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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

  • Coach the student about your working style and what the student can do to contribute to a good working relationship. (See and refer the student to, How to Get the Mentoring You Want, especially “How to Be a Good Protege,” in Chapter VIII.)
  • If you become aware of significant problems or weaknesses (e.g., in the student’s writing, research-related skills, or personal life), refer the student to appropriate resources.
  • Be aware of students’ individual situations and working style. Occasionally assess how they are doing (e.g., whether they are working well with you and seeking appropriate mentoring from others). See Part Two of Rackham’s, How to Mentor Graduate Students: A Guide for Faculty in a Diverse University.

The Dissertation

  • Help the student to select and refine the dissertation topic, avoiding overly ambitious goals and expectations.
  • Help the student formulate a long-term plan for the research and writing of the dissertation, including a timetable and tentative completion date. Ask the student to revise the plan, if needed.
  • Reach agreement with the student as to how often they will consult with you and submit work for you to critique.
  • Seek a progress report from the student at least once a term.

The Dissertation Committee

  • Assist the student with selecting faculty members to serve on the dissertation committee (membership guidelines).
  • (For Co-Chairs) Consult with each other to divide up your supervisory responsibilities, and then inform the student.
  • Make sure everyone on the committee is familiar with the roles of Chair or Co-Chair, cognate, and the other members. How closely and frequently members other than the Chair(s) engage with the student’s work varies, all should be in regular contact.
  • Work with the student to schedule and plan for committee meetings, taking into account the norms of the department or program.
  • If a member of the committee is not responding to the student’s communication or failing to review the draft sections of the dissertation in a reasonable amount of time, coach the student about how to proceed, or intervene directly if the problem is severe. If all efforts fail, encourage the student to consider finding a replacement.
  • Take responsibility for dealing with conflicts among committee members. (e.g., personal conflict and intellectual disputes that create a roadblock for the student).

Supervising Research

  • Emphasize data collection and record keeping.
  • Go over ethical issues, including human subject and animal care protections.
  • Build backup ideas into any research project.
  • Follow the student’s development and make adjustments in assignments.
  • Be aware of conflicts in a research group, and when they arise, take steps to mediate.

Administrative Matters

  • Tell the student to work with the department or program administrative staff to meet Rackham requirements such as filing an up to date Dissertation Committee Form.
  • Where feasible, assist the student in securing funds, such as fellowships, GSIs, GSRAs, research and travel funds.
  • If the Candidate needs to petition Rackham for an extension to the seven-year time limit, provide the necessary support but require the student to develop a plan for completing the degree.

The Oral Defense

  • Tell the student to seek help from the department or program administrative staff about fulfilling Rackham requirements in the final stages of earning the degree.
  • Be sure the student and the committee know that Rackham policy requires that the oral defense must be conducted as a public event, (except for the Committee’s private deliberations either before or after the defense), open to all interested persons.
  • Before the student schedules the oral defense date, be sure the student knows the date in the term of final registration by which the defense must be held. Also, the student must be able to give the entire dissertation to the committee sufficiently in advance of the meeting. This must be at least two weeks before the defense but can be as much as three or four weeks, depending on the Committee.
  • If the student is unable to meet the aforementioned deadline for distributing the dissertation, ask the student to postpone the defense unless you are certain all committee members have critiqued earlier drafts and, therefore, should be able to submit the oral defense evaluation forms on time. It is devastating when a student learns about major concerns shortly before the oral defense because the faculty member hadn’t read the student’s work previously.
  • Prepare the student for the oral defense, in accordance with the traditions of the department and/or the wishes of the committee. (Note: The committee will need to decide how long the defense itself will last; there are no prescribed guidelines.)
  • If you learn that one or more members of the committee have not submitted the Oral Defense Evaluation Form by the Rackham deadline, contact the committee member(s) immediately.
  • If there appear to be serious concerns about the student’s work, advocate for a delay in the oral defense. Dissertations should be approved based on the quality of the work, not because of other pressures (e.g., a job offer contingent upon completion; the expense of registering for a further term, etc.).
  • Before the defense begins, the committee must review all the members’ written evaluations and identify the topics they will raise and their sequence. If any of these activities has not been done in advance, excuse the student and others from the room to do so.
  • At the defense, make sure it’s clear which committee member(s) will sign off on the required revisions.
  • After the defense, submit the completed Oral Defense Examination Form, and, if no revisions or corrections are needed, the Dissertation Completion Form.
  • If revisions and/or corrections are required, make sure the Dissertation Completion Form is submitted as soon as possible after the dissertation has been completed and approved.

Launching the Student’s Career

  • Ask students to do tasks they will need to do after they get into the field.
  • Encourage students to attend professional meetings, and when the two of you attend the same meeting, actively help them to network.
  • Speak honestly to students about their strengths and weaknesses (e.g., not everyone can succeed as a faculty member).
  • If appropriate to your field, call people to help students seek positions and be deliberate and careful about treating them fairly in this regard.
  • Prepare students to consider the full range of career possibilities appropriate to their field.
  • If the student’s dissertation is outstanding, consider nominating it for the ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award.