What kind of help should I expect from my dissertation chair?
July 2, 2013 1:40 PM   Subscribe

My social sciences dissertation proposal defense went pretty badly, and it makes me think that I need more help than my dissertation chair will provide. Are my expectations for feedback reasonable, or not?

So, my dissertation proposal defense went extremely badly. I will have to completely re-write the proposal and defend again in September-October. If you had asked me a week ago, I would have said that I was confident that I had a good proposal and would be successful at this defense, since my dissertation chair seemed very pleased with the direction that I was going and had given me very positive feedback on the proposal that I sent out to the rest of the committee members.

The rest of the committee did not share his enthusiasm, and one of them asked me if I was sure that my adviser had even read parts of the proposal at all. This is not an exaggeration.

It was clear, in the couple of days that preceded the defense, that things were going to go badly (which happened). My dissertation was supposed to have two parts, question a and question b. Most of my chair's feedback so far has been related to question b, and I thought this was because the question a parts of my discussion were okay. During the proposal it was also clear that my chair thought that I was asking question b only and had no idea that I was thinking about question a at all. Which is really weird because I had an entire chapter of the dissertation dedicated to question a and all of my conversations with him included question a.

It's clear that there is a fundamental failure of communication happening here. I want to ask one of the other committee members to be a co-chair so that I get more useful feedback in a more timely manner. This is complicated because my current chair is a big name in my field and I don't know how that suggestion is going to go down. This entire situation has made me wonder how much feedback I should really expect from my dissertation chair at all. So my question is, how much feedback should I really expect from the dissertation chair on my proposal, and how much feedback can I get from the committee in the time leading up to the defense? How did you navigate your dealings with your dissertation chair and committee?
posted by anonymous to Education (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Ugh, I'm so sorry that you're having to deal with this. I swear you will look back and, well maybe not laugh, at least be so glad you made it through this experience.

In the meantime, your expectations for your chair (actually reading your whole proposal and provide guidance about how to structure it, etc.) are absolutely reasonable and it sounds like he really fell down on the job. I think this is probably clear to your other committee members now, so that will probably help with some of the manuvering you'll need to do to get through these next hoops. It's also completely reasonable to get additional input and support from your committee members as you're putting together the proposal, since the whole committee will eventually have to approve this thing. Getting them onboard while you're actually writing it is MUCH easier than trying to convice them after the fact (learned from awful experience).

I would recommend that you sit down with your chair to talk about how supervision will be structured from here on out: Will you meet weekly? Will he read each section as you complete it? Let him know exactly what you need to be successful and work with him to ensure you're able to deliver your work to him in a way that allows him to provide you with feedback. If it seems like he's too busy to provide more hands-on feedback, you could raise the possibility of having a co-chair to help take some of the fiddly work away from him (and probably save your sanity).

I would also start to approach other committee members to check in periodically. Give them updates about how you're doing and get some feedback of what they think of your ideas. For folks with a particular expertise, you could ask for more specific feedback on particular sections of what you're writing. If you feel like you have a good working relationship with one or two members, absolutely go to them for mentorship as well. I'd also make a point of sending group e-mail updates at least every couple of weeks to touch on your progress and ask for feedback. That way, if anyone has concerns you can nip them in the bud before you find yourself at another uncomfortable defense meeting.

Believe it or not, these people want you to succeed. It's their job to teach/mentor and their reputation comes from the work of the people they teach. Ask for what you need to be successful and ask for regular feedback.
posted by goggie at 1:53 PM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a Ph.D. in a social science. I had the same chair for my qualifying exam committee, my proposal committee, and my dissertation committee. In all three exam/defense situations, my chair exhibited the exact same issues your chair has shown you: not reading everything, changing from a pro- to an con- vote during the process, not providing action steps after each milestone in the process. This did not end well for me. I did get my PhD, but it was close. I almost failed my dissertation defense. You do not want to be me.

I strongly urge you to find another chair, or to add your proposed co-chair if it's possible. It is your chair's job to get you through this process. If your chair doesn't think you are ready to defend, he/she should not allow you to schedule the defense. That's it, the end. If you can't trust your chair's judgement on this, you need a new chair. In terms of feedback, you need concrete things: what things do you have to revise? what should they look like after they are revised? what does a dissertation look like? what should be included in it, and (importantly) what should be deleted from it? It's up to you to control the timeline, the implementation, and the scientific content but your chair is there to navigate these waters with you. I can't emphasize enough how important this is.

Now, having said that, I know this is tricky. I think you need a trusted confidant on your faculty. If you trust the person you are thinking of asking to be a co-chair, perhaps you can sit down and talk with that person about the process and how to get the changes you need, either from the chair or by adding a co-chair.
posted by OrangeDisk at 1:55 PM on July 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

Big names are good for your CV but can be bad at many other things, mostly arising from the fact that big names tend to be in demand and are time poor. Talk to the potential co-chair and ask for their opinion on whether the current lead chair would mind a co-chair coming on board. They will likely have more of a clue as to whether the chair will be put out. Either way you are going to need to address this with your chair. It the potential co-chair is worried the chair will react badly consider suggesting to the chair that you feel you need more feeback and asking the chair if they can recommend a solution.
posted by biffa at 2:04 PM on July 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Your expectations are reasonable, but reasonable is not always what you get from an advisor.

In my experience an advisor with a big name in the field often translates to less feedback. They are too busy and are hoping you as a graduate student are going to be taking work off their plates rather than putting work on it. But their big name can pay off in other ways that may more than make up for this deficiency. Everyone brings a variety of strengths and weaknesses to the table.

No one here can tell you how your advisor would react to asking for a co-chair, I've seen it go either way. I would start seeking more frequent input from your committee members in their capacity as committee members and only maybe tactfully start feeling your chair out on the idea of a co-chair.

Be pragmatic: make this call based on an informed assessment of your chair's personality, not on any sort of expectation of reasonableness or the ideal mentor-mentee relationship.
posted by pseudonick at 2:09 PM on July 2, 2013

During the year or so I was writing my dissertation I distributed progress reports to each member of my committee. I think I handed out 3 or 4 during that time. By the time I sent out my dissertation, everyone knew exactly what it was, what I would say and the soundness of my methods. The defense itself was really fun and anti-climactic. Lively debate with good give and take...then out to the bar for drinks. The key is...no one got surprised. I had already addressed any concerns raised along the way. I will say my supervisor was incredibly diligent and I also had a senior mentor and collaborator (also on my committee) who kept abreast of my progress all the way through. Both of these guys were also freely available to hash out issues when I was stuck or confused.
Even if a co-chair turns out to not be a great idea for you I suggest you recruit more support during your dissertation process. Your committee members should be willing to participate (consult) as you go. (Though certainly not to the level your supervisor should.) Talk with your supervisor. Make your expectations explicit and be prepared to scare up alternate resources should he not perform adequately.
posted by txmon at 2:33 PM on July 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Really, your advisor is the best person to consult about this. He or she will know the chair's personality better than any of us, and probably better than you. Is your advisor on your committee? (They are in my department, but I'm not sure how universal that is.)

Seconding that big names often equal bad committee members (even bad advisors sometimes, depending on the advisee). I don't know if the chair would feel slighted with a committee rearrangement; that's something that other faculty members (again, especially your advisor) should be able to clue you in to. He may be happy to get it off his desk, or he may think you're impudently ignoring his criticism.

That said, it does seem like other members of your committee had concerns. I bet if you can address them (ideally working closely with those committee members), the chair will do the exact opposite and change his mind positively to fit the mood of the rest of the committee.
posted by supercres at 3:31 PM on July 2, 2013

In terms of feedback, you need concrete things: what things do you have to revise? what should they look like after they are revised? what does a dissertation look like? what should be included in it, and (importantly) what should be deleted from it? It's up to you to control the timeline, the implementation, and the scientific content but your chair is there to navigate these waters with you.

I agree that it sounds like with respect to this defense, you weren't getting adequate feedback from your advisor, and your advisor should be helping you answer questions like these that may have been missing from your proposal, and the answers so far re this have been good. However, I want to add a cautionary note -- if you aren't trying to answer these questions yourself, with your advisor as just one component of that, you will not be in good shape. It sounds like you are only working on your research/writing in reaction to particular feedback from your advisor, and this is something to correct. You must learn to assess your own work and act based on that assessment as well as feedback from many people that you actively seek out, not just one. At the end of the day _you_ are the best quality control for your own research product, not anyone else, and this includes your dissertation.

Good luck; I actually think most grad students get some sort of reality check about this issue around this time (I certainly did), and it is perfectly possible to get through it!
posted by advil at 3:33 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

It happens all the time, especially with Big Name advisers. Depending on your options, there are several strategies that could work for you. You've named one of them (co-advising); a second would be to simply switch advisers. And a third would be to accept the limitations of this adviser and develop an informal co-advising framework. The latter is the most like the sort of challenges you will face later in your career. But it does deny you the pleasures of a truly engaged mentorship relationship. Different personality types do better under different models of mentorship. You need to know what you need, in effect, from an adviser.

People react differently to being asked to step aside or share advising duties. The professional response is not to care a bit, but it can hurt an adviser's feelings despite this and even if s/he is relieved to be free of the responsibility. Some personalities or styles of interaction just don't match well and these corrections are often enough necessary that mostly people take them in stride, however, and certainly if they are not otherwise ego-challenged.

The informal network route is the safest and preserves Big Name's signature on your title page. You need to get your stuff in front of other serious readers who will give you serious feedback even though they aren't your adviser -- but the fact is you need to be doing this *anyway* to have a career.

Plenty of faculty members act as informal mentors for students we aren't advising -- it happens all the time, most especially if the work is good, we are interested in the topic, and we like the student because we've gotten to know her/him as a student. (Fellow students, especially more senior or recently graduated ones, can be a big help too sometimes.)

Everyone is super busy, right? So you need to work hard to develop those informal advising relationships if you aren't getting the formal support, or else you have to change the formal structure, which is a at best a calculated risk that what results will be better unless you really know the faculty involved well.

One more thought: you can also ask most advisers to give you more feedback, *if and only if* you are giving them maximum quality work. One thing I must mention -- sometimes an adviser losing interest in your work is a sign that your work isn't as good as it should be *without* their input. No one likes being an editor, for example, when they are expected to engage at the level of argument and idea. I'd be happy to hear a student tell me they needed a different kind of feedback, and it's happened a lot where I just thought they grasped something and I was wrong, for instance. But of course, again, there are ego considerations to be weighed and if you ask, make sure you put the onus on your own needs rather than your adviser's failings.
posted by spitbull at 4:04 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

What kind of support does your campus have for grad students? Our campus has the Promise program, and the PhDs who run it are great support, and have events such as Dissertation House that can be additional support.
posted by childofTethys at 5:09 PM on July 2, 2013

Just wanted to say that your expectations are totally reasonable, but the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. I kept expecting my advisor and committee to "learn their lesson," but they never did. Every interaction with them was a repeat. Make strategic decisions accordingly.

From one of the answers above:

I think this is probably clear to your other committee members now

Probably false.

these people want you to succeed

This one is true. But it's a feeling not a set of behaviors. Interact with them with an attitude that conveys you know they have the best of intentions. Be respectful, polite, and friendly. But realize they are busy, oblivious, human, not mind readers, they don't remember what it's like to be a grad student, and they think about you almost not at all when you're not in the same room with them. And often not even then.
posted by zeek321 at 6:04 PM on July 2, 2013

It's late and I don't have much of value to add to what previous commenters have said, but I just wanted to tell you that I also failed my dissertation proposal defense—spectacularly—and had to replace a committee member, rewrite my proposal, and redefend several months later. It was a nightmare, absolutely the worst experience of my life, but I lived through it and passed the second time around. (I'm still ABD but that's another story.) Just thought it might make you feel better to hear from someone else who has been through this. Best of luck!
posted by désoeuvrée at 3:07 AM on July 4, 2013

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