Photo: Chuck Painter / Stanford News Service
This post is reprinted from the Tomorrow's Professor Newsletter of January 9, 2014.
The posting below looks at the factors that are important in choosing the dissertation committee and its chair. It is from Chapter 2, Selecting a Chair and Committee, in the book, Writing a Successful Thesis or Dissertation: Tips and Strategies for Students in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, by Fred C. Lunenburg, Beverly J. Irby. Published by Corwin Press [www.corwinpress.com], A SAGE Company. 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320. Copyright � 2008 by Corwin Press. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Selecting your committee is a very important step in the process of preparing your dissertation or master's thesis. The chairperson of the committee usually has broad power and influence throughout the process of completing the dissertation or master's thesis. Therefore, the selection of a chairperson for your project is a very important decision. In collaboration with your chair and committee, you will delimit your topic, develop your proposal, conduct your research, and write your dissertation or master's thesis. Ultimately, your committee will judge the quality of your project. In this chapter, we present some suggestions that might help you in selecting your dissertation or thesis chair and other committee members.
Before choosing a faculty member as your chairperson, consider the chair's role. As mentioned previously, your chair will have broad power and influence over the dissertation or thesis process. While the specifics of this role vary from institution to institution, from department to department, and from chairperson to chairperson, some general functions of the chair are relatively universal. First, the chairperson will approve your dissertation or thesis topic. Second, the chairperson will approve, in consultation with you, the other committee members. Third, the chairperson will approve every line, section, and chapter of the dissertation. Fourth, the chairperson will determine how committee members will be involved in the dissertation or thesis process. Fifth, the chairperson will decide when you are ready to defend your dissertation or master's thesis. And, ultimately, the chairperson will determine whether you will be granted the degree.
Most departments have rules concerning who may and who may not serve as dissertation or thesis chairpersons. Some universities allow only those individuals who are on the graduate faculty to serve as dissertation chairs; that is, faculty who have adequate, recent publication records and who teach graduate classes. These rules are based on the rationale that faculty who do not have active programs of research will lack the necessary skills to guide a doctoral research project. Rules regarding who may chair master's theses may not be as stringent as those concerning doctoral dissertations. Because practice varies on who may and who may not serve as dissertation chairs, we recommend that you learn your institution's rules as soon as possible. Knowing your institution's local ground rules will help you avoid considering a potential chairperson who is not eligible to chair a dissertation or thesis.
You must consider the following factors in choosing a chair: (a) expertise, (b) accessibility, (c) feedback, (d) success, (e) personality style, and (f) attitudes toward methodology. The importance of each one will be discussed in turn.
Ideally, it is in your best interest to find a chair with expertise in your topic area. You may want to read some of your potential chair's publications. In our opinion, following this advice generally will produce a better product. Obviously, the closer your chair's area of expertise is to your topic, the more competent he or she will be to (a) identify difficulties you may encounter as you proceed with your study, (b) direct you toward literature sources pertinent to your topic, and (c) guide your choice of methods for collecting and anlayzing data. Furthermore, a chair who has an interest and competence in your topic area is likely to be more invested in your project; that is, think through the project more fully and keep a vigilant eye on your progress than one who is not knowledgeable about your topic area, and, therefore, may lack interest in it as well.
Another important factor to consider in selecting a chair is accessibility. Several things can interfere with a chair being consistently accessible to you during the life of your project. When considering someone as a possible chair, you should think about these things. Nationally known scholars may be too busy with their own research activity to give you the time you need. Other faculty may have active clinical practices or be away from campus frequently due to consulting commitments. Faculty members who have nine-month contracts with the university may not be available during the summer. Faculty who are planning a sabbatical leave may potentially interrupt your progress. Another faculty member may be planning to take a position in another university and, therefore, may not be available during the progress of your project. One of the authors of this book had her chair go on sabbatical leave during the final semester of her dissertation work; therefore, a new chair had to be appointed. Popular chairs may have an excessive number of dissertations or theses to monitor, because they are in high demand.
Then there is the issue of tenure. Whereas nontenured faculty contracts may not be renewed, tenured faculty members are likely to be more stable. You will need to consider the relative accessibility and stability of potential chairs, along with your own time constraints and projections for completion.
Typically, the chair provides the first line of quality control for the dissertation or thesis. And usually the chair will approve the proposal and final version of the project before you will be permitted to forward chapters of the dissertation or thesis to other committee members. Therefore, look for a chair with a reputation for reading, critiquing, and returning written drafts promptly.
What is a good turnaround time? A good rule of thumb is to allow two weeks for a response. After that, a tactful inquiry may be appropriate. Obviously, students should recognize that it might take longer during very busy periods (e.g., end of grading periods, holidays, and before graduation deadlines when all students want to finish their projects).
You should balance timelines of response with the thoroughness with which the potential chairperson reads submitted material. Some chairs provide vague feedback (e.g., rewrite this section), while others may provide detailed comments (e.g., "You need to identify the three main factors and then evaluate them in light of the theories you have discussed."). Waiting longer for a chapter to be returned by a chair may have some positive consequences. First, if you satisfy a chair who provides a thorough critique of your work, you are less likely to encounter serious problems with other committee members. Second, you will be better prepared for your proposal defense and final oral defense of your dissertation or thesis. Third, once you have satisfied your chair's standards, he or she is more likely to support you if one of your other committee members becomes overly or unreasonably critical of your work.
Success at bringing students to graduation is an important factor to consider when selecting a chair. Because you are concerned with completing your degree, count how many successful students your potential chair has; that is, what percentage of the chair's students finish their degrees. Consider that criterion cautiously because some faculty members may not have had the opportunity to chair doctoral dissertations or master's theses.
Personality styles matter to some people. Writing a dissertation or thesis is a collaborative process between you and your chairperson. Obviously, you want a chair with whom you can work reasonably well. You will need to assess the match between what you expect from your chair and your chair's notion of the best way to perform his or her role.
Chairpersons vary greatly in how they work with students on dissertations and theses. Those at one end of the continuum closely monitor each phase of the students' work, in some cases stipulating exactly what is to be done at every step, and then require the student to submit each section of material for critique. Chairs at the other end of the continuum tell students to progress on their own and to finish a complete draft of the project before submitting it for evaluation. Most chairs will probably fall somewhere between these two extremes. Chairpersons also differ in the way they provide criticism. Some are blunt and even derisive. Others are direct and kindly in critiquing students' work. Still others are so cautious of students' feeling when pointing out weaknesses that they fail to guide their students in correcting deficiencies. In the latter case, someone else on the committee will have to step up and perform that duty; for the role of the chair and committee is to ensure that the candidate has met the university, college, and department standards.
Students also have personal preferences with whom they want to work, in general. For example, some students prefer to work with female faculty members, while others prefer to work with male faculty. Some students prefer to work with older people, while others prefer younger faculty.
Faculty members often differ concerning their preferences for a particular research method. A research method comprises the strategy followed in collecting and analysing data. The major distinction in classifying research by method is the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research (Gay, Mills, & Airasian, 2006). Quantitative and qualitative research can be broken down further into several distinct types, each designed to answer a different kind of research question. Quantitative research involves the collection and analysis of numerical data, which are usually rendered in the form of statistics. Advocates of quantitative studies tend to prefer such types as descriptive (or survey), correlational, causal-comparative, and experimental research. Proponents of such studies claim that their work is done from within a value-free framework (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005).
Qualitative research involves mostly nonnumerical data, such as extensive notes taken at a research site, interview data, videotape and audiotape recordings, and other nonnumerical artifacts. Qualitative researchers stress the socially constructed nature of reality, the intimate relationship between the researcher and the participant, and the situational constraints that shape inquiry. Qualitative researchers emphasize the value-laden nature of inquiry (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). Proponents of qualitative studies tend to favor such research approaches as case study, ethnography, ethology, ethnomethodology, grounded theory, phenomenology, symbolic interaction, and historical research.
You need to examine the match between your preference and your potential chair's preference for a research method. Many faculty members accept both quantitative and qualitative research methods, including the authors of this text. We believe that the issue is not which method is better, but rather which method (quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods) will best answer the particular research question or direction of inquiry.
Gay, L. R., Mills, G. E., & Airasian, P. (2006). Educational research: Competencies for analysis and applications (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrille/Prentice Hall.
Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). (2005). The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (3d ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.