The Dissertation Chair: To Change or Not to Change
Although the dissertation journey is a time for the student to transition to an independent scholar, they do not do this alone. The chair should be an important mentor in the process. But what happens when they are not?
We have worked with hundreds of students that have experienced difficulty with their chair—they cannot be reached, they provide inconsistent feedback, they don’t know the dissertation process at their university, they don’t have time for the student, they want the student to make changes with which the student is not comfortable, they take months to turn around feedback, etc. I think you get the point and what comes next.
When should they change their chair? Unfortunately, there is not a formula for this, but I can speak to the advice that I have found to be effective. Here are my recommended steps:
1. Assess the situation.
Take a minute to back up and pinpoint your challenges with the chair. Often, when I talk with students wanting to change their chair, they don’t want to do what the chair is asking. Speak with a mentor about if the changes are appropriate and “pick your battles.” Chairs hate to see multiple drafts without improvement. This often leaves students feeling stuck because they keep getting the same feedback. Another option here would be to ask for a meeting to go over the feedback. Yet another way to assess the situation is to review your university policies on the responsibilities of a dissertation chair. Are you asking anything of your chair that is outside of these responsibilities? Is your chair fulfilling the expectations that the university has set for them?
2. Advocate for yourself.
If you have assessed the situation and you feel that your chair is not providing you with what you need as a doctoral student, the next step is to advocate for yourself. Your chair may not know that you aren’t getting what you need. This is where open communication becomes very important. There is delicate a balance between expressing your concerns and complaining. This may look different for every student, but it important to remain professional. Personal attacks will not help you in any way. It is still important to maintain a good relationship with your chair AND to let them know that are advocating for yourself.
3. Speak with Peers.
Consider talking with other students in your program that have had or currently have the same chair. They may have advice for working with the chair or have made it past challenges and can over their insight. If they are ahead of you in the process, you may even want to ask them for their proposal, proposal defense, final dissertation, and/or final dissertation defense. This might give you an idea of what your chair is looking for.
If you have taken these steps and you still feel like you need a different chair, don’t take this decision lightly. It can set you back. By this I mean that a new chair may want you to make changes to your study that your current chair was okay with OR you may have the same problems with a new chair. It is also possible that changing chairs burns bridges. You will likely need letters of recommendation, and it is important to maintain professional relationships. Moreover, you don’t want to get a reputation as a problem student.
With these cons in mind, there is still a right time to change chairs. Basically, if the pros outweigh these cons, it might be time. It is true that there are bad chairs and it is equally true that some people have incompatible personalities. If you have assessed the situation, advocated for yourself, and spoken with peers but your chair is holding you back from moving forward in your dissertation journey, it might be time to change the chair.