How To Be the CEO Of Your Dissertation – Selecting Your Dissertation Advisor and Composing the Dissertation Committee

Last Updated on July 15, 2020 by Ayla Myrick

Digital repositories, university libraries, academic blogs, and, yes, even offer more than a large dumpster load of “how to” this and “how to” that of completing a doctorate, much of which targets the “all but dissertation” (ABD) candidate. It is not my intent by invoking the image of a dumpster to suggest that all this material is throwaway. I confess to being among the best of the dumpster divers, and some takeaways are accorded prime shelf space in my office and file space in my computer and on the Mendeley cloud.

Yet, it recently occurred to me when reflecting on a former client’s problems with his dissertation advisor that most of my dumpster collection is best described as recycled material based on the traditional campus-based doctoral program created before student centers featured Starbucks and Wi-Fi. These more traditional programs tend to focus on preparing doctoral candidates for the professoriate rather than other careers inside or outside of academe. Let’s take a quick look at a smattering of easily accessible advice on “how to select your dissertation advisor and committee.”

Look for potential advisers who have a track record of finding academic placements and co-publishing with their graduate students.

Search for an advisor and committee members who are a match for your personality, intellectual style, and social preferences.

Frequent social conversational spaces (physical or digital) to stay current on the “rate-an-advisor” anecdotal stories of other doctoral students who share your discipline and specialization.

Avoid stereotypical personalities when choosing committee advisors and members: overachiever, underachiever, non-committer, criticizer, and vacationer.

Set your sights on potential advisors who can effectively balance the roles of advocate, manager, leader, and judge.

Seek out scholars within your program specialization, college, or university who are experts in your research interests.

And if these six points don’t satisfy your particular “how to” appetite, consider a hodgepodge of other important attributes of potential committee advisors and members: (a) is emotionally competent, (b) has boundary control, (c) perceives academic research as both art and craftsmanship, (d) has reasonable expectations of the doctoral candidate, and (e) is willing and able to write effective professional letters of recommendation. Enough recycled dumpster diving already! I think you get the gist of the lists, which offer some good counsel, and you could likely add similar advice worthy of consideration.

So now let’s get to the point about acting like a CEO when selecting your advisor and composing your dissertation committee. First, I would like to do a shout-out to Dr. Bruce Francis for introducing the concept of the Dissertation CEO at a Capella University doctoral colloquium.

For the purpose of this discussion, I am using the term advisor for what is interchangeably known at universities worldwide as committee chair, mentor, and supervisor. So let’s look at the sixth point in the list above: Seek out scholars within your program specialization, college, or university who are experts in your research interests.

Successful CEOs know how to compose effective teams.

There are situations, however, wherein doctoral students cannot participate in the process of composing their dissertation team.

As for my former client who had problems with his dissertation advisor, he was, unfortunately, situated within a university that does not allow doctoral candidates to choose their advisors. University personnel assign advisors to doctoral students before they enter dissertation phase of their program. In the case of the client, university personnel assigned an advisor whose expertise was outside the specialization of the client’s doctoral program. Worse yet, the assigned advisor was credentialed in a discipline unrelated to the client’s interdisciplinary research interests.

The client had little recourse to correct this misalignment, and his attempts to do so were unsuccessful. After persevering over several academic terms, in efforts to familiarize the advisor with the terminology of his two disciplines, the client gave up his doctoral pursuits. A critical first step for becoming the CEO of your dissertation is to determine at the front end of your search for university contenders if doctoral students are able to select their advisors and committee members before beginning dissertation phase. I will now counter this unfortunate former client scenario with my own experiences as a Capella University doctoral learner.

As of the writing of this blog, Capella University offers doctoral learners choice in the selection of advisors and committee members. Capella faculty biographical sketches are available on the university’s website, and those who also serve as dissertation advisors/mentors are identified. The faculty biographies are organized by school and by specialization. While completing coursework, I was forward thinking about dissertation phase. Although early on in my coursework I did not have a strong sense about my research topic, I was intentional in reaching out to faculty members in my area of specialization at colloquia and, when possible, took online courses with them.

However, review of faculty members’ university-posted biographies and personal interactions with them through colloquia and coursework didn’t give me as complete of a picture as I desired (and I’m not one to give much weight to students’ anecdotal stories or rely on otherwise unverifiable secondary sources). From my more than 12 years of serving clients as an academic editor and research advisor, I know the critical importance of identifying and recruiting dissertation team members who can best support me through the research phase of the doctorate. I had already compiled a short-list of potential team members, so the next step was to dig deeper in order to get a sense of how they had previously performed as advisors and committee members. To do this, I utilized the ProQuest Dissertation and Theses searchable database of more than 1 million full-text PDF documents from U.S. and international universities written between 1861 and the present. Following is the sequence of steps I took.

First, I focused on learning more about faculty members on my list of potential advisors. Accessing the ProQuest Dissertation and Theses database’s “Advanced Search” webpage, I performed individual searches of each faculty member to determine how many published dissertations he/she had advised. I first typed in the person’s name on the top line and selected “advisor (ADV)” from the drop-down menu positioned on the right side of the webpage. This first search netted information about the dissertation advising experiences of my initial short list of potential advisors. For example, some individuals had served as advisors on 40+ dissertations, while others had advised on fewer than five dissertations. Based on this information, I moved a few faculty members who lacked experience from my advisor list to my committee member list for further consideration as dissertation committee members.

Successful CEOs know how to assess the experience-level of potential team leaders.

Second, I focused on learning more about the dissertation experiences of those faculty members on my short list of potential dissertation committee members. From the ProQuest Dissertation and Theses “Advanced Search” webpage, I conducted an individual search of each faculty member. I typed the individual’s name on the top line and selected “Anywhere” from the drop-down menu on the right side of the webpage. I then further investigated the database findings by opening each of the dissertations to examine the title page to confirm the individual’s participation as one of the listed committee members and reviewed the acknowledgement page to read comments, if any, that the dissertation author made about that committee member. These acknowledgements will oftentimes include comments about attributes the dissertation author most appreciated about the committee member (e.g., research methods expertise, content knowledge, types of support). At this level of review, my aim was to quantify each faculty member’s dissertation experience (i.e., the number of dissertations that listed them as committee members) and get a general sense of the dissertation author’s comments (or lack of comments) about the committee member as presented on the acknowledgements page.

Successful CEOs know how to assess the quantity and quality of potential team members’ prior experiences.

Third, I wanted to know if any of the faculty members on my potential committee list had ever served together on a dissertation committee. To do this, I used the ProQuest Dissertation and Theses “Advanced Search” webpage, to conduct searches of different combinations of faculty members’ names. For example, I entered the name of one of my choices for possible advisors on the top line of the search window and selected “Advisor (ADV)” from the drop-down menu on the right side of this typed entry. Next, on the second line, I chose “And” from the drop-down menu of the left side of the second line and typed another faculty member’s name on the line and selected “Anywhere” from the drop-down menu on right side of the typed entry. The database then looked for matches of these two faculty names in the over 1 million full text PDF dissertations. I then opened the found documents and conducted a deeper level of analysis by reviewing the acknowledgements page, abstract, overall organization of the dissertation, and conclusions and recommendations. In the case of one of my combination searches of two particular faculty members, I found numerous instances in which they both served on dissertation committees and recognized a pattern of topics that indicated to me that both members had extensive backgrounds in areas significant to my own research interests.

Successful CEOs know how to compose teams and assess the synergy among members.

Upon completing steps 1-3 for each faculty member on my two short lists, I determined that there were no faculty members who had backgrounds in a discipline that I later identified as critical to my interdisciplinary research. At a later point, I inquired of university personnel about the possibility of inviting a visiting scholar to serve on my dissertation committee. As it turns out, Capella University has a visiting scholar provision, so I was able to submit the name of an expert in the second discipline who was approved and named as the third member of my committee.

Successful CEOs know how to identify weaknesses and act in a timely manner to strengthen teams.

Both scenarios presented here are examples of interdisciplinary dissertation studies wherein the doctoral students were focused on advancing in careers other than the professoriate and conducting research for the benefit of specific sectors of society outside of academe.

In the first scenario, the former client was not empowered to function as the CEO of his dissertation and, unfortunately, ultimately decided to end his doctoral pursuits.

The second scenario is a personal story about how I have been empowered to function as the CEO of my dissertation by selecting my advisor and composing my dissertation committee, which includes a visiting scholar with expertise critical to my interdisciplinary research.

My advisor has contributed to my success by providing valuable advice through the stages of prospectus and proposal development (chapters 1-3) as well as guiding me through first-submittal approvals from the School of Education and the Institutional Review Board.

As a whole, my dissertation team is contributing quality feedback in a timely manner and pointing me toward conceptual frameworks and resources worthy of my consideration while engaged in data collection and analysis. At this juncture, I’m on track and enjoying the journey! It is my wish that you enjoy similar success in your doctoral pursuits.

Ayla Myrick