Dissertation Chairs as Head Chefs


Posted January 7, 2013

Dissertation chairpersons should be like head chefs—directing the doctorate student (the line cook) and the rest of the prep-chefs in the kitchen (i.e., the committee members).  But too often, the head chef defers his or her responsibility to the committee members (methodologists, statisticians members, or others).  This is very confusing for dissertation students as too often committee members want different things, in different orders, with different emphases.  Do you know what happens in a kitchen when prep-chefs have no leader?  You got it, the entire meal is uncoordinated and it doesn’t go together.  For dissertation students, this means frustration, more time in school, more tuition, and sitting on wonderful ingredients with no meal plan.

While there was a lot of frustration in my own Ph.D. tenure, mostly because there were lots of dogmatic prep-chefs, when it came to the dissertation process, there was one, and only one, head chef—my dissertation chair.  Yes, the committee read the dissertation (probably the night before), but my chairperson had worked with me for over a year.  During that year we created, recreated, and corrected the methodology, the research design, and really the first three chapters were polished.  Consequently, my committee had very few comments because the head chef did his job!  In fact, during my dissertation proposal defense, it was more of a matter of explaining my research and defending it, and it went smoothly.
So I implore all of those dissertation chairpersons to be head chefs.  Do not abrogate your responsibility to prep-chefs, even smart ones, for you put your doc student at a disadvantage, you lose their respect, your university loses credibility, and it’s just not right.  OK, you don’t have the statistical skill set, stick to qualitative dissertations, and if you have good quantitative skills than go promote yourself as a quantitative chair.  When you chair a dissertation, don’t just push them off to the methodologist, go get the skills yourself, if you do push them off make sure you are in the “cc” loop, and most importantly, get your dissertation student the unique support they both need and deserve that only you as a chairperson can provide.

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