I am fairly statistically savvy.  In fact, I have an MS in Statistics that I received before enrolling in the PhD program I am in now.  I am currently working on my dissertation and am having a problem with my chair.  Overall, he’s been very supportive and helpful, but when it comes to his recommendations for chapter four, there are a lot of things that he is asking for that are just wrong.  What’s the best way to tell the chair – the person most responsible for whether or not I finish my dissertation – that he is wrong?  At the same time, I cannot just follow him as he runs amuck with my dissertation data.

--Stuck on Statistics

Dear Stuck on Statistics,

The first thing that you want to be aware of is that this is a delicate situation. You definitely wouldn’t want to come right out and tell your chair that he is wrong in his suggestions to you. The second thing that you want to realize is that your relationship with your chair is such an important one that you want to keep civil and not hostile in any way. If you try to convince him that he is wrong, then you may ruin this important bond that should remain healthy with him.

My practical advice will come in a few different ways: handle the situation diplomatically, support your work, and talk with a third party. As I mentioned before, you will want to handle this issue with grace since there is a delicate relationship possibly on the line. My suggestion here is that you not set aside a time to specifically talk with your chair. Try to weave in your thoughts through some of the conversations that you already have scheduled with you talk about your dissertation together. Of course, watch your tone of voice and avoid getting too heated when you happen to mention it. Try using a tentative or curious tone and say something to the effect of, “Oh, I thought this statistic would work this way…,” or “Maybe we should leave the data as it is because….”

This brings me to your needing to back up your arguments. If you plan to bring up a certain topic in one of your regular meetings, then be sure you have the evidence and information you need to show your chair why you know something else to be true. Again, you don’t want to blatantly share with your chair that he is “wrong” or “doesn’t know” something; you want to present the information so that he can understand the way that you first understood it. If you can locate literature that supports your argument, that may help in justifying your argument.

If these strategies don’t work or you would rather try a more passive way of dealing with this situation, then try to talk with a third party, whether he/she is a family member, a friend, or he/she works for the department. Even if this person isn’t your chair, though, simply talking through your frustrations might help in future discussions with your chair. You will also want to avoid trash talking your chair though, because that could always come back around. A few different conversations you could have with your third party could include asking him/her to simply support you through this tough process; asking for advice by presenting the whole situation; using the conversation as a “therapy session” and describing your feelings and position in the issue.

--René M Paulson, PhD

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