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Musical chairs…and committees

In your dissertation trek, you may have a chair and committee who are steady, consistent, and infinitely supportive. If not, my condolences.

Students frequently describe their committees as just wanting to push those dissertations through, get their pittance, devote their time to revising and publishing their own (hard-won) dissertation, and jockeying for tenure. Graduate students also make the frequent mistake of thinking that their committees are reasonable, logical, well- organized, prompt about returning phone calls and manuscripts, and enjoying a balanced life, happy in their work. Rarely.

In advising doctoral candidates, I have known and know of unpardonably neglecting chairs and committee members, with scholarly backup (Barnes, Williams, & Archer, 2010; Fletcher, Gies, & Hodge, 2011; West, Gokalp, Peňa, Fischer, & Gupton, 2011). Clients have wailed how they’re ignored by the chairs, except for requisite quarterly form emails asking for updates. As one student said, hers was “too quiet.”

Another student had the perfect nightmare of a chair: He didn’t respond to voice messages or emails, didn’t show up for appointments, kept changing and cancelling new ones, only scanned the drafts and as a result came to wrong conclusions about the material, and didn’t keep his promises about delivering the drafts to the other committee members. Such responses certainly don’t help students’ sanity or momentum.

These unflattering descriptions aren’t the whole story, though. I have also known and know of chairs and committee members who are extremely conscientious, caring, and careful with their mentees’ manuscripts. They respond quickly to emails, even phone the students, critique their manuscripts thoughtfully (generally in the fearsome tracked-change mode), and send reminders about deadlines and statutes of limitation. Sometimes, paradoxically, it is these very committee members who refer students to me for editorial help because the professors want the best possible products for their charges.

The professors on your dissertation committee can fulfill your rosiest fantasies or worst nightmares, and even both. If you don’t believe me, see the refreshingly honest, enlightening, and entertaining article by a student and his chair(!) Candidate Gearity and chair Mertz (Gearity & Mertz, 2012) were both unflinchingly honest in “From ‘Bitch’ to ‘Mentor’: A Doctoral Student’s Story of Self-Change and Mentoring.” The range of horrid-to-fabulous chair/committee roles was captured perfectly by Grant and Tomal (2013): dictator, procrastinator, abdicator, aggressor, avoider, narcissist, utopian, comforter . . . versus collaborator and facilitator (pp. 35–36). You may be able to add a few more.

Once in a while, professors themselves will suggest it. In Gearity and Mertz (2012), Professor Mertz came out swinging; in the first meeting intended to review Gearity’s prospectus, which she had marked up liberally, she noticed his consternation and anger. She suggested—not once but three times—that he could change chairs. Gearity told us he had no other options, possibly because of the topic or timeline.
If you do have options, you don’t have to wallow in grief and hair-tearing until you get your degree.If you’vediscoveredyou just can’t work with a chair or professor, consider changing. But think carefully. Recognize that requests for changes take additional time, research, and application procedures. They can produce even greater stress than you may feel with your present chair and further dilute your dissertation focus.

In the Office

Before paying the steep prices and playing musical chairs, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What are my university mechanisms for changing?
  • Will my record have a “black mark” for changing? (Not usually.)
  • How much time will it take me?
  • Can I really afford the time?
  • Have other students had similar horrible experiences?
  • Is the professor willing to sit down and discuss the conflicts with me?

In Your Head

Keep contemplating with a few more questions of yourself:

  • Do the critiques arise from our underlying differences of approach or values?
  • Are my complaints are justified?
  • Is it really that I don’t understand their concepts, comments, or handwriting?
  • Am I just mad because I wanted to get done sooner?
  • Are the changes requested reasonable?
  • Will they make for a stronger work?
  • Is it better to stay with the plague I know than to contract a new one?
  • What can I do to fix the situation without changing professors?

When you answer these questions for yourself truthfully, you’ll gain a better understanding of the entire situation and the dynamics you’re facing. If you need to, and feel it would help, contact a cohort member, new doctor, or a former teacher (at a different institution). They can be immensely helpful. Talk out your feelings and answers to the questions, ask for advice and perspective, and weigh your options.

Further In Your Head

If the critiques and personalities seem particularly stinging, from your new, broader perspective, consider greater honesty with yourself. My client Ted, an experienced and well-respected administrator of a community education program, was crushed at the many critiques by his chair. Despite Ted’s experience and knowledge, he admitted his expertise didn’t extend to dissertation writing and structure.

I could see he wasn’t reacting out of a distorted sense of ego.

Ted was nevertheless disconcerted and a little humiliated. I suggested that he view the chair’s comments not as a personal attack but as a step in the collegial give-and-take (talk about a mature viewpoint on disagreement!). His chair, I told Ted, was aiming for the best possible quality in the dissertation. To his credit, Ted took in this advice and perspective, and we dutifully mowed down all the critiques.

Because of pelting critiques like Ted received or other issues, you may strongly dislike the chair or a committee member. The traditional advice for anyone you absolutely must work with is to make the best of it. If you can’t grin and bear it but are grimacing and hardly stomaching it, you can do other things.

Getting to the Heart of It

Bregman (2012) gave great advice, first pointing out that if you don’t like someone, they likely know it. Their sensing your dislike may result in their not liking you, and this feeling makes working together all the harder. Second, Bregman recommended listing all the reasons you don’t like this individual.

Once you do, then comes the squirming part. If, in a pertinent example, you dislike the chair because he must always be right, speaks in monosyllables, and keeps demanding more, look at yourself squarely. “Think about whether, in the dark shadowy parts of your psyche, you can detect shards of that disagreeable trait in yourself” (Bregman, 2012, para. 16). Uh, oh. Bregman had no mercy: “In other words, chances are, the reason you can’t stand that person in the first place, is that they remind you of what you can’t stand about yourself” (para. 18).

The payoff of this kind of introspection and forthright admission is that you gain compassion for your own nasty traits and, hopefully, a little more compassion for the person who grates on you so much. You might even resolve to correct yourself or find, as Bregman (2012) did with his example, that you eventually like the person—in our case, that impossible chair.

Chopra (1994) must have had doctoral committees in mind when he wrote, “Whenever confronted by a tyrant, tormentor, teacher, friend, or foe (they all mean the same thing), remind yourself, ‘This moment is as it should be’” (p. 59). That is, you have attracted this disturbing relationship because you needed it and need to overcome the issues raised.

Your Options

With your newfound, red-faced honest realizations, consider your options.

  • Talk with the professor about your feelings and how they are contributing to your stuckness in writing. You may find he or she is surprisingly and pleasantly honest in return. And you won’t have to change professors but can now concentrate on grinding out your drafts.
  • Investigate the options for change. Most universities have mechanisms in place. Consider how much time, effort, and paperwork you most devote to the change process. With that first set of questions above, ask yourself another: Is it worth it?
  • Face too the possibility that a new chair or committee member may be no better—or enormously better. Talk to colleagues who have had responsive, thoughtful, and cooperative committee members. Research these professors for similar interests to yours and expertise in your field. Email them to find out if they are taking on new students. The nature of their replies will tell you a lot: formal and standoffish or inviting.

You deserve to have a good doctoral experience (if that’s not an oxymoron). With honesty and appropriate actions, throughout your dissertation experience, you will have a caring and encouraging chair and committee.

Barnes, B. J., Williams, E. A., & Archer, S. A. (2010). Characteristics that matter most:
Doctoral students’ perceptions of positive and negative advisor attributes. NACADA Journal, 30(1), 34-46.

Bregman, P. (2012, September 12). What to do when you have to work with someone
you don’t like. Harvard Business Review Blog Network. Retrieved from

Chopra, D. (1994). The seven spiritual laws of success: A practical guide to the fulfillment of your dreams. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen/New World Library

Fletcher, E. C., Gies, M., & Hodge, S. R. (2011). Exploring persistence, challenges, and barriers of doctoral students. Multicultural Learning and Teaching (Online), 6(1). doi:10.2202/21612412.1073

Gearity, B. T., & Mertz, N. (2012). From “bitch” to “mentor”: A doctoral student’s story
of self-change and mentoring. Qualitative Report, 17 (Art. 59), 1-27. Retrieved from

Grant, C., & Tomal, D. R. (2013). How to finish and defend your dissertation: Strategies to complete the professional practice doctorate. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

West, I. J., Gokalp, G., Peña, E. V., Fischer, L., & Gupton, J. (2011). Exploring effective support practices for doctoral students’ degree completion. College Student Journal, 45(2), 310-323.

© 2019 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:

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 600 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, 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. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her second novel. Visit Noelle at