Dissertations - Written by on Saturday, July 3, 2010 16:16 - 0 Comments

5 Personality Traits to Avoid When Choosing a Dissertation Chair

There’s no such thing as dissertation chair school; no professor ever graduated with a degree in dissertation chairing. Choosing a dissertation chair can be a difficult decision, one that often leaves the doctoral student with no alternative but to choose the least of multiple evils.

Being a great basketball player does not make one a great basketball coach. In the same light, being a great dissertation chair requires more than just scholastic achievement and a long list of journal publications. Before you commit to a dissertation chair who may extend your program longer than it needs to be, ask yourself if your potential chair possesses any of these 5 traits.

The Overachiever

The Overachiever is the professor who publishes much more than he/she needs to, volunteers to be a part of every committee, and always seems self-absorbed in his/her own work. Often crossing the line into selfishness, the Overachiever is only interested in you if you can do something for him/her.

Chairing a dissertation can be a feather in the cap of any professor because it shows that the professor can not only conduct research, but that he/she can help create an independent thinker and scholar. The Overachiever makes a rotten dissertation chair because you will have to constantly work around his/her schedule and beg for even a few minutes of the chair’s attention.

The Overachiever is not difficult to spot. Check out this professor’s CV or resume and look for signs of overachievement. These signs include too many publications, too many committee memberships, and a long list of work-in-progress manuscripts. If you choose an Overachiever as your dissertation chair, be prepared for extended time in a program and weeks or months between meetings with your chair.

The Underachiever

Although the Overachiever is often a bad dissertation chair, it is the Underachiever who is the more dangerous choice. At least with the Overachiever you know he/she is capable of publishing scholarly work even though he/she is never around to help you with your research. The Underachiever doesn’t know how to conduct research and can’t help you with almost any aspect of the dissertation process.

The Underachiever is more difficult to spot because you can’t use a raw count of his/her publications as a measure of achievement. The average tenure program requires professors to get six publications in six years; that’s an average of one per year. However, a professor who publishes only excellent research in top rated journals may only have twelve publications in twelve years.

Luckily, the Underachiever is easy to spot through behavior. First, if the professor always wants you to confer with others to approve the things you do, you may have an Underachiever on your hands. The Underachiever also consistently puts up a front of competency but never actually proves it. You end up with an emperor-has-no-clothes situation. Finally, if untenured, the Underachiever is often in danger of losing his/her position and may not be around to see you through your dissertation. Look for such signs.

The Non-Committer

Some people just have a problem committing to anything. Afraid that they will get trapped into doing something they don’t want to do or going somewhere they don’t want to be, Non-Committers always leave everything up in the air and never schedule anything. If your professor always plays everything by ear, you may have a Non-Committer.

Besides the obvious, the Non-Committer is a dangerous dissertation chair for two reasons. First, non-commitment means that you will have to spend more time in your program than you want to. It is the Non-Committers that often end up extending the student’s program up to three to five years. Often, the Non-Committer starts doing his/her job as dissertation chair only after the university puts pressure on him/her to get you out of the program.

Second, you will end up having to rely on your committee members more frequently when it comes to nailing anything down, including scheduling the defense and completion of the program. This creates a situation for the student where he/she has multiple bosses who pull him/her simultaneously in different directions. Who is in charge becomes a question no one (student, chair, or committee members) can readily answer.

The Criticizer

There seems to be a growing number of dissertation chairs who fake their way through the chairing process. In any profession, there are people who believe that to do their job they must find fault, no matter how small, with everything everyone does. A dissertation chair with this trait can spell disaster and frustration for the ABD student.

The Criticizer is likely to find major and minor faults with each iteration of a chapter and the dissertation as a whole. In addition, the student with a Criticizer as a chair often finds him/herself making arbitrary changes to the dissertation text only to have to revise it to new standards each time the chair looks at it. The Criticizer is never pleased and is incapable of moving from critical mode to approval mode until forced to do so because the student is near the end of the program or can’t afford to return another semester.

The Vacationer

The Vacationer is a dangerous but also interesting chair because he/she often has the capabilities of delivering a quality dissertation experience to an ABD student but can’t because he/she is spending too much time away from the university. The Vacationer is the dissertation chair who disappears between December and January over winter break and disappears again between June and August during summer break. The Vacationer works only eight months out of the year when classes are in session, preferring a life of leisure over performing his/her duties.

What makes the Vacationer so dangerous is that he/she sees nothing wrong with disappearing for months at a time during “time off.” With this chair, your only chance of seeing him/her is during the semester. Weekends and vacation times are off limits. Often, the Vacationer will disappear without warning, ignore e-mails and phone call messages, and reappear and expect to resume business as usual when he/she returns from slumber.

Choosing a Vacationer may work to your advantage because at least you will know when you will have time to work uninterrupted on your dissertation. However, when things go south and you need help, don’t expect any until classes are in session and your dissertation chair reemerges.

Choosing a dissertation chair can be difficult if you do not consider the personality traits of your choices. Remember, it is better to choose someone with whom you work well than someone whose research is closest to your own. Finishing your doctoral program should be your highest priority; give yourself the best chance of finishing by choosing a dissertation chair who can see you through the program.



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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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