How I Developed Clear Expectations with My PhD Students

by | Sep 11, 2018

I opened the email, dreading what I was about to read. I knew the writer of the email well, but I also knew he was about to suck the life out of me. What he wanted me to do was to serve as his Ph.D. committee chair. But, I knew it would mean a lot of time, a lot of talks, and little action on his part. I asked for advice from another faculty member on what to do. They told me “Advising PhDs is a worthy process – and it is hard work. This is what we do.” Thanks for the advice. Maybe I am lazy or just unworthy of my role – but I needed a better plan.

If you are a Ph.D. student, I have written before about

But now I am talking from the other side, how do you manage a Ph.D. student and keep your sanity.

Define the Work

“The first step in exceeding your customer’s expectations is to know those expectations.”
Roy Williams

I know what the expectations are for the Ph.D. faculty chair.

  • I am the mentor for the students guiding them through the process.
  • We meet and talk, often with little action from the student.
  • Four other faculty members are on the committee, and they rarely do any work. In fact, I have to corral them to get them to participate.
  • At the last minute, someone on the committee often causes trouble – challenging ideas the student has presented and throwing up objections to the whole process.
  • While the burden is on the student to “fix” any issues, I have to again guide them through the process.

All this is a pain, and there is usually no win in it for me, except feeling good about helping someone. But truthfully, at times helping others is little reward.

The problem was, there are no clear expectations for the student.

The Ph.D. is about Testing Your Grit

The whole Ph.D. process is a game. you take classes, which are easy enough because you either pass or not. Each course has hard deadlines to keep the student on track. But then, the dreaded dissertation. The only real challenge here is that there are no deadlines and nobody to drive the student. On top of that, the process is not well defined. This might be by design, to have the student just go with grit and get themselves through the process. A lot is about self-motivation. It is like they are preparing for a marathon – no one is pushing them but the goal. (Actually, a marathon has a deadline – so not that easy.)

But the problem is, if you were preparing for a marathon, you would not want to take hours of my time talking through the process. You would not want to come and sit and talk about the process. You would not want to ask me how to work with the other marathon runners. If you did, I would just tell you to go run. You know how to do that. Forget the marathon analogy.

My Tipping Point – Create in a Ph.D. Advisory Process

“Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value. It is a process; it’s not random.” Ken Robinson

When this request came in, I was already overwhelmed with other non-productive Ph.D. students, as well as my regular work. I realized I needed process. So I stopped, drafted out what I would need to see to be OK with his request to serve as the advisor. I sent this plan to a more seasoned and perhaps more cynical professor. He was also a highly productive professor. I asked him if I was pushing it too far? Was I being a jerk?

Contrary to my initial thought – this wise advisor thought I was right on target. So I went with it. I sent out the process document to the student who was asking me to be his advisor. It worked. He did not accept it – and found a new advisor. What a win. But, was I a jerk?

My Contract with my Ph.D. Students

Today, I have one new person asking me. It has been a while since I have agreed to serve. I pulled out the agreement and sent it to him. I know he will deliver – but I went through the process anyway. He quickly agreed. I even got the sense that he was relieved that someone was going to force him through the process. I can work with this guy.

Below you will see my agreement. I may be a jerk, but it really worked. As I am looking at this, I think I need more agreements like it. If you work with a lot of people who you mentor – you might consider something similar – if you are OK with looking like a jerk.

My Ph.D. Committee Participation

In order to best serve Ph.D. candidates who have asked me to serve as the committee chair or as a committee member, I have set the following guidelines. My goal is to provide the best service in the most efficient manner.

Committee Chair Requirements

If you would like me to consider being chair of your committee, you need to agree to the following.

1. Develop a research plan now. The Ph.D. is all about the dissertation, so without a research plan up front, you have no plan. And you without a plan need another committee chair. See below step 3 for creating a plan.

2. Publish with me as the second author in peer-reviewed conferences and/or journals. I have ZERO interest in serving you if you do not agree to publish your work in peer-reviewed conferences and journals quickly and frequently.

3. Write your proposal immediately. You will register for a special topic or non-dissertation research course during the first term I serve as your chair. The requirements of this course will be detailed later, but in short you will a) define your research topic, b) do your literature review, c) write the first paper of background material and submit to a peer-reviewed conference, d) write the proposal and e) form the committee.

4. Write and submit for publication at least one manuscript every quarter.

Committee Service Requirements

If you would like for me to serve on your committee, I need you to agree to the following.

1. Provide any publication to be for review before publication with me as an author in peer-reviewed conferences and/or journals. I have ZERO interest in serving you if you do not agree to publish your work in peer-reviewed conferences and journals quickly and frequently.

2. Set all meetings and final reviews up well in advance. Waiting until two weeks out and asking me to review your material or commit to a meeting is not acceptable. If you think you will not do this, note that almost every candidate does this last minute rush. I will not participate.


In either case, I expect you to sign this agreement and provide a copy back to me via email.

In the spirit of you getting done and getting done in this lifetime, the above guidelines are in your best interest as well as mine. My time is very limited, as are the other members of your committee. Your agreement to be serious and aggressive toward your degree helps us all use our time wisely.

Failure to meet these guidelines will result in me removing my name from your committee.

Thank you for your consideration.
Dale Callahan, Ph.D., P.E.

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Dale Callahan

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