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Avoid Angst & Delay--Choose the Dissertation Chair Right for You | Issue 187

Summary & Contents


Discover the best ways to choose the right dissertation chair for you. Failure to think clearly about how to choose your chair can lead to untold angst and delay. Learn what to look for before you commit yourself to this critical long-term relationship.


1. Editor's Note: Feeling Confident? You Could Still Be Wrong


2. Words from the Wise—and Some Fun


3. Feature Article: How to Pick the Right Dissertation Chair and Avoid Regrets and Delays




EDITOR'S NOTE: Feeling Confident? You Could Still Be Wrong


Can you solve this problem? A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Write down your answer before continuing.


Did you answer 10 cents? If so, you have lots of well-educated company. More than half the students surveyed at Princeton and at the University of Michigan gave that answer.


After all, $1.10 can easily be split into $1 and 10 cents. Furthermore, 10 cents seems the right price for a small ball compared to a big, heavy bat. Ergo, it must be right.


Wrong. The ball costs a nickel. (If a ball costs a dime, the bat, which is one dollar more, would be $1.10, and then the total would be $1.20.) This is basic math. So why do so many jump to the wrong decision? And, moreover, why do they do it so confidently?


"People are not accustomed to thinking hard and are often content to trust a plausible judgment that comes quickly to mind," observes Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University.


Even really smart people succumb to persistent errors when they're making up their minds, as Kahneman and his late collaborator Amos Tversky of Stanford University, demonstrated over and over. Their simple experiments revealed the quirks, logical inconsistencies, and flaws in human decision making that represent the rule rather than the exception.


In my favorite experiment, they described "Linda," an imaginary young woman, single, outspoken and very bright, who, as a student, was deeply concerned with discrimination and social justice. Is it more probable that Linda is now (a) a bank teller, or (b) a bank teller and an active feminist?


Subjects overwhelmingly responded that Linda was more likely to be a "feminist bank teller" than to be a "bank teller." Wrong again. A general condition ("bank teller") is always more frequent than a specific case ("bank teller" and "feminist"). You may wish to consider a parallel but easier example: Is it more likely that my pet is a cat or a calico cat?


The really scary part, they found, is not that we err, but how incredibly confident we can be in our wrong decisions.


 As Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow, in making up our minds, we deal primarily with "known knowns," e.g., what we already know. But we seldom take into account "known unknowns," e.g., other relevant phenomena for which we have no data. And we remain blissfully oblivious to a vast number of "unknown unknowns."


In short, we tend to operate on the belief that "What You See Is All There Is" and proceed to make choices with irrational optimism.


As a doctoral candidate, one of the most important decisions you will make is who will serve as chair of your dissertation committee. How can you overcome built-in cognitive biases and increase the odds you won't make a choice you will regret down the road?


Instead of relying on intuition or emotion, consider using a more objective, proven process for vetting potential candidates to oversee your research. In our feature article below, Dr. Leo Mallette provides you with tools for checking some of the "known unknowns" as well as the "known knowns." With years of experience working with doctoral students, he knows all about choosing dissertation chairs from the get go.


With appropriate due diligence, you stand a better chance of ending up with a chair who best serves your particular needs now and in the future. And with a little bit of luck, you may also end up with a trusted, lifelong senior colleague afterward. Now isn't that worth taking your time for?


Here's to your best decision-making process,

Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C.






"A compelling narrative fosters an illusion of inevitability." ~ Daniel Kahneman


"Knowing that one may be subject to bias is one thing; being able to correct it is another." ~ Jon Elster


"If there's something you really want to believe, that's what you should question the most." ~ Penn Jillette


"Few things are brought to a successful issue by impetuous desire, but most by calm and prudent forethought." ~ Thucydides


"Do not dismiss the outsider too abruptly as is generally done by the insider." ~ Richard Hamming


For more mind puzzles: Trickier than It Seems/Four Puzzles




FEATURE ARTICLE: How to Pick the Right Dissertation Chair and Avoid Regrets and Delays


Leo MalletteBy Leo A. Mallette, Ed.D.


Some students end up regretting their choice of dissertation chair and struggle to finish. Some find it necessary to change advisor mid-stream and lose valuable time.


Selecting your dissertation chair ranks as one of the most important decisions you will make in your doctoral program. As one of the most intense relationships you will ever know, it can either hasten or obstruct your progress to your degree.


How can you increase the probability of choosing a chair that is right for you—whatever your priorities may be?


How do students usually choose their chair? In my experience advising social science doctoral students, these are factors you may wish to consider:


  • the chair's teaching excellence

  • the chair's expertise in the subject matter

  • the chair's availability and accessibility

  • recommendations or assignment

  • personality and other "intangible" factors

When to Pick Your Favorite Teacher


Are you planning to go into teaching? Then you may want to pick a chair who is a good teacher, perhaps someone you've had as a professor and whose teaching style you admire. In typical doctoral programs, you will be exposed to 10 to 12 professors, and you may develop good rapport with a particular professor.


As one student wrote me:


I chose Dr. [X] for my chair because I learned a lot from his classes, I had a good rapport with him, and I knew that he'd hold me to a high standard — same reasons I selected [Y] and [Z] for my committee.


Pay attention to the positive chemistry that you develop with a professor. This kind of intuition bodes well for your path forward since mutual trust and open communication will enhance your dissertation experience and progress.


Do You Need a Subject Matter Expert?


If you foresee a future in research, consider a chair who is a known authority in the field, i.e., a subject matter expert. Your university may provide you with a list of faculty who may be available as dissertation chairs. Your first step is to review the list and then learn more about them by locating their biographies, publication lists, or curriculum vitae online.


Here's how one doctoral candidate explained his search for his chair to me:


I chose my chair using the facility search tool provided by [the University] and the initial interaction with the person selected. My search selection criteria was first to find a chair (and committee members) who had both the experience in my general field of study (engineering) AND had a strong understanding of the research method chosen, which in my case was quantitative.


If your finances demand additional funding for your doctoral studies, you may seek a paid research position in a particular professor's lab, in which case it makes great sense to do your doctoral research based in that lab.


Availability Is an Absolute Must


No matter what criterion you choose, sometimes your top choices may not be available due to impending retirement, sabbatical schedules, or an already heavy load of doctoral students. Do not take it personally if a professor turns you down for such a reason. At times, students have to resort to a faculty member who is available at the time of the request.

This need not be as dire as it sounds. You may find excellent dissertation chairs among newer faculty who have yet to attract many doctoral students or among adjunct faculty members who are extremely knowledgeable in your proposed methodology.


One student noted that his university has a search tool that includes filters for research method and the professor's background. Since his dissertation was on project management, he started there. Another student looked up various professors' biographies and publications for various possible choices. "When I found three that piqued my interest, I emailed each of them," he said.


Accepting Recommendations and Assignments


Some departments will have graduate directors—administrators who are familiar with faculty strengths across the board, including for those who are full time, adjunct, former, emeritus, or even in affiliated departments. Their recommendations can be very helpful since less visible adjunct faculty may work in your exact field of study or be adept in a particular research method that is perfect for your topic.


I've known other students who relied on recommendations made by department chairs or other faculty, with highly satisfactory results. Before accepting a recommendation, do a little homework. Ask former students--or others who can afford to be honest—about the plusses and minuses of working with Professor "X." Find out why others did choose, did not choose, or regret choosing "X."


In long-distance learning institutions, chairs are often assigned to students, a practice which obviously limits choice but has advantages not unlike those of an arranged marriage.


Factoring in the Intangibles


Intangible reasons may ultimately determine your choice. Some of these boil down to chemistry. The chosen professor may have a particular trait that resonates with you, e.g., ethnicity, gender, race, class, religion, sexual preference, geography, personality, or occupation.


Or perhaps you find yourself more attracted to working with someone whose own work style appeals to you, e.g., flexibility in terms of degrees of freedom for shaping your dissertation. For others, issues of transparency and feedback style rate high, as explained by one student:


I chose Dr. [X] for several reasons: 1) he was clear up front about his expectations; 2) we're both engineers so I was fairly certain that we would communicate well; 3) he was enthusiastic about my topic; 4) he was clear up front that he would "give it to me straight."


Consider Accessibility and Rapport


Consider the degree and type of accessibility you prefer. You may want a chair who lives nearby, has office hours, and can occasionally meet with you in-person. For others, virtual accessibility is preferred, as this student told me:


 My dissertation chair selection was based on my chair's accessibility, personality, and knowledge/passion for my topic. For accessibility, my potential chair's geographic location, work schedule, and willingness to meet virtually were key factors.


Rapport can be an elusive but critical element in these days of virtual communication. One student approached me not just because of my expertise, but because his dog and I share the same name! Other intangible elements may add to your sense of familiarity and rapport with a professor—and you can consciously build on these over time.


What If It Doesn't Work Out?


If you have a problem with your chair, or if he or she becomes unavailable, you may prefer to change chairs or be forced to. This happens more often than you might imagine. Promoting one of your committee members to chair is usually easier than starting the search from the beginning. Nonetheless, if a new chair is desired or needed, consider your experience to date as part of the learning process and move on.


If you take into account the factors discussed above, chances are you will enjoy your dissertation journey more—and even finish faster.


Adapted from Leo Mallette, (2015). Dissertation Fundamentals for the Social Sciences.




About the Author: Leo Mallette, Ed.D. adjunct faculty at Pepperdine University and the University of Phoenix, has chaired several successful doctoral committees. An ABD Survival Guide contributing author, Dr. Mallette has published over 80 conference and peer-reviewed journal articles as well as several books. His latest e-book, Dissertation Fundamentals for the Social Sciences: For that time when you find yourself academically ... alone (2nd Edition), provides seasoned advice for navigating the doctoral process.

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.


Dr. Scroggs is an executive, life and dissertation coach in the greater Chesapeake Bay area. She has helped hundreds of students and clients overcome procrastination, self-doubts, and other internal and external blocks in order to find the motivation and flow necessary to reach their academic, professional, and personal goals. Contact Dr. Scroggs with questions about this newsletter or about coaching in general at Enjoy additional free resources at



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