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Older man leans over younger student who is looking at a computer and seems to be giving him advice
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Consider this scenario:

Student: “Dr. X, here is my dissertation proposal; it is 80 pages for your review. It would be nice to get feedback by Monday.”

Dr. X (looking at the clock on their computer): “Well, it is 5 p.m. on Friday, and this expectation is very unrealistic. I’ll give you my feedback in three weeks.”

I have witnessed situations like this play out all too frequently. In many doctoral programs, students are trained to become stellar researchers, but the nuances of navigating the dissertation process are left out of that training. So it’s not surprising that when I present to Ph.D. students at colleges and universities around the United States on the techniques they can use to finish their dissertations quickly, one of the most common questions that I hear from them is “How can I repair the relationship with my chair?”

Is this a question that you have also asked? If so, after now supporting over 150 doctoral students through the dissertation process, I want to share three basic strategies that can lessen your frustration and strengthen the relationship with your dissertation chair.

  1. Develop expectations in collaboration with your chair. Establishing clear expectations will make your life much easier. I understand these conversations may be hard. You may even feel that you should not have to take the lead in them. Often, I am surprised that faculty members don’t initiate more interactions with their students before they begin the dissertation process. But doctoral students who finish quickly and with minimal frustration recognize the importance of having such discussions about expectations early and often in their dissertation-writing journey.

Here are some guiding questions you might consider asking when setting expectations with your chair:

  • What is your typical response time on emails? And at what point can I resend an email if I do not get an answer?
  • How long does it generally take to provide feedback on written work?
  • Would you prefer to read my dissertation chapter by chapter? Or do you want the entire proposal (or final dissertation) all at once?
  • How often can we meet to discuss my dissertation? (Advocate for the time frame you feel you need.)

This list is just a start for thinking about what is important to you as a student and learner. As a faculty member and dissertation chair myself, I appreciate these conversations because it allows me to lay out my expectations and develop an agreement that works for every student.

  1. Keep communication lines open. While students often think about the dissertation process as a thinking and writing activity, one of the core skill sets you will need to complete that process and prevent frustration is communicating well with your chair. I have found that students who keep the lines of communication open stay at the top of their professors’ minds.

For example, around the start of the semester, you can send an email outlining your writing plan for the coming months and get a meeting on the calendar to ensure there is alignment between your timeline and your chair’s timeline. Then, as you near the end of the semester, you can send an email to your chair giving them an update on your progress.

This end-of-semester email is especially important if you have not communicated with your chair frequently during the semester. In that email, describe what you have worked on and your goal for future deliverables. That will ensure you are back on their radar and give you the chance to plan how you will finish up your dissertation with some accountability. It will also create the opportunity to have another conversation around expectations with your chair to ensure you enter the upcoming semester in accord.

As a professor, I know that faculty members can be bombarded with requests and responsibilities during certain times of the academic year, so some tasks, like reading a dissertation chapter draft, can easily slip through the cracks. For instance, your dissertation chair may be serving as a national officer for a disciplinary organization, so during the time of its conference, they may not be available. Those students who understand when a chair might be swamped with various other work responsibilities know to develop a plan in concert with their chair with realistic submission and feedback deadlines.

  1. Take the initiative to develop a plan. I often describe the doctoral journey like driving a car from destination A to B. As a Ph.D. student, you are often in the back seat when you start your program, and your professors are at the wheel and the front passenger seat. They are guiding you and getting you accustomed to the terrain. But by the time you get to the dissertation, things will have shifted—your dissertation chair is in the front passenger seat, but you should be in control in the driver’s seat with the GPS guiding you.

Unfortunately, however, some students remain in the back seat during their entire doctoral journey, even though there is often an unspoken expectation for them to take the wheel when they begin writing their dissertation. So now, rather than waiting on your chair to tell you what the next task should be, you can take some ownership and develop an initial plan of next steps and then contact your chair to discuss your plan.

Your chair wants to see you blossom into the expert that you are, and one of the ways to do that is by taking more control over the process. I understand that taking more control will feel counterintuitive, since you have taken faculty members’ lead throughout your coursework. But trust me, by developing a plan, you will be able to start conversations and refine your dissertation. And that refinement is the key to finishing your program.

The tumultuous path that saddles students with the infamous all-but-dissertation (A.B.D.) moniker does not have to be your path. My hope is that you put these strategies into practice and make the most of your dissertation experience, because your research will change the lives of the people, communities and organizations you care about most.

Ramon Goings (@ramongoings) is an associate professor in the language, literacy and culture doctoral program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and founder of Done Dissertation.

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