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Scholars, balance between humility and self-respect

Whether you’re a doctoral student wrestling with the drafts of your dissertation or an academic author wrestling with the drafts of your article or book, you probably have encountered, or will, the often-intimidating presence and feedback of your chair or editor. As with any interpersonal relationship, it’s advisable to steer between abject obeisance and independent arrogance. Neither will get you what you want—approval of your dissertation or publication of your scholarly work.

In my academic editing and coaching profession, I suggest to clients that an optimum way to establish and maintain a good working relationship is a combination of humility and self-respect. Whatever your past accomplishments, humility before the perceived power of the chair or editor is required. Not that you must kowtow; they’ll know you’re toadying. Some students and authors have stellar long-term experience, titles, and positions, and likely make more annually than their chairs or editors, not to mention owning lavish summer homes. Nevertheless, humility is called for with the dissertation chair or editor. Not easy, I know.

Swallow Your Pride

William had sixteen years on his job, supervised forty-two employees, and was getting the doctorate because it was his lifelong dream and would boost his credibility in later consulting. His dissertation was based on several problematic issues, which he knew intimately, in his human resources department. When his chair made several suggestions, William had difficulty following them. H called them “orders” and exclaimed to me, “I know more about this than she does!”

William made the mistake of having to be right. He felt superior to the chair, maybe justified because of his years of professional experience, and couldn’t accept the criticism offered. I replied as gently as I could, “I’m sure you do know more about the topic, William. She knows more about what’s acceptable for dissertations.” He finally agreed to the suggestions, grumbled only slightly, and made the corrections. And eventually got his degree.

In working with my editor on my academic book Challenges in Completing Your Dissertation, when I received and scanned the edited manuscript, I bristled at some of the comments. How dare he say I wasn’t being clear in this passage? How dare he question that source?

Then I put the manuscript aside, went out for exercise, affirmed that I would know the right answers, slept on it, and came back. Looking again, I saw my lack of clarity in the passage he’d pointed out. Reviewing the source he cited, I recognized how I may have misinterpreted a passage–and so, forgiving myself for my earlier arrogance, I revised.

Raise Your Head

With the requisite humility, though, you can maintain some self-respect and dignity without completely distorting your personality or your principles. As Grant and Tomal (2013) noted, overcompliance will not serve you. You don’t have to take everything as gospel the chair or editor say or advise. They are not infallible. Nor will following their advice guarantee you approvals from higher-ups.

In a study of British and Swedish doctoral candidates, Gunnarsson et al. (2013) found that disagreements between students and chairs revolved around five major issues: (a) important decisions involving the dissertation, (b) chair lacking current information, (c) chair giving questionable advice, (d) chair interceding with other members, and (e) interpersonal relationships.

The nature of the disagreements also changed over time. Early conflicts generally indicated students’ immaturity and later conflicts their maturing in knowledge and attitudes. I haven’t discovered a parallel article about article or book editors (if you have, do let me know), but the disagreeing (and disagreeable) aspects may be similar.

If you choose to disagree, do so respectfully. Have your arguments and scholarly support or precedence lined up. If possible, visit in person, or at least arrange a video chat. Emails and texts can be misconstrued as brusque and inhibit spontaneous exchange. And they don’t transmit your softening smiles.

Have hard copies of your work ready or agree to look at the same manuscript on your screens. Present your reasons relating to the critiques in a neutral tone without griping or whining or sounding too righteous.

Instead, appeal to the authority’s desire for a superior product and reiterate that it’s your desire too. Compliment the individual’s attention to detail. And let your passion for your contribution, subject, knowledge, and tight critical thinking shine through.

If face-to-face isn’t viable, you can write your comments, with tracked changes, in the manuscript margins or, if you’re responding on a galley, with the comment tools. With Challenges, I used an alternative: I keyed my comments to the editor’s key for identifying page and line numbers and sent a list of my thoughts that differed from his. An example when he questioned the use of periods in a source:

B06.1 B06.9 MY COMMENT: Explanation: Ph.D. is the title of the project, even though in the manuscript text we are using PhD (no periods).

Despite your best diplomacy, the chair or editor may still object to your comments. If so, ask for suggestions. You can probably come to a compromise. Offer to revise the passage(s) and submit again. Express your thanks for their time and dedication.

I believe the chair or editor will respect you for standing up for your convictions. After all, part of the chair’s job is to help you develop and hone your own academic perspectives as a growing scholar; part of the editor’s job is to help you create the best possible article or best-selling book.

The Balance

So, treat your professors and editors with respect, treat yourself with self-respect, do the work diligently, and do it well. They cannot help but admire you. You will eventually be rewarded—and proudly hold your new degree or the first copy of your article or book.


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.

Gunnarsson, R., Jonasson, G., & Billhult, A. (2013). The experience of disagreement
between students and supervisors in PhD education: A qualitative study. BMC Medical Education, 13(1).

© 2022 Noelle Sterne

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

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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 700 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 third novel. Visit Noelle at