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Communication with your Chair: Tips your Chair Wants you to Know

Today’s guest post is written by Dr. Laura Pipoly. Laura earned a bachelor’s in psychology and a master’s in both school counseling and community counseling. Laura graduated from Nova Southeastern University with a doctorate in both special education and in Instructional technology and distance education (ITDE). Her dissertation focused on Counselor Education Curriculum and Online Counseling and was published in part in the Journal of Instructional Research. Laura has also published and presented at the national level. Her most recent work is Meeting the Challenge of Bipolar Disorder: Self-Help Strategies that Work. Laura is both a Licensed Professional Counselor and a certified School Counselor. Throughout the years, she has worked as a school counselor, psychotherapist, behavior specialist, mentor, dissertation chair, methodologist and clinical site supervisor. Laura currently works for University of Phoenix as a full time faculty member.

As a dissertation chair, methodologist, content expert and former doctoral student I have sat on all sides of the dissertation committee. Throughout this process communication is the most essential element to facilitate student success throughout the progression. Without communication progress stalls, motivation can wane and confusion sets in.

As a dissertation chair, I schedule communication by phone with my learners every two weeks. This timeframe is often enough that I am able to be proactive if any pressing concerns come up, but also spread out far enough so that we have sufficient content to address. If your chair does not have a set communication schedule you certainly have the right to request one. It is likely that your chair is busy and overworked, so be sure that you are being active in taking responsibility to set up a contact strategy that is a good fit for your needs. Do not hesitate to send a friendly email reminder—after all you are in charge of your dissertation. The chair and committee are there as your guides through the process. I do find that phone calls are the best way to stay in contact. An email is good for a quick question about formatting, but it does not translate well for complex design questions. The dissertation process is complex and sometimes it takes hashing it out on the phone. I find students are able to reach their “ah ha” moment with a little back and forth. With email this process slows down and sometimes is completely lost. Just the other day on the phone, I had a student share several ideas. I could hear in her voice her frustration as she discussed being unable to find the “gap” area for her research. As she shared about her thoughts on the topic, I stopped her. She had just unknowingly shared that “gap” area that was so elusive to her.

When you do have a scheduled phone call be on time (keeping in mind any potential time zone differences), be prepared and be organized. Many times I will call a student at our agreed upon time and I can hear that they are distracted. Or even worse, they are driving. This does not facilitate the best use of our time. A quiet, private place will allow for you to focus. Just as you would write an outline for an assignment, I suggest that you do the same for your phone conference. Come prepared by writing down any questions or topics you want to address beforehand and use this as your guide. Not only does this allow you to make sure that everything is covered, but it helps to cut back on emails in between phone conversations which may ultimately slow down the process. When speaking to a student I have a copy of their dissertation in front of me so I can point out specific questions or refer to it as needed. Be sure that you do too and that you are ready to take any notes you may need.

Listen, really listen. As a learner I treated this individual time with my chair as a gift. I was able to get a new perspective, flush out my questions and soak in their expertise. Listen to the suggestions your chair makes, write them down and apply the feedback. So many learners will send me their marked up paper with corrections still unmade. Most times, I have the same suggestions.

Lastly, remember your chair is your cheerleader. Your chair has been there and done that. They know that the dissertation is a journey and that your motivation will wax and wane. I truly want my learners to succeed. I want to be their motivator when things get hard –because they will. I would much rather have an email from a learner stating, “I am having a hard time with…”, than see that they withdrew. When a learner emails me that “they can’t”, I email back them about how they can. Your chair is on your side, not only can they help you with your writing but also through the process. Part of that process is maintaining your motivation and dedication. I remember my own chair referred to me as the “future Dr. Pipoly” which was sometimes the push I needed to read, reread, and dig in a little deeper.

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