The Most Important Dissertation Decision You Will Make

Hello Dissertation Friends!

In this blog post, I am going to tell you that the single most important decision you will make in your doctoral journey, is finding your dissertation chair/advisor. 

The two most important decisions you will make as a doctoral student are 1) the selection of your research area, and 2) the selection of your dissertation chair/advisor. Before you make a final decision of your advisor and approach someone to serve in that role, you should have a good idea about what topic you are interested in pursuing, and what kind of study you want to do.

While both decisions are important, the single most important research you will do as a doctoral student will be in selecting your chair/advisor. With the right chair/advisor, you can make steady progress, completing your dissertation on time and graduate on schedule. With the wrong advisor, you will spend time in the abyss known as the "drift", fail to make progress, and face the risk of ultimately not finishing, and becoming a Ph.D.W.D (Doctor of Philosophy Without Dissertation) or an Ed.D.A.B.D (Doctor of Education All But Dissertation).

Your chair alone will determine when and if you are ready to move to the next step at any point in the process.


The role of your dissertation chair/advisor is to:

  • Approve your topic
  • Select or approve your committee members
  • Approve your proposal
  • Honor (or won't honor) your timelines
  • Approve every chapter, line, conclusion
  • Determine the level of involvement with your committee members
  • Decide if and when you are ready to defend your dissertation
  • Ultimately decide whether you are going to be granted the degree


Talk to former doc students in your graduate school.

In selecting your dissertation chair, talk to other dissertation students, or even better, to other former doc students who have moved on to graduate. Ask them the following questions:
1. Would you recommend your chair to current dissertation students? Why / why not?
2. How long did it take for your chair to provide feedback to you? (The key here is 3 weeks at MOST.) If it takes longer than 3 weeks, move on. You want someone who will be there to provide timely feedback.

When you approach a potential advisor, be prepared to discuss your timeline. Assure your potential advisory that the timeline is not more important than the quality of research. Explaining why you want to have a short timeline can help put things into perspective.


Choose a chair who:

  • Publishes a study every few months (this demonstrates that quality research can be done in a short period of time)
  • Has a reputation for producing feedback in a timely manner
  • Has time embedded in his/her schedule to meet with students every day
  • Who has a great reputation in their field (committee members and examiners will be less likely to challenge research in their area of expertise)
  • Choose a chair that can potentially co-author an article for publication with you when you are finished (Note: Be coachable and flexible with your research area and methods used. Present yourself as someone with a set direction, but also someone who is open to an advisor’s advice.)
  • Only consider those with research interests similar to yours (articles, courses taught, grants received)

If you are not strong and confident in statistical analysis and quantitative methodology, consider finding a chair who is a professor of statistics/research methods. Committee members and examiners in the final defense will be less likely to question any parts of the results or research designs.

Have you chosen your dissertation chair yet? If so, what why did you choose them?

Wishing you success and well-being on your dissertation / doctoral journey.


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