It has become clear to me that students, who successfully complete their dissertations, have a high level of what I call “dissertation socialization.”

At on-ground universities that offer traditional doctoral programs, the student, the chairperson, and committee members have a great opportunity for developing relationships whereby the student learns how to think and interact in an academically challenging and free research environment. Many times the student is conducting research (or working on the dissertation) as part of the ongoing research of the senior chairperson. This can lead to co-authoring one or more journal articles with the chairperson and/or committee members before the student’s dissertation is complete. These relationships also contribute to the student understanding the do’s and don’ts of research from the perspective of the faculty since they have developed a team approach. In this environment the chairperson is the leader, the mentor, and the protector of the doctoral student.

Understanding Socialization

Before I discuss “dissertation socialization” I want to offer a general definition of “socialization,” when this term is not associated with dissertation students. The American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology defines “socialization” as “the process by which individuals acquire social skills, beliefs, values, and behaviors necessary to function effectively in society or in a particular group” (p. 866).

Michael Nettles and Catherine Millett in their book, Three Magic Letters: Getting to Ph.D., address socialization at another level when they define “doctoral student socialization” as “the process by which students acquire the attitudes, beliefs, values, and skills needed to participate effectively in the organized activities of their profession” (p. 89). You will notice that Nettles and Millett are applying the term socialization to doctoral students in the context of their profession.

I understand this to mean that doctoral students in psychology would be cognizant and skilled in understanding the literature and research approaches appropriate for psychologists. Of course, this would be true for all disciplines. At the doctoral level it is expected that students have a thorough grasp of research methods and procedures, at least enough to complete their own dissertation research.

For the dissertation student, how does the socialization occur? Who initiates it? How does the student know when the socialization is complete?

Susan K. Gardner refers to “anticipatory socialization” in The Development of Doctoral Students. She states that, “For the majority of doctoral students, it [the dissertation]will be the biggest academic project, both in length and depth, they have ever undertaken in their lives. The effects of the pressure to produce such a product, particularly on top of the recent transition they have begun to make to independence, may be downright paralyzing for many students” (p. 80).

With the dissertation being so difficult and the requirement for independent research so unique in doctoral programs, how can 50% (according to various sources) of all students still complete their dissertations and graduate. It doesn’t seem to be just about talent. It doesn’t seem to be about ability. It appears that those students, who are intellectually and emotionally socialized in an appropriate manner, have the best opportunity for dissertation completion.

What is dissertation socialization?

From my perspective “dissertation socialization” is a process that doctoral students experience as they develop increased critical thinking skills relevant to their independent research under the auspices (or supervision) of and in relationship with their chairperson and committee members. Students start to think like researchers as they develop high levels of expertise on their own topics. This is facilitated through ongoing dialogues with their committees. Dissertation socialization becomes something like an insurance policy that greatly contributes to the completion of their dissertations.

Students in online distance learning doctoral programs however receive very little, if any dissertation socialization since they rarely have a dialogue with their committee chairpersons and members. I’ve talked to many online dissertation students who said they never have these conversations. At some universities verbal discussions are banned. For the most difficult and complex academic endeavor (the dissertation) in the doctoral program, the student is not allowed to have or is restricted from conversations with their chairpersons. It makes no sense.

How can a student become intellectually socialized to the expectations of the dissertation committee and the university? In an article entitled “The Nature and Uses Theory” in M.E. Wilson and L. Wolf-Wendel (Ed.), ASHE Reader on College Student Development Theory, M.K. McEwen suggests three ways of conceptualizing student development: psychosocial development (how students perceive themselves and feel about themselves); social identity (the sense of self in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender); and cognitive-structural development (how students think). One would hope that the outcome, from many doctoral courses, interactions with faculty, and dialogues and discussions with fellow students, would make a positive difference in students’ dissertation socialization. Students could then become both intellectually and academically socialized to the process of dissertation writing.

I have noticed, in my coaching and consulting with doctoral clients over the past three decades, that those students who have a comfortable way of dialoguing with me regarding any and all aspects of the dissertation, seem to make the most progress. They have an independent way of thinking and discussing their research. They ask questions and seek to truly understand my feedback. They become empowered. They seem to have a high expectation and anticipation that sooner or later they will meet the expectations of their chairperson and committee members.

Some other students, who are somewhat passive and reluctant to discuss the feedback that I share with them, seem to progress at a slower rate. They appear to misunderstand that there’s no such thing as a right or wrong dissertation. The chairperson and committee members obviously are evaluating their document. But more than that, the faculty are developing a confidence and a belief that the student can independently think, conceive, and carry out all aspects of their dissertation research. Issues related to style are less important than conceptualizations in content, organization, and design.

Writing the dissertation no doubt creates ambiguity and frustration for one simple reason: there is no “right” dissertation. There is only an “accepted” dissertation. The best suggestion I can offer for developing “dissertation socialization” is for you to dialogue and discuss (verbally and through e-mail) as often as possible with your chair, committee members, coach, consultant, statistician, and other competent students all aspects of your dissertation research. These discussions, both formal and informal, will contribute greatly to the completion of your dissertation. These behaviors will help you develop critical thinking skills, which are required for dissertation research.

Let me tell you about a former client, Rebecca, who was attending Indiana University a few years ago. She met weekly with her chairperson and brought coffee and doughnuts for their hour-long talks about the details of her dissertation research. Numerous times she had concerns with certain regular members of her committee as well as a fourth member from outside the department, who were giving her problems and what she thought was unfair criticism. When she brought these concerns to the attention of her chairperson, his comment was “Don’t worry. I’ll talk to them.” Her chairperson called these individuals and let them know that he was satisfied with her work. He made it clear to them that he was her chair and he had the final decision on all aspects of her dissertation.

Obviously she not only had a mentor but an advocate and a defender. You can imagine the feeling of relief this gave her knowing that her chairperson was standing up for her. This kind of support from her chairperson as well as the weekly dialogues and discussions contributed to what could be called her excellent “dissertation socialization.” Her chairperson was convinced that she was doing excellent work and that her dissertation met the high standards of the university regardless of what the other committee members thought. This weekly process of intellectual dialogue with her chairperson contributed to her quality thinking — and quality thinking led to quality writing. She completed her excellent dissertation and is now on the faculty at a Big Ten university.

At online universities and many on-ground schools the opportunities for dissertation socialization are limited or non-existent. Therefore, students submit their drafts and wait for approval or disapproval. There is little or no dialogue during the planning and writing process with the chairperson or committee members. This greatly contributes to the frustration and anxiety students’ experience.

One of the comments I have received from many of my clients over the years is that they feel I was their “real” chairperson. This always flatters me and I certainly appreciate it, but the mentoring I give to clients really should be what students receive from their chairpersons. The intellectual isolation you may be experiencing is one of the primary limitations of online doctoral programs. These programs attempt to teach students working on their dissertations in the same way regular content courses are taught. It just doesn’t work very well because every dissertation is unique. The issues, problems, and challenges are different for each student.

What doctoral students need is a friendly safe relationship with their chairpersons and committee members in which conversations and dialogues are common and ongoing. These experiences greatly contribute to more dissertation socialization and ultimately faster completion of their research.


Nettles, Michael T. and Catherine M. Millett. (2006). Three Magic  Letters: Getting to Ph.D. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Recommended Citation for This Report

Wargo, W.G. (2014). A.I.C. Report #10, Dissertation Socialization: The Key to Completion. Menifee, CA: Academic Information Center.

If you have questions or would like additional information about the content in this report, please contact me.


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