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A productive dissertation committee requires members who have emotional intelligence, or EQ, and positive leadership qualities, such as being authentic and communicating honestly. Those qualities can be empowering components of mentoring doctoral students, especially those in online programs.

Students who embark on a doctoral program often face the daunting tasks of navigating through content courses, learning research methods and designs, and establishing a purposeful working relationship with a dissertation committee. Although universities offer a plethora of resources for those students, the challenges become more intense through the iterative process of preparing a dissertation that meets each institution’s academic standards.

The dissertation committee in most universities often consists of a dissertation chair, second committee member and a university research reviewer. The dissertation chair serves as the faculty mentor, directly supporting the student throughout the doctoral program, while the second committee member usually has a shared responsibility in offering guidance to the student. The university research reviewer works with the dissertation chair to provide direct support to the committee. They also provide indirect support to the student by ensuring a high level of integrity, ethics and quality in the research, along with consistency in the application of university research standards. Committee members should communicate and collaborate with each other, as well as the student, to support the student’s progress and help enhance the quality of their work.

Dissertation chairs are instrumental in guiding students through each milestone of the process. In their efforts to develop sustainable relationships with students, they should tailor their mentoring approaches to each student to meet their individual needs and create positive social change.

Perhaps paradoxically, most mentors have learned to think critically. While critical thinking allows faculty mentors to improve the status quo, increase quality and otherwise drive excellence, too much critical thinking can sometimes block the path to feeling grateful for students’ distinct contributions, gifts and current skills.

The mentor advantage consists of demonstrating emotional intelligence and supporting student well-being by showing empathy, employing good listening skills and making connections by identifying with and relating to students. Internationally known psychologist Daniel Goleman has identified five domains to define the emotional intelligence theory: 1) self-awareness, 2) self-regulation, 3) motivation, 4) empathy and 5) social skills. Students’ engagement often depends on how well dissertation chairs capitalize on those domains to inspire, show compassion and create a sense of purpose that intrinsically motivates them.

In Silent Messages, Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, cited research findings on communication effectiveness related to visual cues, tone and words. In one study, “A Wealth of Information About Nonverbal Communication,” Mehrabian found that when people interpret messages about feelings and attitudes, they base 55 percent of that interpretation on visual cues like facial expressions, 38 percent on tone and 7 percent on words. Thus, Mehrabian concluded, as much as 93 percent of communication about feelings and attitudes is nonverbal.

The study strongly suggests that faculty mentors with high emotional intelligence can better recognize students’ feelings, even if they are subtle, through nonverbal communication. And, in fact, faculty mentors with high emotional intelligence tend to have better, more productive relationships with students than those who do not emotionally connect with their students. They understand and support their students’ needs, values and beliefs instead of expecting students to conform to their own. They are also aware of the common negative attitudes they may need to overcome to be effective guides to graduate students, including assumption, arrogance, indifference and the need to control students’ knowledge, feelings and desires.

Positive emotion is a powerful force in influencing and developing students. A faculty mentor with high emotional intelligence can blend critical thinking and a grateful heart to achieve the perfect balance. Successfully connecting with students by focusing on their well-being is an important skill to have. To develop positive relationships with doctoral students, I recommend dissertation chairs take the following steps.

  • Make time for students. Be flexible and responsive to meet the varied and changing needs of students across different time zones.
  • Listen for ways to establish common ground. This can support congruent communications with students. Faculty mentors who openly listen to a student’s point of view ultimately foster inclusion and build community.
  • Show interest in students by asking questions. Gathering information about the lives of students helps facilitate productive mentoring relationships.
  • Look for creative ways to help students. This increases students’ motivation to complete assignment milestones throughout the dissertation process. Student motivation increases when faculty mentors give praise for accomplishments.
  • Let students into your life. Authentic dissertation chairs show appropriate vulnerability and relatability, which fosters positive relationships. Faculty mentors often establish trust when they share relevant strengths and weaknesses with students.
  • Show students you care. Students will have an increased respect for a faculty mentor’s knowledge when they feel supported.
  • Think more of your students than yourself. This mind-set enables faculty mentors to practice servant leadership, which enhances student engagement and motivation. Faculty mentors who focus on students before themselves can encourage students to exceed course learning outcomes.
  • Adapt to your students’ worlds. Mentoring is more effective when lessons are relevant to students. In doing so, faculty mentors can solicit course discussion responses to understand their students’ world interests.

Creating a sense of purpose and improving student well-being includes assessing students’ situations with gratitude, shifting from critical to grateful thinking, building on students’ success toward goals, bolstering students’ sense of significance and encouraging a focus on positive social change.

Faculty mentors can enhance a student’s dissertation experience by applying emotional intelligence. To support this initiative, universities should develop emotional intelligence training programs for dissertation chairs that teach strategies for applying such knowledge throughout the doctoral mentoring process. One way Walden University addresses this is by including emotional intelligence training for dissertation chairs in the research mentoring proseminar and positive leadership course. Universities that recognize the impact of emotional intelligence on dissertation committees are changing the higher education landscape for the greater good.

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