Selecting Your Dissertation Chair

There are a multitude of books, articles, and lots of advice out there for doctoral candidates about to embark upon the most unique journey of their academic career — the dissertation. For most, the word dissertation conjures up thoughts of fear and intimidation. But it doesn’t have to be a fear-filled process. True, it’s a project most have never experienced and so like anything new there can be a fear of the unknown.  This brief blog will provide some tips to making the process a little smoother — from one who has been there and one who works with learners just like you.

Choose your chair wisely — interview individuals you think you’d like to work with. Keep in mind this will be a 1-3 year relationship — if you’re lucky it will be a life-long connection.  Here are some questions to ask:

    1. How do you like to communicate and provide feedback?
    2. What are your research interests?
    3. Does my research interest intrigue you?
    4. What methodology is your strength – qualitative or quantitative?
    5. How do you mentor your doctoral students?
    6. How many dissertations has the potential chair guided?
    7. How does the individual work with committees?
    8. Does the potential chair have experience with your school’s protocols?


Establish expectations — it’s important for your expectations and those of your chair to be mutually understood. Here are some examples:

    1. Communicate, communicate, communicate – what do each of you expect of the other?
    2. How long do you take to review each submission?
    3. How do you provide feedback and determine what works for both of you?
    4. What should you do if you get stuck – can you call, text, email or just plow through?
    5. If there’s a life event, how will that be addressed?
    6. Do you expect a mentor or a guide?
    7. How is mutual respect defined – For example, some students are afraid to bother the chair while the chair is wondering why doesn’t the student ask me?


Importance of your committee — make your life easier. What to consider:

    1. Look for individuals who offset the weakness of you and your chair.
    2. Ask your chair who they recommend and if they have worked together before — do they get along or have political challenges, how do they handle conflict?
    3. Ask to meet with your full committee early in the process so you can learn what their experiences and expectations are — oh and it’s smart to read their dissertations prior to selecting.
    4. Never go around your chair to a committee member. If you don’t understand the feedback they provided talk with your chair first.
    5. Recognize that these individuals are not highly paid and have chosen to guide you because they want you to succeed.


Listen to your gut, if it feels right it probably is.  If it turns out your gut was wrong, don’t waste time beating yourself up over the decision or fearing you won’t succeed — move on and don’t burn any bridges along the way.

Enjoy the journey of learning and exploring!