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When your professor muscles in: Your topic and coauthorship

As an advanced graduate student, you face many hard situations: finally writing the dissertation, trying to explain to your family why you can’t spend any time with them, and breaking up the fistfights between your chair and committee members. In my work as academic coach and editor, and especially with clients who are at any of the torturous stages of their dissertations, I’ve noticed two other scenarios that can cause students great anxiety. The first is the professor’s suggestion of a dissertation topic. The second, later, is a professor’s offer to collaborate on a research article.

Whose Topic?

Early in the dance, your professor may “suggest” a topic to you. It could be replication of the study he just had rejected, the study she’s just started, his secondary research interest, or her department head’s major obsession.

Like my client Ryan. In our second week together, he called one morning at 8:13 a.m. wailing, “She wants me to take the topic she’s been working on for six years! I have no interest in the snacking preferences of Millennials at the movies. What can I do? Will she take it out on me if I don’t do what she wants? Will she stop me from getting my degree?”

Ryan’s fears were legitimate. I knew how he felt from personal experience. In my own doctoral seminar, one gray winter Thursday afternoon the chair cheerily passed around a sheet with five neatly typed topics and a column to the right. He asked each of us to put our initials opposite the topics we were interested in. As I scanned the list, I recognized the topics were all his major research areas.

The other students nodded and smiled and initialed. I’d thought a lot about dissertation topics and had just about decided what I wanted to do—an analysis of the satiric minor poems of a major eighteenth-century author. My choice was nowhere near any of the topics on the chair’s sheet. My initials were the only ones that didn’t appear.

Generous soul that he was, my chair didn’t hold it against me (his kind-heartedness, and his passion for eighteenth-century literature, were what had first drawn me to him). In fact, he supported me throughout my dissertation and, before my degree was awarded, helped me publish a very small article in a scholarly journal.

But the phenomenon of professor-suggesting-(read: dictating)-topic is more widespread than you might think. Leonard Cassuto (2014), who chairs many dissertations, doesn’t hesitate to nail it, and in colorful language. In “Spotting a Bad Adviser—And How to Pick a Good One,” he writes, “If you think you’re being collected like a bauble in someone else’s collection, then steer clear. Or if you suspect that you’re being recruited to run on someone else’s hamster wheel, then run the other way” (para. 17).

Maybe professors who suggest topics to their students desire to help narrow the possibilities and make the choices easier. Maybe the professors want to condense the student’s topic-fishing time. Maybe some students are grateful to be steered to the professor’s ideas and thoughts. Maybe these conjectures are too charitable.

Whenever I hear stories like Ryan’s or read (very infrequent) admonitions like Cassuto’s, I get angry. Professors are supposed to be for their students, their students’ scholarly interests and careers. Students are not slave labor for the professors’ egocentric ends. Their noble purpose is to help you produce the best dissertation you can; that’s why you have them.

You may think, like Ryan, that succumbing to the professor’s supposedly helpful suggestion is the only route. You fear that if you don’t bow to one of the directed topics, you’ll be punished throughout your dissertation experience by the professor’s stalling with drafts, critiquing every comma, or responding once a semester.

For the most part, I don’t believe such fears are warranted. Generally, the professor will likely respond with understanding and may even admire you. For all you know, the professor could have been bullied by his or her professor into taking on a major research interest and hating it, even though devoting a career to it.

If, though, your chair does try to coerce you into a topic you can’t stomach, gather your strength. Write a little script of the reasons for your choice: “I have always been interested in [your own topic].” “My master’s thesis was on [your own topic], and I want to study this in more depth.” “I will learn a great deal from [your own topic] and it will help me in my career.” “I believe I can make a real contribution to the field with [your own] line of research.” Feel strong in your own passion, interests, and convictions. Rehearse.

“Collaboration” After Your Degree

Another professor-controlling scenario can loom. If you’re finishing your dissertation—on the topic of your choice—and you finally see the proverbial light at the end of the interminable, torturous tunnel, you may already be looking forward to publishing your work. At your defense or shortly afterwards, the professor exclaims, “Your dissertation is so important! Have you thought about publishing it as an article?” Meaningful pause. . . . And then the kicker: “How about coauthoring it?”

Sure, you feel flattered, specially favored, incredibly lucky, blessed beyond measure. And visions of teaching plums dance in your head.

Again, watch out.

Despite your desire to hit up the professor for a recommendation, think a little more. It’s your dissertation; you did all the work. To publish, as the night the day a great deal of work is sure to follow.

The offer is a code. In exchange for the professor’s name as first author, you’ll be doing it all anyway—reducing your dissertation to a coherent article by condensing those sweat-ringed 200 pages to the 25 or 30 the journal requires. Mastering the submission process, dealing with the editor, and checking back every two weeks to see if your article has risen an inch in the reviewer pile.

Your professor may cheer you on, encourage you, tell you what a plum it is to publish in this journal. And the professor may generously offer to review your article after you condense it. But again, you’ve done the work. And if the article comes back with the journal’s very incisive peer reviewer critiques—the response in ninety-five percent of submissions that aren’t rejected outright— your professor will be strangely silent. You are expected to do the revisions, with likely additional research, rewriting, and hard thinking. Once you’re finished, your professor will ask to see a copy.

In an extreme instance, a beleaguered and publishing postdoc in the sciences confessed (pointedly anonymously) that his professor demanded to be given author credit on many of the former student’s papers when the professor hadn’t contributed at all. The postdoc recognized he could hardly refuse: “My professor is in a position of power, and refusing to do so could limit my own career opportunities” (Anonymous Academic, 2015, para. 5).
Those career opportunities can be seductive, ranging from the professor’s prestigious university affiliation and promise of a job to stellar recommendations for positions to personal acquaintance with the journal editor (and, it is believed, greater possibility of acceptance) to invitations to present the work at professional conferences to sponsorship for lucrative (and career-building) grants, and many others.

Big draws all, but if you’re fortunately not in a position like Anonymous, who was pleading for greater authorial integrity in the academic hierarchy, at least go in with your eyes open.

Barring such unreasonable demands as Anonymous suffered, when you get an invitation from a professor, keep in mind Cassuto’s (2014) wise observation: “collaboration has only one appropriate goal: It needs to be about you, and furthering your work and career” (para. 17). If this is not the case, feel again the fervor of your own interests, your confidence in them, and the trustworthiness and importance and of your dissertation. To your professor’s invitation, rehearse your response again. And decline with thanks and grace.

Your Decision

So, as a graduate student beginning your dissertation, if you don’t mind the professor’s preowned topic, or you feel it’s the only way you’ll punch through dissertation lethargy, or you truly can get interested in it, fine. If, like Ryan, you can’t stomach the topic and realize you may spend the next three years with subject matter you’re less than tepid about, gather your courage and declare your own topic.

As a newly minted doctor rarin’ to go with scholarly publication, if you feel the professor coauthor route is the only way you’ll do anything with your dissertation, or you don’t mind sharing the authorship glory, fine. If you realize you feel you rightfully deserve all the credit and long to see the reference with your name alone on your vita, shore up your nerve and refuse with gratitude.

You deserve your own choices—of topics, coauthors (or not), and all other decisions. It’s your time, your sweat, your persistence, and your academic career.


Anonymous Academic. (2015, June 5). “My professor demands to be listed as an author
on many of my papers.” The Guardian. Retrieved from

Cassuto, L. (2014, July 21). Spotting a bad adviser—And how to pick a good one.
Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

© 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