How you talk to your student matters…

Dear Dissertation Advisor,

How you talk to your student matters. What you say is important. Choose your words with care, constructiveness, compassion, and a little hint of civility.

Over the years, I have come to know the novice dissertation advisor as one who chooses to write “this is all wrong” rather than try to figure out what is “wrong” for themselves. The reality is that the novice advisor is capable of identifying wrong but lacks the needed training or experience to recognize what is wrong or why what they see is so wrong. Meanwhile, the senior, veteran advisor who enjoys “making them sweat” uses the “all wrong” as a way to get under their students’ skins and keep them from coming back to the professor for a while with their questions.

It is actually rare, sadly, that a professor says, “You made a good effort but your effort was filled with problems and holes that need to be cleared up or solved. I want to help you so I will lay the issues out and enable you to fix them…”  I refer to those professors as “the dream professor,” and when I have knowledge of such professors, I usually tell dissertation writers who have those dream professors advising them that they don’t need a coach unless they need a formatting editor at the end. The dream professor conducts less hazing (i.e., directs less humiliating communication), and their students’ spend less time on the process of completing and defending their dissertations.

I had an interesting case lately. The student’s five chapter, ready for defense document had been reviewed by the higher ranking overlord faculty above the committee level. This overlord faculty wrote the following on the first line of the abstract page: “Run your document through the premium version of to catch the over 400 grammatical and punctuation errors before resubmitting.” The remainder of the comments the overlord faculty provided the student were not written in NICE terms; in short, the reviewer continued indicating that the student had not been diligent in editing the content.  However, the student had been dealing with Grammarly related issues for a year because both her chair and her editor had used it as a tool for ensuring quality!

Meanwhile, this same overlord faculty wrote to the dissertation advisor the following: I use the premium version of, and I too do not agree with some of the suggestions; however, 90% of them I do agree with. I know that the first thing the dean does when she reviews is to run it through and will return immediately if there are significant basic grammar errors. Why could not the overlord faculty have communicated similarly to the student? The answer: Because the student isn’t “in the club” yet. Therefore, the overlord faculty treated the student like an imbecile, that is, communicated in a manner meant to humiliate the student. Once I saw the distinction in the communication by this faculty toward the student versus the dissertation advisor, I gained explicit access to the nature of the humiliating messages sent to students versus the collegial communications sent to fellow faculty.

I share this information in order to debunk the myth of students know little and faculty know more. Professor, you know the same good stuff as the students; most days, you don’t know the rules of APA any more than your students do. However, the editors you may regard as incompetent when you are deriding your students, do know more than you. The Grammarly type tools are shields so that you (according to you) look like you know more about writing than your student.

I was told years and years ago by a mentor and professor I had at Texas A&M that the one thing faculty never want their students to see is them “not knowing.” What I saw recently was faculty who didn’t know something using Grammarly as a shield to prevent a student from seeing the “not knowing” in action. Faculty would rather make up rules that are easily debunked, such as “no footnotes are allowed in APA” (yes, that happened 2 weeks ago) than look up footnotes in the manual’s index and see that a student did read the APA 6th edition manual correctly for the purpose of using footnotes.

In conclusion, Dear Dissertation Professor, talk to your student like you would a colleague; treat your student with respect to help them with anticipatory socialization; do not assume your faculty peers taught your student whatever you assume the student ought to know by the time you get the student assigned to you, because you know faculty use hazing games with their students as a dysfunctional form of self-protection. More students will finish dissertations when they are treated with respect and competence, NICEly. Be the dream professor all of the time.


Dr. C, the Irreverant Professor & Rogue Coach

Epilogue: Students! When you have the sensation of feeling crazy or not sure about what is going on with how you are being treated or how you are receiving the messages sent to you by your professors and their overlords, do not assume you are likely in the wrong. Only the dissertation faculty earned that degree and joined the club, the community of scholars, the fraternity of intellectual fabulousness. You want into their fraternity; therefore, they are likely using smoke and mirrors on you to keep you feeling confused, unsure, filled with self-doubt, incompetent, etc. Take your emotions out of the equation when decoding their feedback, and free yourself from the sensation of academic hazing.




If you want your student to finish…

Dear Dissertation Advisor,

Do you really want your dissertation candidate to finish? I am writing this blog because I don’t think you do. If you want your student to finish, here are the first three or so things I can think of that you ought to be doing and are not.

  1. Check your email, read the emails your student sends to you, and reply to your student in a cogent and timely fashion. Waiting till your student has flooded all your in-, e-, text messaging, social media, and voicemail boxes in a state of panic to remember “oh, yeah, I think I saw a subject line that had my student’s name it” or “I guess I forgot to press send a week ago, whoops” and then surreptitiously send whatever you should have sent days earlier without acknowledging your student’s efforts is truly like “freezing” your student out or “throwing the cold shoulder.”
  2. Pick up the phone and be a human, have a professional, respectful RELATIONSHIP with your student who is also a professional in the real world, in all likelihood. Be NICE (noble, intellectual, compassionate, empathic). Show some respect. Accept who is suffering here–and I’ll share a little hint: It’s not you. You were hazed too, but you don’t have to do it just because you lived through it.
  3. Remember that you probably have a graduate school level person (above your head) who will shred your control over your student’s edits and who will outrank your leadership over any dissertation. When that happens, as it will inevitably happen from the for-profit to the prestigious Tier I institution, don’t blame the student who didn’t know what you didn’t tell him or her. Don’t say, “but I thought you hired an editor” (really!?! that’s a cop-out). Accept responsibility, support the student, defend the paper’s lack of “correct APA” this graduate school reviewer claims if you want your edits and writing preferences to stick! Otherwise, avoid treating the student as an incompetent. That behavior of delegating responsibility to the powerless is just mean because you are the broker of power in this relationship and in this dissertation process.
  4. When your institution sends you material to send to the student, forward it. Maybe, kindly, comment that you did or didn’t read anything the institution sent to you that you have the responsibility for sharing with your student. Your student believes you care about him or her and assumes the worst when you do not provide your thoughts, which brings me back to the following necessary behavior: Be NICE (noble, intellectual, compassionate, empathic).


Dr. C, the Irreverant Professor & Rogue Coach