For doctoral students – Your relationship with your chair: Too chummy or too distant?

relationshipIf you’re at the dissertation writing stage, your most important relationship (other than the one with your chocolate/peanut butter cups stash) is that with your chair/advisor/first reader. 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 become 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. For example . . .

Chums

The relationship with your chair is (or should be) close by nature, both personally and professionally. Yet boundaries should exist, both personally and professionally.

An open and sociable chair easily tempts you to respond in kind. Especially if you’re on a campus, when you sit in the office for your appointment, the chair may confide in you with complaints 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 you’re hearing a torrent of marital woes, juicy as they may seem, do not tell your friends or study group colleagues. Tell no one. Just nod empathetically and forget it all. Do not reply in kind with advice, probably misguided, or 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 and you’re owed one. 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 chapter production.

Longtime dissertation chair and professor Leonard Cassuto recognized the temptations that can beset chairs in the student relationship. He admonished faculty not to use their students as personal assistants (one chair gave his dry cleaning to a doctoral student), 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 in reverse.

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.

Strangers

As you may already know, some chairs keep distant for as long as they can. Experienced 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[2], p. 51).

When you carefully ferreted out the perfect chair, you may have rejoiced when he or she consented to the honor. Then you never heard another word, voicemail, or text. You wondered but, a little apprehensive, kept pushing on in your draft. Your many emails and messages have still 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 the input, you’re making an enormous mistake. After all, you remind yourself, 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. He or she rightly expects to be consulted 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 such input can be torpedoed by an onslaught of tracked changes.

Unavoidable Transference

A last important point that applies to 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 this faculty-student relationship. Transference is the projection of thoughts and feelings about an important person from your past onto a present important one, and that 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.”

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)

If you suspect transference, 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. Observe your chair and identify for yourself the predominant style—chummy, standoffish, anything in between. 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 with each other 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.

To maintain balance, 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 as you wish him or her to be to you.

Admittedly, given all the psychodynamic implications of the relationship, the balance is fragile. 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 auditorium wearing cap and gown and your chair sitting in the front row, beaming.

© 2017 Noelle Sterne

Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

For reprinting, please contact Noelle Sterne through her site: www.trustyourlifenow.com


Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and emotional counselor, Noelle has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, Inspire Me Today, Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com


The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.

See also Noelle’s other posts:

Friends – How to keep them but keep them away when you need academic immersion

For Academics: What to Do When Your Partner Wails, “I Never See You Anymore!”

For Academics: Are Your Kids Growing Up Without You?