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

Writing the dissertation abstract — key words are key

Select. Index. Repeat.

While the main purpose behind keywords is for selection, the other purpose of the abstract and keywords is for indexing. Since most article databases in online catalogs let you search abstracts, keywords make quick work of the search function by eliminating full-text searches for articles that don’t apply.

Tips for Choosing Effective Keywords

  • Use the words you used when searching articles for your literature review.
  • Tie your keywords to your title and topic. If your title is “Why Senior Women Leaders Opt Out” that pretty much sets your keywords.
  • Use your headings to determine keywords. Dissertations in APA style use five levels of headings. Look at your level 2 headings to determine keywords.
  • Follow APA or your school’s guidelines for use of keywords. Most of the time you’ll choose five or six keywords. Some schools and most peer-reviewed publications have specific guidelines for the number and type of keywords used. Some publications even provide a list of preferred terms or keywords, what they often refer to as a common vocabulary.
  • Consider your target audience. Most people who will search for terms used in your dissertation will be in your field. Include terms specific to your field while at the same time expanding your keywords to include people who may be interested in your methodology or another aspect of your dissertation.
  • Avoid acronyms or jargon. This should go without saying but sometimes when you get to the dissertation stage your focus gets so narrow that you think everyone will be in the same place you are in terms of interest and experience.
  • Use key phrases not just keywords. And use synonyms for the key phrases. (For my dissertation I looked at women leaders and women executives.)
  • Go back to articles you referenced in your literature review and check what keywords they used in their abstracts.
  • Think globally. Some terms may differ in the international market. Grades in the United States may be referred to as “forms” in the UK.
  • Include all variations of a keyword. For my dissertation (naturally) I included opt-out, opting out, opt out without a hyphen. For this article I’d use keywords and key words.

Formatting keywords

Like all things to do with the dissertation, APA even has guidelines for formatting keywords. These keywords go at the bottom of the abstract (which, of course, has its own set of formatting rules).

  • Two spaces (one double space) after the last sentence in the abstract, type the word “Keywords” in italics followed by a colon. Place it flush left, no indent.
  • Using lowercase letters type in the keywords followed by commas BUT without using a comma at the end.

Example (from my own dissertation on why senior women leaders opt out – much longer title but that’s all we have room for here):

Keywords: leadership, women leaders, opt-out, glass ceiling, positivistic case study


Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Keywords and SEO are joined at the hip. Virtually every virtual site uses SEO to make sure people find and visit their site. The keywords you choose will determine how many people find and read your dissertation. Since most searchers don’t look past the first page of the search results, you can see why choosing the correct keywords is so important.

Network Solutions ( says there are four factors to keep in mind when choosing keywords: keyword volume, keyword relevance, keyword competition, and keyword focus.

Keyword volume: All this means is how often you use the term in your dissertation. So you go to “Find,” type in the word and you’ll see a list of how many times it appears. If in doubt go for volume. The downside is that generic terms get the most searches so you’ll end up on page 250 if you don’t choose carefully.

Example: With my dissertation there would be a billion cites with “leadership” as a keyword but many fewer sites with women leaders opt-out.

Keyword relevance: Keywords have to be real. That means you have to use keywords that truly describe what people will find in your dissertation. APA doesn’t like superlatives or even adjectives (or anthropomorphizing for that matter) so you can’t exaggerate findings or expand on the topic to get more people interested in your work.

Example: Again, with my dissertation being about women leaders opting out, it would be misleading to piggyback on Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In (which by the way came out after my dissertation and my easy-to-read dissertation wasn’t exactly flying off the shelves).

Keyword competition: All you have to do to check the competition for your keyword is to do a simple search for that one word. The more results for the word the less likely people are to find your dissertation.

Example: While my dissertation (enough already with your dissertation!) was about women leaders opting out, it was also a positivistic case study which isn’t a methodology normally associated with this topic.

Keyword focus: Narrowing the focus by expanding the keyword phrase helps get your dissertation out there.

Example: Naturally, again using my own dissertation, I found 94,000,000 sites using opt-out and only 62,000,000 using women opt-out, and only 3,810,000 for women leaders opt out. You can see where this is going, right?

Dr. Kat

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

©2016 KathleenJCannon