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Checklist for Dissertation Chairs

The dissertation committee chair, working with department administrative staff, helps steer the student through the intellectual stages and institutional requirements of doctoral degree work. Advising practices vary from discipline to discipline. However, the outline that follows provides widely applicable guidelines to a chair’s key responsibilities.

The Student-Advisor Relationship

The Dissertation

The Dissertation Committee

Supervising Research

Administrative Matters

The Oral Defense

Launching the Student’s Career

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Chairing a doctoral dissertation is a very rewarding and challenging mission. Doctoral dissertation chairs guide doctorate candidates through the last stage of their higher education and toward the completion of their journey. To successfully fulfill such a mission, a chair plays multiple roles. Each role is described below.

Quality chairs play the role of mentors who possess expertise in the dissertation topic and/or research method. If chairs are not experts in the research method, they need to be at least familiar with the method and one of the co-chairs must then be the expert. To play the role of mentors, chairs should:

In order to effectively help their learners, chairs carefully listen and identify their learners’ problems, needs, and challenges. The learners’ challenges can be related to their dissertation topics, methods, or personal issues such as time management, self-discipline, or motivation. It’s up to the chair to listen carefully in order to properly understand and offer support.

Advisor and Counselor

Effective chairs inform their learners about all the requirements and stages necessary to complete the dissertation. In addition, depending on their learners’ needs, chairs refer them to the appropriate department or support service provided by the university including the writing center, library sources, research method webinars, and workshops.  


Interaction is the key to establishing a healthy relationship with the doctorate candidates and leads to effective mentoring. Good chairs communicate in a timely manner with their learners. They maintain an ongoing rapport with their learners throughout the process of completing the dissertation. 

Quality chairs provide constructive feedback for their learners in a timely manner. Helpful feedback should include adequate details and guidance for the candidates to be able to address the comments and move toward success.   

Team Player

Successful chairs are effective team players as they collaborate with their learners and co-chairs to complete the dissertation process. They value the co-chairs’ contributions and address team conflicts with positive attitudes and constructive approaches. 

Superior chairs are a role model for their learners; they set examples through their personal success as scholar practitioners in conducting and disseminating research.

In addition, highly qualified dissertation chairs can be effective guides for showing their students how to disseminate their research through journal publications and conference publications, as well as showcasing their research for success in the students' future careers.

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Choosing a Dissertation Chair

Published by steve tippins on september 5, 2022 september 5, 2022.

Last Updated on: 7th September 2022, 05:44 am

Choosing your dissertation chair is one of the most important decisions that you’ll make in graduate school. Your dissertation chair will in many ways shape your experience as you undergo the most rigorous intellectual challenge you’ve had up to this point, and guide you as you navigate the murky waters of a major original research project. When the stakes are this high, you’ll want to make sure you’re working with the right person. 

But what should you be looking for in a dissertation chair? It’s a question that nags at many Ph.D. students when they’re on the precipice of this decision. Have no fear, we’re here to help. These are frequently asked questions that graduate students have about choosing their dissertation chair:

What Makes a Good Dissertation Chair?

student consulting a college professor

When it’s time to think about a dissertation chair, many graduate students are tempted to ask the most well-known professor on their program’s faculty to serve in the role. On the surface, this seems like a sound decision. After all, a scholar who has made a name for themselves in their discipline clearly knows what they’re doing, right? And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a bit of their stardust on your CV, of course. 

Not so fast. While a very successful scholar definitely excels at research, they might not be what you’re looking for, and they might not have the time to dedicate themselves to your project. An ideal chair is a faculty member that you have good existing rapport with, and one who is excited to work with you. An ideal chair is someone who will be a good mentor and advocate for you and your research, and someone who you know will be by your side for the long haul. 

The Big Ask

grad student asking a professor to be her dissertation chair

For something that is a very common practice in academia, many graduate students have anxiety about approaching a faculty member to be their dissertation chair. While it may feel to you like a lot to ask, keep in mind that chairing dissertations is part of a full-time faculty member’s job. They signed up for this, and they expect these kinds of requests. 

Meet with the faculty member you’re hoping to work with and be clear about your intentions. Ask them about their experiences chairing dissertations, what their expectations are, and be prepared to pitch your project idea to them, or at least the general topic or problem you want to work on. They might say yes immediately, or they may know of another scholar in the department whose research is right in your wheelhouse. 

Either way, you’ll leave the meeting having made progress. Do not take it personally if the first faculty member you ask to chair your dissertation says no. Chances are, if they decline, it’s because they know they don’t have the time to work with you right now and they don’t want you to be at a disadvantage with a neglectful chair. Thank them, and move on to the next candidate. You’ve got this! 

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Steve Tippins

Steve Tippins, PhD, has thrived in academia for over thirty years. He continues to love teaching in addition to coaching recent PhD graduates as well as students writing their dissertations. Learn more about his dissertation coaching and career coaching services. Book a Free Consultation with Steve Tippins

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The Role of the Dissertation Chair

The dissertation is the hardest part of any doctoral program because it forces the student to leave his/her comfort zone and embark on what some call a voyage of self-discovery. At the center of the doctoral student's dissertation experience is the dissertation chair, a professor who plays several roles and wears a number of hats.

There is no doubt that some dissertation chairs are good and others need improvement. What separates the good ones from the great ones is the chair's ability to assume a role appropriate for the situation. The one-role chair will likely not see a student through a program. Most of the roles a dissertation chair plays fall into four categories.

The advocate

A dissertation chair is a champion of the doctoral student's cause. If the chair doesn't believe in the student's competencies as a researcher, the student is doomed to endless dissertation revisions. Since the dissertation is a social process, the chair is the doctoral student's first line of defense against people and circumstances pushing the student off track.

Any good dissertation chair will tell you that part of the chair's job is protecting the student from other committee members. Like a matrix organizational structure, doctoral students have multiple bosses, all of whom the student must satisfy. The advocate dissertation chair makes certain that other committee members are not asking the student to make changes to the dissertation that deviate from the original goals set forth in the proposal. The time to disapprove of any aspect of the dissertation was during the proposal rather than dissertation stage.

The manager

Managers are drivers of subordinates; they keep track of mistakes, chart progress, and engage in transactional relationships. Although he/she sounds like a tyrant, the manager makes an excellent dissertation chair at times because he/she initiates a clear path from start to finish. Over critical at times, a manager's use of mistakes and missed deadlines as progress indicators makes progression through the dissertation move at a steady pace.

Unfortunately, there are times when a dissertation chair wears the manager's hat too long. Use of transactions to move the student through the process starts taking on characteristics of a whip and a chair rather than a method of ensuring progress. The student begins to see the chair as someone who is overcritical, someone who must find fault and can't move out of a criticizing role.

There is a fine line between managers and leaders but the difference lies in how the chair motivates the student. Whereas the manager initiates structure and drives within it, the leader inspires the student through intellectual stimulation; the leader motivates the student by pointing out that there is more to completing the dissertation than material reward. If done correctly, the student begins to view the chair as charismatic, possessing skills the student would like to possess him/herself.

Proving that too much of a good thing is unhealthy, the highly charismatic leader spends too much time with his/her head in the clouds and not long enough with feet on the ground. The result is a doctoral student who is inspired to do something but doesn’t know what that actually is. A dissertation chair must recognize when a student needs inspiration and when he/she needs solid help.

A dissertation chair is a judge, a gatekeeper who ensures that a student meets personal, departmental, university, and even universal standards. Even so, this does not mean that the goal of the dissertation chair is to constantly maintain a superior-subordinate relationship with the student. The most successful chair-student relationships are the ones in which the chair bestows the role of colleague on the candidate.

Giving up a superior position is difficult for anyone. A common reason students fail to finish a dissertation timely has to do with the chair's inability to accept someone who was once a subordinate as an equal. As a judge, the chair must ensure that the student's behaviors and outcomes are those befitting someone who will soon be regarded as an independent researcher and creator of knowledge. Still, the chair must learn to recognize when it is time to step down as judge and welcome a new member to the club.

how to be a good dissertation chair

The Most Important Dissertation Decision You Will Make

how to be a good dissertation chair

Hello Dissertation Friends!

In this blog post, I am going to tell you that the single most important decision you will make in your doctoral journey, is finding your dissertation chair/advisor. 

The two most important decisions you will make as a doctoral student are 1) the selection of your research area, and 2) the selection of your dissertation chair/advisor. Before you make a final decision of your advisor and approach someone to serve in that role, you should have a good idea about what topic you are interested in pursuing, and what kind of study you want to do.

While both decisions are important, the single most important research you will do as a doctoral student will be in selecting your chair/advisor. With the right chair/advisor, you can make steady progress, completing your dissertation on time and graduate on schedule. With the wrong advisor, you will spend time in the abyss known as the "drift", fail to make progress, and face the risk of ultimately not finishing, and becoming a Ph.D.W.D (Doctor of Philosophy Without Dissertation) or an Ed.D.A.B.D (Doctor of Education All But Dissertation).

Your chair alone will determine when and if you are ready to move to the next step at any point in the process.

The role of your dissertation chair/advisor is to:

Talk to former doc students in your graduate school.

In selecting your dissertation chair, talk to other dissertation students, or even better, to other former doc students who have moved on to graduate. Ask them the following questions: 1. Would you recommend your chair to current dissertation students? Why / why not? 2. How long did it take for your chair to provide feedback to you? (The key here is 3 weeks at MOST.) If it takes longer than 3 weeks, move on. You want someone who will be there to provide timely feedback.

When you approach a potential advisor, be prepared to discuss your timeline. Assure your potential advisory that the timeline is not more important than the quality of research. Explaining why you want to have a short timeline can help put things into perspective.

Choose a chair who:

If you are not strong and confident in statistical analysis and quantitative methodology, consider finding a chair who is a professor of statistics/research methods. Committee members and examiners in the final defense will be less likely to question any parts of the results or research designs.

Have you chosen your dissertation chair yet? If so, what why did you choose them?

how to be a good dissertation chair

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