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Here’s a common conversation I find myself having with new faculty members.

I ask, “What training and support do you think would be helpful for you as a new faculty member in your department?”

The new faculty member responds, “I need help on creating a consistent program of research and teaching my classes effectively so I can earn tenure.”

So then I ask, “I see you have doctoral students you will have to advise, as well. Would training on how to be a dissertation chair be helpful?”

And the faculty member exclaims, “Wow! I hadn’t thought about that and have no clue where to start. I mean, I did go through the dissertation process myself and know how to do research. Isn’t that enough?”

For many faculty members, including myself, who have transitioned or will transition in the upcoming semester to a position that requires mentoring and guiding doctoral students through the dissertation process, there is often no blueprint. Think about your doctoral experience. After you finished, did you receive any training or support on chairing your own doctoral students?

When I talk with other faculty members I often ask, “How did you learn how to be a dissertation chair?” The most common response is, “I learned by doing it.” While on-the-job training has value, and that is how I also learned, I have always pondered the question: “Why isn’t there more training for faculty members on how to effectively guide doctoral students through the dissertation process?”

Based on that question and my experience serving on more than 40 dissertation committees as both chair and committee member—and supporting over 150 doctoral students across disciplines through my training related to the dissertation process—I have been able to witness both effective and ineffective strategies for chairing dissertations. And I’d like to share some of the insights I gained and wish I’d had when I started with faculty members who are just beginning their journeys chairing dissertations.

Recognize the dissertation experience of your advisees doesn’t have to be the same as yours. Every dissertation is different. As faculty members, we do not have to put our students through the process that many of us went through. This mindset shift is vital to make. If we approach how we advise our students in a way that mimics our own doctoral experience, it is easy to have unrealistic and sometimes unfair expectations of our doctoral students. That can potentially transform what should be a positive learning process into one that is unnecessarily difficult and riddled with friction. It may also deter many of our brightest minds from contributing to academia as a whole through their research after finishing the dissertation process.

Part of our work as chair is doing some internal reflection on our personal doctoral journey and understanding how our experiences influence our views on advising. For example, some doctoral students I encounter have dissertation chairs who see the dissertation process as a sink or swim exercise where the student needs to figure out everything on their own and should only reach out to their chair when they have completed work to share. In some of these situations, the student was only subjected to this mentorship approach because it was the way their dissertation chair was trained. Meanwhile this approach has left them isolated and unsure of themselves as scholars.

Contrastingly, I also encounter students who have dissertation chairs that encourage conversation with them and find opportunities to explaining the dissertation process, so the student knows they have a supportive faculty member to rely on. Every doctoral student has different needs at different stages of the dissertation process, so we should be open as faculty to adapting our style to meet the needs of our students.

Discuss expectations early and often. When I take on the responsibilities as chair, one of the first conversations I have with students focuses on our mutual expectations of the process. Why? Because, I have seen relationships go awry when expectations aren’t clear. When thinking about communicating expectations, here are a few topical areas that could help start your conversation.

Communication and meeting cadence:

  • Discuss your preferred mode of communication. Email? Phone? Text?
  • Share your typical response time to advisee questions.
  • Determine how often you plan to meet. Weekly? Bi-weekly? Monthly?
  • Communicate the days and times will you be unavailable.

Writing feedback and turnaround time:

  • Decide how you want to review the dissertation. Chapter by chapter? Entire dissertation proposal?
  • Share your typical turnaround time on feedback. Determine what happens if you are not able to meet the agreed-upon turnaround time.

Selecting committee members:

  • Review the guidelines for committee composition.
  • Decide, if in a co-chairing situation, who should be the first point of contact.

Engaging in this conversation with your advisee shows that you are human and understand that, as two busy people, you can figure out how to work together. While it’s important to have this discussion at the beginning of the dissertation process, you should continue to revisit your expectations with your students regularly.

Create your own system for managing students and the process. Having gone through the tenure and promotion process, I certainly understand the concerted effort it takes to be a productive scholar and teacher while also building a national or international presence in your field through various service opportunities. Given the demands on your time, it is helpful to create a system for how you manage your advisees and their progress, because it can be easy to lose sight of what they are working on and the upcoming deadlines that are important to their degree completion timeline. This is especially important if you are chairing many doctoral students.

One effective approach I and other chairs have implemented when we’ve had several advisees is to establish a designated time each week where students can drop in to talk about their work in a group format. That not only helps you manage your schedule, but also allows your students to build support and camaraderie among themselves.

To make best use of these meetings, I also recommend that you ask each student to create an agenda that has the key items they would like to discuss during their time with you. Having an agenda allows you time to prepare, if necessary, and also provides documentation of what was discussed so you can stay on top of everyone’s progress.

The dissertation is a repeatable process, so when starting out, create templates for aspects of the process that do not change. For example, if you know you will need to send an email to the committee members to schedule a defense date, create the email one time and save it as a template in your email system. That way, when looking to schedule future defenses, you already have a place to start from.

Other aspects of the process that you could build templates for include, but are not limited to:

  • Dissertation defense PowerPoints
  • Committee member emails offering feedback
  • Dissertation-defense announcements

You should also recognize that not all doctoral programs recognize and compensate faculty members appropriately when chairing dissertation committees, and that having systems in place will allow you to use your time effectively and still maintain focus on your research and teaching responsibilities.

Understand both the spoken and hidden rules. When chairing dissertations in a new department, make sure that you have access to any policy documents that govern the dissertation process at your university. In particular, create a spreadsheet or calendar of all of the important submission dates at your department, college and university level. This becomes important when talking with your advisees about their anticipated timeline for completion.

Being aware of deadlines allows you to help your student by recognizing, for example, that while graduation might occur in May, their dissertation has to be defended by March 15th. That March 15th deadline signals that the student may need to be done writing their dissertation and have a draft to the committee by February 1st to give them a month to review. Depending on the bureaucracy of your institution, such dates vary and drastically impact a student’s timeline, so it is important to stay on top of the rules.

In fact, one of the key challenges as a new faculty member in a department is that you don’t always know the unspoken rules of your department’s dissertation process. For instance, when I was a doctoral student, it was often the responsibility of the chair to communicate with the committee when sending over chapters for review or getting folks scheduled for a defense. However, in my current doctoral program, many of our students actually help in leading that process with the support of the chair. I value that they have ownership of the process, but that was something unspoken that I had to learn along the way.

Some questions that you may want to ask to understand which unspoken rules you should consider are:

  • How long does our department give committee members to review a dissertation?
  • At what point do we send dissertations to the committee? After chapter completion? Or only when a complete proposal or final dissertation is ready?
  • If a dissertation committee member is unresponsive, how is that typically handled?
  • Does our department allow a student to write their dissertation in a language other than [insert language]?

As a new faculty member, chairing doctoral students through the dissertation process is an important role, but one that we are least prepared for in our doctoral training. My mission is to have more conversations about ushering students through the dissertation process, so I can improve it for everyone involved.

Ramon B. 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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