Posted on

Choose your best dissertation chair

It is impossible to overestimate the significance of the student-advisor relationship. . . . This is both a personal and professional relationship that rivals marriage and parenthood in its complexity, variety and ramifications for the rest of one’s life. (Zhao, Golde, & McCormick, 2007, p. 263)

These wise observations were made by a new “doctor” in the study by Zhao et al. (2007) of how the doctoral students’ choice of chairs and their behavior affect the students’ satisfaction. The candidate quoted above echoes what many doctoral students learn, with ease or agony, during their dissertations. Your relationship with your chair (sometimes called advisor or supervisor) is absolutely the most important in your entire doctoral haul.

In my many years of coaching and advising doctoral candidates, I have seen too often how the “wrong” chair not only delays the student’s completing the dissertation and graduating but creates much frustration. Some students have changed “impossible” chairs in mid-draft and have gotten a worse replacement. If only there were a!

Until a completely exasperated doctoral candidate, hopefully not ABD, comes up with such a site, you have other options. A few universities assign chairs and committees, usually dependent on their (supposedly) light roster of doctoral students.

More commonly, and more progressively, many universities allow you to choose your chair. This is great, but . . . you want to do your homework. Avoid musical chairs—going from one to another in the hope of a better experience (meaning faster approvals).

So, based the unfortunate experiences of many of my doctoral students, here are some suggestions for tracking down the best doctoral chair you can.

Gather Plenty of Information

Collect as much information as you can from as many sources as you can find.

  1. Stomp in the grapevines of your classmates, other peers, and recent doctors. Their insights and observations about reliability and consistency, especially in hindsight, can be invaluable.
  2. Talk to peers who are currently working with chairs you are considering. Are the students comfortable with the chair? How promptly do they get responses? Does the chair remind them about university deadlines? Are the chair’s critiques more substantial than correcting of typos and raging about APA? Do the students feel the chair prompts them to think in greater depth about the topic? Does the chair address the students at least civilly? How satisfied overall are the students with the experience?
  3. Dig out faculty bios. Access the university/division/school/department website for faculty profiles. These should yield much: professors’ degree-granting universities, primary research interests, courses taught, publications, presentations, awards, grants, journal affiliations. Photographs are often included, and you can see if the professors have kind eyes (not infallible, but it helps). Make sure too the professors aren’t on fourteen university committees.
  4. Search out enemy literature. Shore (2014), a longtime and award-winning professor and advisor to doctoral students, wrote a fine book ostensibly for chairs and advisors, The Graduate Advisor Handbook. In a colloquial, engaging style, he shares advice and cautions. You can learn a lot about what to ask for, expect, and stay away from when you’re on the chair hunt. Shore’s perspective, revealed in the subtitle, should cheer you on: A Student-Centered Approach. 

Ask Questions About the Chair

What do you really want to know about a chair? What’s really important to you? Based on the bio you accessed and other doctoral candidates’ experiences, here are some suggestions.

  • Does the professor have the time for you?
  • Are your research interests similar?
  • Are you devotees of the same methodologies?
  • Is the chair knowledgeable about the research in your field?
  • Will the chair be responsive to your emails and calls (not that you’re going to be a pest)?
  • Will the chair critique your drafts in a reasonable time? Some universities specify professorial 2-week turnarounds. Unhappily, this “rule” guarantees nothing.
  • Will the chair keep track of your drafts? Don’t laugh; a client’s chair kept losing her current drafts, confusing unedited with later edited versions, and repeatedly emailed the student for the latest versions. (Not very confidence-building!)
  • Will the chair be available for meetings with you and generous with time, within reason? (You don’t need to recount your life story leading up to the dissertation.)
  • Will the chair encourage you but be reasonably “hard” in critiques? A chair who is too “easy” is doing you no favors. Later critiques by committee members and university reviewers can shock you, require extensive revisions, and woefully delay graduation. More important, “easy” chair critiques don’t elicit your best work.
  • Will the chair be clear in instructions?
  • Will the chair be professional and friendly in your dealings?
  • Will the chair work well with other committee members and “fight” for you with them if necessary?
  • Will the chair be stable at the university? At a crucial time in a client’s dissertation, his chair left the university abruptly under hushed circumstances. The client had to scrounge for another chair.
  • Will the chair help you later in your career? (They often do, with leads to publications and presentations.)

One university has a comprehensive checklist and form for students to help them hone the characteristics most important to them in chairs and committees, a laudable practice. Some of the characteristics: supportive or hands-off, highly goal-directive or minimally goal-directive, soft critiques or sharp. Other characteristics would seem to constitute the perfect members: gives strong feedback, has a sense of humor, patient, collegial, calming to the candidate, committed to success, nurtures candidate’s self-sufficiency, inspires intellectual growth, enthusiastic, and understands the dissertation and IRB processes, and more. Whew!

Ask Questions of Yourself

After all your homework, ask yourself more questions about prospective chairs. What do you want and need in a chair? And the biggest question: How do I feel about this faculty member?

Listen inside. You’ve often done this. When you meet new people, you can tell immediately whether you like them or not. When you enter a certain place, you know whether it feels good or not.

For your chair, if you think you should be reasonable and apply logic (“He’s a well-known tenured professor!”), and if your gut is telling you otherwise, it won’t work. If you stack up all kinds of rational arguments to convince yourself of what should be the best choice (“She’s got stellar publications and connections!”), it won’t work.That’s why you really gravitate to the new associate professor who misplaces his glasses and stumbles over his words.

Next Steps

When you’ve created your short list, write a respectful letter to your chair prospects. Open with them a not-too-fawning compliment about their own work, mention your similar interests, and give the title of your dissertation. Ask if they would favor you with this dance. When they reply, they may ask for your latest draft–expected and acceptable. Ask them too for their timeline for reply, which you deserve.

If they decline, thank them. If they accept, arrange a meeting or call. And listen again to how good you feel in their presence.

With these steps, gathering information, asking the right questions, and then suspending your intellect (the only time I’ll advise this) and paying attention to your feelings, you will be guided to your best chair. You deserve a productive and pleasant relationship with your chosen chair, the person who can truly help you reach your goals of your best dissertation completion and the cherished award of your doctorate.


Shore, B. M. (2014). The graduate advisor handbook: A student-centered approach. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Zhao, C. M., Golde, C. M., & McCormick, A. C. (2007). More than a signature: How advisor choice and advisor behaviour affect doctoral student satisfaction. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 31(3), 263-281.

© 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