Becoming a Successful and Engaged Dissertation Candidate

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I have been an instructor and a dissertation chair for quite a while. Most of my students are in the United States but many are also from around the world including China, Africa, South America, the Pacific Islands, and Canada. They come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. These students come to a doctoral program for a number of reasons – to achieve their dream of becoming a doctor in their chosen field, conduct research to make a difference, learn more about what it means to be a scholar, or be able to wear a cool tam instead of a mortar board ;-)

What all doctoral candidates share is their desire to be a part of something greater and to become an integral part of a learning community of scholars. Candidates have shared their stories with me and continue to build on their stories along the way. Some candidates were the first in their family to earn a college degree, others are recareering, while some are looking to new horizons in their field. Some of the doctoral candidates are younger and just finished their master degree while others are coming back to the university after years in their field to earn a doctoral degree.

What most of these candidates have in common is their desire to do well and explore. It is an exciting time! Many candidates are unsure of themselves as they walk in this new journey while others are confident and feel they are prepared. There is not a lot of preparation needed to enroll in a university to seek a doctoral degree. Of course, it is necessary to decide on which university would be best suited to attend, which discipline is most desirable, and possibly what topic of research is interesting. There are also other things to consider such as budgeting, financial aid, and being accepted into the university. But beyond that, there are no real roadmaps for students to prepare for that next big step.

Students look to their Dissertation Chair for support and mentoring. They want help if they have questions about an assignment or want to talk about a grade. Certainly as instructors and dissertation chairs we can answer those questions but it is much more than that. I have found in my experience that no matter what questions student candidates are asking, there are other questions and situations they want and need to share. Dissertation Chairs need to make a holistic connection to their student candidates to understand them; get to know their experiences; and to be there for them to celebrate successes, talk about milestones in their family, hear about their hardships, and also be there when they become unsure of themselves. In addition to being an instructor, we are there as a cheerleader, realist, confidante, the leader of their team, and their go-to person. 

Following is some advice I give to my students.

  1. Be sure to get to know your Dissertation Chair. Set up a meeting as soon as possible.
  2. Ask questions. These questions can be about the program, the coursework, or anything else you would like to discuss.
  3. Learn about all the resources that are available on the university’s website including dissertation resources, the library, and any support services that are available and take advantage of them.
  4. Follow directions. Be sure to follow the directions on how to be successful, using a template, and turning in papers.
  5. Learn about plagiarism. There are many resources at the university you can use to learn about this. Did you know you could even self-plagiarize?
  6. Pay attention. You want to pay attention to any comments and advice you receive from your Chair and committee members. If you do not agree or have questions, but sure to ask.
  7. When selecting a research topic, consider selecting something you have a passion for, you will be living with this topic for a while and you also want something that you think is an important problem that needs research.
  8. Hang out in the Commons and get to know others in the program. It is a great place to share experiences and ask questions.
  9. Know that the real meaning of commencement is a beginning. When your doctoral degree is completed, it is just the beginning of a new chapter to your academic life.

Dr. Linda D. Collins

Adjunct Faculty Member and Dissertation Chair

Northcentral University


Lafrance, J., Lafrance, D., & Melton, T. D. (2020). Chair Agency, Chair Preparation, and Academic Supports in Educational Leadership Doctoral Programs in the United States. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 15(1), 111.


Northcentral University. (2021). Dissertation center.