How to Select the Right Dissertation Chair

How to Select the Right Dissertation Chair

As a doctoral student in the School for Advance Studies at the University of Phoenix, there are three particularly crucial decisions that must be made. Listed in what I consider the order of importance:

  1. Choosing a dissertation topic
  2. Choosing a dissertation chair
  3. Choosing the remaining dissertation committee members

The issue of selecting a topic is and will continue to be covered elsewhere this forum.  In this post I am just going to focus on the second two crucial decisions, with a main focus on the selection of the dissertation chair as it is by far the most consequential. 

View videos about selecting your dissertation topic.

Why Selecting the Right Dissertation Chair Matters

The process of earning a doctorate is challenging.  That’s OK.  It’s supposed to be challenging because you are earning the highest research degree in the world.  You are working toward being “Dr. _____”.  That is no small achievement, so there is a good reason why the pathway is exacting.  However, just because the process is challenging, does not mean it has to be negative, painful, fraught with failure, unpredictable, etc.   Often, the difference between challenging in a good way and challenging in a bad way is the selection of the dissertation chair.  The stakes for making this choice are high, and while it can be undone, doing so often means the loss of weeks, months, or sometimes even years.

Things to Consider When Selecting a Dissertation Chair

In thinking about identifying, recruiting, and working with a dissertation chair, I recommend you think about two sets of core considerations, an inner core and an outer core.  The inner core consists of:

  1. personality
  2. loyalty
  3. accessibility

Others may disagree and argue that content and methodological fits are the most essential, and I certainly would characterize them as very important.  However, I believe that for SAS students – and given our School’s dissertation process – the personality and interpersonal connection are the most essential.  

First, the chair should have a personality that fits with yours.  That does not mean you are friends; it means you “click” interpersonally in terms of work style, demeanor, approach, etc.  In other words, find a chair you can work well with.  Second, you should try to find a chair who will be loyalty to you and ride out the seemingly inevitable high and low points of the dissertation process.  You want to avoid a situation where this is a significant probability that you will be abandoned because there is a lack of loyalty and bonding.  Third, the chair should be someone that will be accessible to you, particularly in terms of offering feedback that is timely and substantive. 

The outer core consists of:

  1. content expertise
  2. methodological expertise
  3. administrative knowledge

The dissertation chair needs to be knowledgeable about the subject at hand.  If he or she is not, they are going to be of limited use, even if he or she offers the best personality and work style fit.   The methods piece should not be overlooked.  Be sure at least one person has expertise in and is supportive of the qualitative or quantitative methods you choose to employ in the dissertation.  If you do not have a chair or at least one committee member familiar with your methodological approach, you are asking for a much more difficult road. Lastly, from an administrative standpoint, try to select a chair that is knowledgeable about SAS policies and processes.

View videos about selecting your Dissertation Chair and Committee Members.

Support for Making Your Decision

This is an important decision so take the time to think carefully about it.  If you ever want a neutral sounding board to discuss your options, please feel free to reach out to me. I would also reference the Center for Educational & Instructional Technology Research and the Center for Leadership Studies & Educational Research as particularly robust sources of information, guidance, and innovation when thinking about the dissertation process, including the selection of chairs and committee members.



James Rice's picture James Rice | May 14, 2016 6:54 am MST

Hi James,

Your post provides some interesting food for thought. I have often connected selecting a committee to dating... getting to know someone with whom you can enter into a mutually beneficial relationship that will last for an extended period of time.  But, I think the analogy breaks down when we get to personality alignment. As long as a student can maintain a professional relationship with his or her committee members, I'm not sure that personality should be a significant factor in selecting (or not) a faculty member to invite to a student's committee.

As an individual who recently completed my doctoral program and was one of the fortunate students with no turn-over on my committee throughout my dissertation journey, let me share my thoughts on how I approached recruiting my committee:

Humility. I knew that I was inviting a faculty member to assist me over a long period of time. A faculty member's time is precious, they are paid precious little for their participation on a committee, and their name is on my dissertation so my work has to reflect the career value and research quality teh faculty member aspires to. Before I invited any faculty to my committee, I spent time to get to know their work by reading their publications, bios, dissertation, getting recomendations from their peers. It was from this foundation and personal time committment that I approached my selection. I felt if I couldn't spend the time to get to know them before I invited them to my committee, how could I expect them to accept a mulit-year commitment to support me in my effortds.

Focus. I knew their were specific focus areas that I would be seeking expert feedback of my work on. In my case, these areas included industry focus, methodology, and UOPX process. It was with this in mind that I began to look into the areas of expertise an experience of the faculty that I worked with.  Selecting these specific areas of contribution also weighed into my invitation to join my committee.  For example, I invited a specific committee member because of his expertise in quentiative research and statistical analysis. In my experience, the more specific "the ask", the greater the likelyhood of receiving a "yes, I can help."  I made three asks and received three accepts.

Communication. I set the exectation early that I would check in with my committee on a regular basis (On the first of each month).  Using the reflexive praxis model, I provided my committee with a monthly update on my progress, challenges, and near term plans.  My plans did adjust over the course of my journey. But, my committee was never left wondering if I still existing and if I was making progress.

Forming and retaining a committee isn't hard. But, it is a gift and it needs to be conceived, appreciated, and sustained with humility and respect.  My committee provided tremendous value to my dissertation journey.

Dr. Jim 

About the Author

James Gillespie



Journal of Leadership Studies-Symposium Piece-Relational Leadership: Perspectives of Key Constructs on Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Equity in Higher Education

Psychology Today
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American Psychological Association Conference-Utilizing Clinical Hypnotherapeutic Intervention with CBT to Treat Pandemic-Aug. 13-2021 Symptomology

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