Dissertation coach, editor, scholarly and mainstream writing consultant, author, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues. In her academic consulting practice, Noelle helps doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion. Based on her practice, she addresses these students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties in her handbook Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles.
If you’re at the dissertation writing stage, your most important relationship (other than the one with your chocolate/peanut butter cups stash) is the one with your chair. Your chair can be your best friend or worst nemesis. But there’s no getting around it; if you want to get done, finally, and graduate with those proud letters after your name, you need your chair.
When your chair is friendly, forthcoming, and responsive, you may be tempted to make moves toward becoming friends. When your chair is too formal and standoffish, you may be tempted to ignore him or her entirely, or as much as the required paperwork allows. Either extreme is a mistake, and you’ll likely regret it later.
I’ve learned in my academic coaching and editing service for doctoral students that they often experience terrible times with their chairs, and for many reasons. If you are mystified why you’re having such troubles, let this article be a little primer.
The relationship with your chair especially is (or should be) close by nature, both personally and professionally. Yet boundaries should exist, personal and professional. An open and sociable chair easily tempts you to be the same. Especially if you’re on a campus, when you sit in the chair’s office for your appointment, the chair may confide in you with complains about the spouse, kids, teaching load, and all the other backbiting faculty. Or your chair may offer you private research work or invite you out for a beer.
If your chair pours out marital woes, juicy as they may seem, do not tell your friends or study group colleagues. Tell no one. Nod empathetically and forget it all. Do not reply in kind with your own saga of a shattered engagement or horrible boss.
If your chair offers you employment, such as research for his or her latest tenure-chasing project, you may feel special, singled out, and blessed. Understandable, but much as you may need the funds, watch out. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that if you take the job, you’ll be in the chair’s good graces forever. Never so.
If your chair invites you out for a beer, of course you’re flattered. Go if you wish, but again, a caution. After a few short ones, you may assume that your new buddy-chair will quickly approve every first draft. Sorry.
When your draft is returned riddled with critiques and hard questions, you’re crushed. You wail, “But we’re friends!” And you go into a funk that seriously puts you behind in your chapters.
Longtime dissertation chair and professor Leonard Cassuto recognized the temptations that can beset chairs in the student relationship. He admonished chairs not to use their students as personal assistants (one chair had a doctoral student pick up his dry cleaning), not to brag or complain about their job, not to compliment students on clothes or personal tastes, and definitely not to “friend” them on Facebook (“Remember, Professor, Not Too Close,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 22, 2013). The very same advice goes for you.
The temptation for too much chumminess may loom more powerfully if the professor invites or insists on a mutual first-name basis, assuming professional collegiality. Don’t be lulled by this request. If the chair insists, call him or her by first name, uncomfortable as you may feel, but remember that first names do not friends ensure.
As you may already know, some chairs keep distant for as long as they can. Longtime dissertation advisor and distinguished sociologist, Michael Burawoy commented on the cogent reasons for such a policy: “faculty are often only too happy to oblige with such a laissez faire model. It’s neither intellectually taxing nor time consuming” (“Combat in the Dissertation Zone,” American Sociologist, 2005, 36, p. 51).
As you completed your chair hunting, you may have rejoiced when your new chair consented to the honor. Then you never heard another word, voicemail, or text. You wondered but, a little apprehensive, kept pushing on your draft. Your many emails and messages have gone unanswered.
It’s time to push for a response. Pepper the chair with more emails, texts, and phone messages. If necessary, enlist the department secretary, department head, other faculty, and dean of the school.
In a reverse situation, if your chair demonstrates responsiveness but you feel you can chug on without your chair’s input, you’re making an enormous mistake. After all, you know the basics of dissertation structure and you have gotten praise on your academic writing . . . .
When you maintain too much distance, though, your chair may assume you are arrogant and overconfident about your topic and dissertation writing. Your chair rightly expects and should have input into your work.
If you disappear for months and then present a doc accompli, chairs, being human, will likely feel ego-attacked. Once they get their actual or virtual hands on your draft, they may attack it in return. Your entire proposal that took hard-labor months without chair input can be torpedoed by a torrent of tracked changes.
A last important point that bears on chairs as both chums and strangers: Your chair is not your father, mother, older sibling, or favorite aunt or uncle. Cassuto pointed out the almost inevitable element of Freudian transference in the chair-dissertation student relationship. This is the projection of thoughts and feelings about an important person from your past onto a present important one, and the projection colors all interactions.
The transferential relationship—both ways—cannot be denied. Your best defense is acknowledgment. Confide in your partner or a friend: “He’s just like my never-pleased father.” “She’s like the mother I never had—caring, nurturing, in all ways.” “She reminds me of my demanding, picky aunt with her insistence on details.” “He even looks like my older brother, whom I still idolize.” When you find yourself reacting to the chair, stop and ask yourself. “Who am I reacting to?” To handle your feelings without irreversibly damaging the relationship with your chair, go to friends, family, even a therapist.
Burawoy compared his own dictatorial style of advising to that of a woman colleague:
She saw herself in loco parentis, caring for her students’ many needs, knowing details about their lives and they about hers. I, on the other hand, care only about the dissertation and the rest will have to take care of itself, unless, of course, it interferes with academic progress. (p. 50)Observe your chair and identify for yourself the predominant style. Labeling will help you spot transference and deal with your chair more rationally.
The Ideal Balance
So, what’s the best kind of relationship with your chair? On both sides, one that is friendly and professional, in which each of you is open yet discriminating of what not to share. You are both primarily interested in your topic and focused on making your dissertation the best it can be.
More advice: Stay in touch regularly. Some chairs schedule monthly meetings, in person or by Skype.
Tell the chair what part of the work you are engaged in; ask a few questions. Be as considerate of your chair as you wish him or her to be to you (the golden rule of committee gamesmanship).
Admittedly, given all the psychodynamic implications of the relationship, the balance is fragile and can be tipped disastrously by one discourteous email. Balance takes maturity and good judgment. Keep your eye on the prizes: your chair’s final approval and your gushing thanks in your Acknowledgments. And envision yourself in the hall wearing cap and gown and your chair sitting in the front row, beaming.