So you want to fire your dissertation chair / advisor

…and not have it come back to bite you in the a_ _.

I was lucky with my choice of dissertation chair, beyond lucky. But it wasn’t all luck. I started with ruthless self-awareness. I wanted to be done. I was running out of time and money and, while I wanted to contribute something to the research in my field, my real priority was getting ‘er done!

Let me digress for a second. There’s a wonderful blog by the thesis whisperer where he talks about how he parted ways with his supervisor. Interestingly enough, his supervisor’s style is pretty close to what worked for me, with the exception that my chair was also kind, thorough, brilliant, and empathetic.

Here’s what he said about his advisor: “As it happens I was not trying to do anything too radical with my approach to research and writing. I wanted to understand the big picture of my research field, try to learn some theory and apply it appropriately. I wanted to write about my insights on policy and current practice in relation to my topic area, based on published, scholarly literature. Basically I wanted to come out confident I had contributed something to knowledge via my topic, gained valuable skills and expertise, but still have lots more to learn. Personal growth and insight would come in parallel with the academic skills as part of the complex PhD journey.”

Instead, what he got was:

Her vision of what ‘research training’ entails is to stay totally focused on your topic. My summary of her description is this: Don’t talk to anyone, don’t write anything non-academic. The topic is not what is important – all that matters is getting finished and being able then to move on to something interesting and collaborative. …Exclude everything else from life until it is done, because it is the piece of paper that matters, and opens doors to other opportunities.

This style didn’t work for him but it was exactly what I needed. That single-minded purpose is what got me through the proposal, research, and writing process at near warp speed. I told everyone – family and friends alike – that I was unavailable until I was finished. I said “no” to most invitations for coffee, used a grocery delivery service and takeout to keep food on the table, and hunkered down to spend every non work minute on my dissertation. The only thing I was careful not to exclude was exercising every day. I set expectations with everyone and found that apparently I had been quite cranky so most people were willing to give me the space I needed to finish. This also meant they didn’t have to hear about my “damn dissertation.”

Others I’ve talked to in my time completing my doctorate and editing dissertations for others reveal that it’s not uncommon to finish with a different chair/advisor than the one you started with (fabulous sentence construction, right?).

Example #1: One woman I knew had a chair who refused to use track changes/insert comments to provide feedback and edits. Instead she wanted to do everything with handwritten notes and meet in person to discuss all the changes. This wouldn’t have been so bad if she hadn’t left the country for weeks at a time, took short term sabbaticals at whim, or was simply too disorganized to show up for scheduled meetings.

It also meant Example 1 didn’t have a paper trail of previous changes so there was no way to go back and see if she was on the right track or respond to other changes that didn’t agree with the previous changes. The woman started taping the conversations to have a record of all of the changes and when they were made. Yikes.

The outcome? Example 1 went to the department head (before saying anything to her chair) and said “find me someone I can work with” and they did. The chair wasn’t happy.

The lesson? Ask prospective chairs/advisors how you’ll be working with them. How they provide feedback. Do they use track changes. How often you need to meet. What will happen if you disagree.

Example #2: A man I know picked a chair, planned out his dissertation work, and was into the proposal when the chair said he was taking a one-year sabbatical and they could still work online. Example 2 said he felt he’d work better with someone one-on-one who could meet in person at critical points.

The outcome? Example 2 went to his chair, talked it out, and they both agreed there might be a better fit. The man went to the department office to work it out.

The lesson? Ask prospective chairs if they have time to chair your dissertation. Tell them your schedule and plan. Ask if they will be unavailable for long periods of time.

Example #3: Another man I know simply didn’t get along with the person he chose as his chair. Their personalities didn’t mesh and they butted heads from the beginning. He just couldn’t see the next two years of his life (an estimate of how long it would take him) with this chair.

The outcome? Example 3 asked his chair point blank if he thought they should continue working together on the dissertation. Not surprisingly, the chair gave him an out. They left it on good terms and the Example 3 found someone he could work with.

The lesson? Ask around about personality styles of people you’re considering for your chair. Be upfront in asking if they think your personalities would mesh. When you’re interviewing the prospective chair (or you’re interviewing each other) ask him/her what kind of personality he or she works well with.

Example #4: A woman I know was using a grounded theory methodology and was surprised mid-way through her proposal to hear her chair had never worked with grounded theory but “was always interested in that methodology” so thought this was a good opportunity to learn more about it. What! Example 4 said, in nice terms, that she must have misunderstood (she didn’t) when the chair agreed to work with her and assumed the chair had experience in this methodology.

The outcome? Example 4 told the chair that she felt she had to work with someone who understood this methodology. The chair pushed back a little but Example 4 insisted on making a change. By saying that it was her (Example 4’s) fault for not asking specifically if the chair had experience in this methodology she allowed the chair to save face.

The lesson? Ask if the prospective chair has experience in your methodology. One of the reasons my chair and I were a good fit is that I wanted to do a positivistic case study and she had lots of experience with this methodology.

Example #5: A woman I know found out fairly early on in the proposal process that her chair wasn’t all that knowledgeable about or interested in her topic. That means her chair wouldn’t be a resource for research direction nor a strong cheerleader for the value of the topic and research itself.

The outcome? Example 5 said she felt like they were early enough in the process that she’d like to explore working with someone with more knowledge about her topic. She left off the part about saying the chair didn’t seem that interested in her topic.

The lesson? Ask a prospective chair if he or she is familiar with your topic and if this is something he or she would like to explore. Most people are pretty honest about this. If you’re not sure you could ask for specific examples of similar research.

Bottom line: Choosing a dissertation chair is serious business. You’re going to be joined at the hip for around two years (about average) so it better be someone you like and can work with.

Dr. Kat (aka Dr. Kathleen Cannon)

Fun, fast, experienced, reasonably priced dissertation editing, coaching, and therapy.


©2016 Kathleen J. Cannon

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