Writing my Master’s thesis taught me the importance of establishing a positive working relationship with my chair. A positive relationship with your chair is key. My process included procrastinating, binge writing, then throwing a draft at my chair, expecting a quick turnaround. This is a bad model for the writing process and a terrible foundation for the learner-mentor relationship. My chair politely, but firmly, informed me that she did not work for me. In short, her being employed by the university did not give me the right to treat her like a subordinate.
It would have been easy for me to become defensive. However, not having gone through the experience of writing a thesis before, I was simply guilty of being ignorant of the process. So, I learned. I changed my approach and we moved forward. This was a valuable lesson that later allowed me to establish a positive working relationship with my dissertation chair, something that made the already challenging process of writing a dissertation a little easier.
Establishing a professional, respectful working relationship with your chair is a crucial part of keeping the dissertation process moving forward. Regular communication with your chair should reflect and reinforce this relationship. Ineffective communication can lead to tension and misunderstanding—or worse, silence—all of which can impede progress. Here are some tips for understanding how to communicate positively and effectively with your chair.
Be professional. Although you are not yet at your chair’s professional level, you are an advanced student-researcher entering into the professional conversations of your field. In a sense, you and your chair are future colleagues. Do your homework, read the literature. Own what you know, admit what you do not know. Speak confidently, but not boastfully. Do not be afraid to ask questions about what you are still learning.
Be respectful. Just like you, chairs are human beings. As in my example above, chairs know when they are being treated shabbily. Although chairs should maintain a degree of professionalism, they may take umbrage with nonprofessional and disrespectful communication, such as unreasonable requests, emotional outbursts, and defensive language. Being professional and being respectful go hand in hand.
Be consistent. Above all, stay in regular contact with your chair. Although most chairs will encourage regular communication, the onus is on you as an advanced learner to keep in touch with your chair. A major reason why people get stalled in the dissertation process is falling out of contact with their chairs. To maintain progress, it is important to set and keep regular meeting times and work deadlines. Keep your chair in the loop about your ideas and your progress, as well as any changes that may affect your work or your work schedule.
Writing a dissertation involves a high degree of collaboration between learner and mentor over an extended period. For such collaboration, regular and effective communication is key. Establishing and maintaining professional and respectful communication with your chair are crucial to keep the dissertation process moving forward.
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