The Role of the Dissertation Chair

The dissertation is the hardest part of any doctoral program because it forces the student to leave his/her comfort zone and embark on what some call a voyage of self-discovery. At the center of the doctoral student's dissertation experience is the dissertation chair, a professor who plays several roles and wears a number of hats.

There is no doubt that some dissertation chairs are good and others need improvement. What separates the good ones from the great ones is the chair's ability to assume a role appropriate for the situation. The one-role chair will likely not see a student through a program. Most of the roles a dissertation chair plays fall into four categories.

The advocate

A dissertation chair is a champion of the doctoral student's cause. If the chair doesn't believe in the student's competencies as a researcher, the student is doomed to endless dissertation revisions. Since the dissertation is a social process, the chair is the doctoral student's first line of defense against people and circumstances pushing the student off track.

Any good dissertation chair will tell you that part of the chair's job is protecting the student from other committee members. Like a matrix organizational structure, doctoral students have multiple bosses, all of whom the student must satisfy. The advocate dissertation chair makes certain that other committee members are not asking the student to make changes to the dissertation that deviate from the original goals set forth in the proposal. The time to disapprove of any aspect of the dissertation was during the proposal rather than dissertation stage.

The manager

Managers are drivers of subordinates; they keep track of mistakes, chart progress, and engage in transactional relationships. Although he/she sounds like a tyrant, the manager makes an excellent dissertation chair at times because he/she initiates a clear path from start to finish. Over critical at times, a manager's use of mistakes and missed deadlines as progress indicators makes progression through the dissertation move at a steady pace.

Unfortunately, there are times when a dissertation chair wears the manager's hat too long. Use of transactions to move the student through the process starts taking on characteristics of a whip and a chair rather than a method of ensuring progress. The student begins to see the chair as someone who is overcritical, someone who must find fault and can't move out of a criticizing role.

There is a fine line between managers and leaders but the difference lies in how the chair motivates the student. Whereas the manager initiates structure and drives within it, the leader inspires the student through intellectual stimulation; the leader motivates the student by pointing out that there is more to completing the dissertation than material reward. If done correctly, the student begins to view the chair as charismatic, possessing skills the student would like to possess him/herself.

Proving that too much of a good thing is unhealthy, the highly charismatic leader spends too much time with his/her head in the clouds and not long enough with feet on the ground. The result is a doctoral student who is inspired to do something but doesn’t know what that actually is. A dissertation chair must recognize when a student needs inspiration and when he/she needs solid help.

A dissertation chair is a judge, a gatekeeper who ensures that a student meets personal, departmental, university, and even universal standards. Even so, this does not mean that the goal of the dissertation chair is to constantly maintain a superior-subordinate relationship with the student. The most successful chair-student relationships are the ones in which the chair bestows the role of colleague on the candidate.

Giving up a superior position is difficult for anyone. A common reason students fail to finish a dissertation timely has to do with the chair's inability to accept someone who was once a subordinate as an equal. As a judge, the chair must ensure that the student's behaviors and outcomes are those befitting someone who will soon be regarded as an independent researcher and creator of knowledge. Still, the chair must learn to recognize when it is time to step down as judge and welcome a new member to the club.


Doctoral committee responsibilities, responsibilities of the chair.

The Chair will be selected on the basis of content expertise. This should include topic interest or subject matter expertise, experience in  dissertation direction, or methodology expertise. The Chair is responsible for guiding the candidate to produce doctoral level, original scholarship in the proposed topic area. The Chair must be a member of the LEAD faculty and hold Full graduate faculty status. 

The Chair’s responsibilities include:

Being familiar with current dissertation policies and procedures in the LEAD program

Advising the candidate from the Prospectus stage through the final defense of the Dissertation

Guiding the candidate in the selection of Dissertation committee members

Guiding the candidate to set a realistic timeline for completion of the Dissertation

Responsibly assigning the candidate a grade of  SP  (successful progress) or  NP  (no progress) each semester

Guiding the candidate toward achieving a high level of technical and ethical quality in the Dissertation research

Assisting the candidate in developing a quality Prospectus and in navigating the Prospectus approval process

Providing guidance on the research proposal structure, formatting, content and setting clear expectations for timely completion of the Proposal

Guiding the candidate in the selection of methods/procedures for data collection and analysis*

Assisting the candidate in the Dissertation Proposal defense process

Assisting the candidate in navigating the IRB approval process

Assisting the candidate in data collection and analysis*

Preparing the candidate for the defense process

* If a separate Methodologist is assigned, the Chair may serve in a support role.

In special circumstances, with program approval, a Co-Chair arrangement may be appropriate for a particular subject matter. In the case of a Co-Chair arrangement, one of the two Co-Chairs must be a member of the LEAD faculty and hold Full graduate faculty status.

Responsibilities of the Committee Members    

All members of the candidate’s committee share responsibility in ensuring that the candidate produces high-quality scholarship. Committee members are responsible for reading manuscripts within the agreed-upon minimum 14 day time frame (per committee member), suggesting substantive editorial changes, and providing rationale for their support and critiques. Committee members who perceive major flaws that are likely to result in a candidate’s unsuccessful defense should discuss these concerns with the candidate and Chair immediately.

Committee member’s responsibilities include:

In cooperation with the Chair, advising the candidate from the Prospectus stage through the final defense of the Dissertation

Provide subject matter expertise as requested by Chair or candidate

Reading drafts and providing meaningful feedback at each defense stage of the dissertation process

Guiding the candidate in the selection of methods/procedures for data collection and analysis**

Assisting the candidate in data collection and analysis**

Corresponding with the Chair and candidate as needed for clarification/resolution of methodological issues during the Dissertation process**

** Methodologist only (if the Chair is not performing both roles). A Methodologist should be selected who has particular expertise in the type of study the candidate is pursuing (quantitative, qualitative, mixed methods).    

Responsibilities of the Dissertation Candidate

The candidate is expected to engage in active preparation of the Dissertation process from the onset of the doctoral program. Candidates are responsible for choosing a topic, submitting proofread drafts of materials to the Chair, preparing adequately for meetings, thoroughly reviewing all Dissertation policies and procedures, and communicating on a regular basis with the Chair via the Dissertation course space or other communication modality. The candidate is expected to maintain a respectful and professional attitude at all times. 

Candidates are expected to maintain contact with the Chair and Methodologist throughout the Dissertation process to ensure that the research and writing adhere to the agreed-upon plan. As the project is the candidate’s responsibility, s/he must frequently keep the Chair informed of progress. All communication for the Dissertation process is accomplished (and therefore documented) in the Learning Management System (UTC Learn) and all drafts are submitted and feedback returned through the Learning Management System (UTC Learn). The candidate should contact the Chair in the event of any significant changes in his/her personal or professional life which may interfere with program completion. Occasionally, face-to-face meetings may be scheduled with your Chair, Methodologist, or the whole committee. In order to document this part of the dissertation process, immediately following a face-to-face meeting (within 48 hours), the candidate should post a detailed summary of the meeting in the Dissertation course space.

In addition, candidates are expected to maintain regular contact with the Program Office via email ( [email protected] ).   

Communicating with the Committee

The Chair will determine when a document is ready for electronic review by the committee and will initiate communication amongst committee members. The candidate should avoid consulting the full committee for feedback without prior approval of the Chair. A minimum of four meetings with the committee is required: Prospectus defense, Proposal defense, Pre-defense of the final manuscript, and the final Dissertation defense. The Chair will notify the Program Office via email ( [email protected] ) of the date/time/location of all committee defense meetings. Committee participation from a distance may be facilitated through video conference, phone conference, or other electronic media as approved.

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Checklist for Dissertation Chairs

The dissertation committee chair, working with department administrative staff, helps steer the student through the intellectual stages and institutional requirements of doctoral degree work. Advising practices vary from discipline to discipline. However, the outline that follows provides widely applicable guidelines to a chair’s key responsibilities.

The Student-Advisor Relationship

The Dissertation

The Dissertation Committee

Supervising Research

Administrative Matters

The Oral Defense

Launching the Student’s Career

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Dissertation Chair: An Owner’s Manual

Published by dr. courtney watson on july 21, 2022 july 21, 2022.

Last Updated on: 22nd July 2022, 01:28 pm

One of the most important faculty members in a doctoral student’s academic life is their dissertation chair. Part mentor, part administrator, the dissertation chair’s role encompasses responsibilities that directly impact your graduate experience. Prior to starting your dissertation, it’s important to understand the scope of your dissertation chair’s duties and how to make the most of your time with them. 

These are a few frequently asked questions about dissertation chairs: 

How Do I Choose My Dissertation Chair?

professor consulting a phd candidate on her dissertation

Once you have completed your coursework and been given the green light to start your dissertation, it’s time to make the all-important choice about who will guide you through the final gauntlet of your Ph.D. program. It’s a big decision, so it’s imperative to take your time and select the right person. There are a few factors to take into consideration before asking your top choice. 

My best advice is to approach a faculty member familiar with your subject area and with whom you have a good rapport. Whose classes did you do well in? Which faculty member has shown the most interest in your research and coursework? Who are you the most comfortable with? Past history makes a solid foundation for a productive partnership. It’s wise to find someone who is available, knowledgeable, and excited to work with you. 

What Does a Dissertation Chair Do?

A dissertation chair’s job is to guide you through the process of completing the most rigorous academic challenge of your life . They are a sounding board for your ideas, they offer guidance for getting started and avoiding major obstacles, and they help you prepare for each milestone in the dissertation process . Those are the basics, though a good dissertation chair will tend to be more involved. 

When thinking about what you want in a dissertation chair, good communication is key. Your dissertation chair should be responsive to emails, offer clear feedback in a timely manner, and be available to meet (either in person or via Zoom) regularly. In my experience, graduate students are sometimes afraid to ask their dissertation chair for help for fear of bothering them, which is often a matter of simply not understanding that it’s their chairs’ job to offer oversight and be available to their dissertation students. 

What If I Don’t Get Along with My Dissertation Chair?

stressed out woman holding her head while taking a break

Unfortunately, this is a common problem faced by many doctoral students. First, know that you’re not alone. Conflicts arise between doctoral students and their dissertation chairs all the time, stemming from benign neglect, miscommunication, disengagement, or even personality conflicts. Whatever the reason for the disconnect, it can be a very stressful situation. 

If you’re struggling with your dissertation chair, fear not. Problems can often be resolved with a meeting to get back on track to discuss the issue and plan a path forward together. If you still feel insufficiently supported, a dissertation consultant might be able to provide additional expertise and guidance . Speaking to your graduate advisor or department chair is the next step for learning about your options and getting the issue resolved. 

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Dr. Courtney Watson

Dr. Courtney Watson has research, professional, and dissertation committee experience in the humanities and social sciences, health sciences, education, and liberal arts. With a background in peer-reviewed qualitative research and scholarship, she is skilled at coaching clients through the developmental phases of dissertation research, writing, revision, feedback analysis, and citation. She also offers thoughtful and thorough academic job market preparation, guidance through the dissertation process, and higher education career advice. Book a Free Consultation with Courtney Watson

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Dissertation Committee: Roles, Functions, and How to Choose

The path to a dissertation is filled with choices that determine the quality of your experience as a student as well as the future strength of your professional network. 

Choosing your dissertation committee is one of the most important decisions–and one of the most fraught–that you’ll make as a graduate student. With the stakes being so high, many doctoral students worry about making a misstep and getting it wrong. 

Fear not! Putting together your dissertation committee becomes easier once you know the right questions to ask: of potential committee members, of your dissertation chair, and of yourself. While forming your dissertation committee can be challenging, striking the right balance will lead to a richly rewarding academic experience that will pay dividends throughout your career. Do your homework, and you’ll be just fine. 

Dissertation Committee Questions

What Does a Dissertation Committee Do?

The basic function of your dissertation committee, which typically consists of five members, is to guide you through the process of proposing, writing, and revising your dissertation.  

Dissertation committee members serve in a mentoring capacity, offering constructive feedback on your writing and research, as well as guiding your revision efforts. They are also the gatekeepers of the ivory tower, and the ultimate judges of whether or not your dissertation passes muster. 

The dissertation committee is usually formed once your academic coursework is completed. It is not uncommon in the humanities and social sciences for dissertation committee members to also write and evaluate qualifying exams, and of course serve as faculty. By the time you begin working on your dissertation, you may know the faculty members who will serve on your dissertation committee quite well. 

Dissertation Committee Member Mentoring Student

Who Serves on Your Dissertation Committee? 

To a degree, who serves on your dissertation committee is up to you. Dissertation committees usually consist mostly of faculty members from the doctoral student’s home department, though this can vary due to the rise of interdisciplinary programs. 

Some universities also allow an outside expert–a former professor or academic mentor from another university–to serve on your committee. It’s advisable to choose faculty members who know you and who are familiar with your work. 

While it’s a good idea to have a mix of faculty members, it’s also important to be mindful about the roles they can play. For instance, I always advise graduate students working in quantitative fields to have a statistician on their committee. When there’s big data to crunch, it never hurts to have a stats expert in your corner. You’ll also want at least one faculty member–besides your chair–whose research is in the same relative area as yours, or adjacent to it. 

How to Choose Dissertation Committee Members

Think Carefully. It’s tempting to approach a faculty member who is a superstar in their field (if not, necessarily, in yours) to lend a little extra sparkle to your own academic credentials. Or perhaps the kindly professor you can always count on for an easy A. Or even the faculty member you’d like to be friends with after graduate school. Right? 

Not so fast. Here are some things to keep in mind when building your dissertation committee dream team: 

Forming Your Dissertation Committee

Asking a professor to be on a dissertation committee

Reaching out to potential dissertation committee members and formally asking them to serve on your dissertation committee can be a surprisingly taxing process. It takes some planning, and you’ll want to put some thought into it before making the big ask. While being asked to serve on a dissertation committee won’t come as a surprise to most faculty–they know the drill–these are some considerations to know going in:


Once your dissertation committee is formed, it’s time to get down to business. As a faculty member, I love serving on dissertation committees because doing so gives me the chance to work with grad students one on one as they journey into new frontiers and carve a place for themselves in academia. It is a deep, rich learning experience, and it’s thrilling to watch students transform into scholars. 

Even though researching and writing a dissertation is the most challenging work you’ll ever do, recognize this time for the opportunity it truly represents. In your dissertation committee, you have a panel of experts all to yourself, and they’re eager to help you knock your dissertation out of the park. This is the experience of a lifetime; take advantage of your dissertation committee’s time and talent, and channel that energy and goodwill into your development as a scholar. 

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Courtney Watson, Ph.D.

Courtney Watson, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of English at Radford University Carilion, in Roanoke, Virginia. Her areas of expertise include undergraduate and graduate curriculum development for writing courses in the health sciences and American literature with a focus on literary travel, tourism, and heritage economies. Her writing and academic scholarship has been widely published in places that include  Studies in American Culture ,  Dialogue , and  The Virginia Quarterly Review . Her research on the integration of humanities into STEM education will be published by Routledge in an upcoming collection. Dr. Watson has also been nominated by the State Council for Higher Education of Virginia’s Outstanding Faculty Rising Star Award, and she is a past winner of the National Society of Arts & Letters Regional Short Story Prize, as well as institutional awards for scholarly research and excellence in teaching. Throughout her career in higher education, Dr. Watson has served in faculty governance and administration as a frequent committee chair and program chair. As a higher education consultant, she has served as a subject matter expert, an evaluator, and a contributor to white papers exploring program development, enrollment research, and educational mergers and acquisitions.

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Dissertation and Thesis Committees: Student and Faculty Responsibilities

All doctoral programs and some master’s programs at UALR culminate in the completion of a dissertation or thesis. The purpose and content of dissertations and theses varies by program area, but their supervision is universally handled by a member of the UALR graduate faculty as chair and by a committee of graduate faculty. This sections outlines the Graduate School’s expectations for graduate student and graduate faculty interaction and responsibilities on dissertation and thesis committees.

Graduate Student Responsibilities

Concerning Rules and Requirements

Concerning the Dissertation or Thesis

Concerning the Committee

Committee Chair Responsibilities

Committee Member Responsibilities

Conflict Resolution

Conflicts occasionally arise between students and their dissertation/thesis chairs or committee members. Sources of conflict may include but are not limited to disagreement about a timeline for completing the project, disagreement about the direction of the study or the interpretation of the results, and disagreement about the content, style, and editing of the dissertation or thesis manuscript.

If a conflict is disrupting the progress of the dissertation/thesis, the student should follow the procedures below.

Students should be aware that some committee members (including chairs) may resign from a committee if the student does not make timely progress toward completion. In addition, some students find that even without overt conflict, they may not be satisfied with their chair or with a committee member and wish to make a change.

Both students and faculty members can initiate action to change the membership of a committee, but this should be a collaborative, consensual process whenever possible. Students who wish to change committee members should demonstrate courtesy by communicating about the change directly with the faculty involved. Likewise, faculty who wish to resign from a committee should demonstrate courtesy by directly informing the student.

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