chair and he/she will tell you that part of a chair’s job is protecting the student from the other committee members. Like a matrix organizational structure, doctoral students often have multiple bosses, all of whom the student must satisfy. The advocate dissertation chair makes certain the other committee members are not asking the student to make changes to the dissertation that deviate from the original goals set forth in the proposal. The time to disapprove of any aspect of the dissertation was at the proposal rather than the dissertation stage.

The Manager

Managers are drivers of subordinates; they keep track of mistakes, chart progress, and engage in transactional relationships. Although he/she sounds like a tyrant, the manager makes an excellent dissertation chair at times because he/she initiates a clear path from start to finish. Over critical at times, the manager’s use of mistakes and missed deadlines as progress indicators makes progression through the dissertation steady.

Unfortunately, there are times when the dissertation chair wears the manager’s hat too long. Use of transactions to move the student through the process starts taking on characteristics of a whip and a chair rather than a method of ensuring progress. The student begins to see the chair as someone who is overcritical, someone who must find fault and can’t move out of a criticizing role.

The Leader

There is a fine line between managers and leaders, but the difference lies in how the chair motivates the student. Whereas the manager initiates structure and drives within it, the leader inspires the student through intellectual stimulation; the leader motivates the student by pointing out that there is more to completing the dissertation than material reward. If done correctly, the student begins to view the chair as charismatic, possessing skills the student would like to possess him/herself.

Proving that too much of a good thing is not healthy, the highly charismatic leader spends too much time with his/her head in the clouds and not long enough with feet on the ground. The result is a doctoral student who is inspired to do something but doesn’t know what that actually is. The key is for the dissertation chair to recognize when the student needs inspiration and when he/she needs practical help.

The Judge

A dissertation chair is a judge, a gatekeeper who ensures that the student meets personal, department, university, and even universal standards. Even so, this does not mean the goal of the dissertation chair is to maintain a superior-subordinate relationship with the student. Some of the most successful chair/student relationships are the ones where the chair bestows the role of colleague on the candidate.

Giving up a superior position is difficult for anyone. A common reason why students fail to finish a dissertation in a timely manner has to do with the chair’s inability to accept someone who was once a subordinate as an equal. As a judge, the chair must ensure that the student’s behaviors and outcomes are those befitting someone who will soon be regarded as an independent thinker and creator of knowledge. Still, the chair must learn to recognize when it is time to step down as judge and welcome a new member into the club.



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John GargerJohn Garger is a copy editor, proofreader, dissertation coach, researcher, writer, and entrepreneur living in upstate New York, USA.
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