A Tribute to a Dissertation Chair: Honoring Constance T. Fischer


The relationship between graduate students and University faculty is often a complex and rich one. The dissertation chair plays an especially pivotal role in the final stages of the PhD student’s career and in the launching of his or her career.  On June 3, I had the opportunity to attend the retirement party for Constance T. Fischer, my own dissertation chair at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. I will share some observations about Connie Fischer’s  contributions to our understanding of human behavior and just touch on her contributions to my career.

In September 1973, I became Dr. Fischer’s second teaching assistant in her assessment course.  Connie Fischer was in her own early career phase at that time, but was already establishing her reputation for her work on individualized psychological assessment.  She took key constructs in phenomenological psychology, especially the concepts of context and style, and applied them to psychological testing and assessment.  It is a basic principle in phenomenology that all human behaviors take on meaning, when we perceive them in their context.  Part of the challenge Connie Fischer posed for individualized psychological assessment was to “contextualize” test data by discovering everyday examples or analogues to the individual’s behavior in the testing situation. She admonished her students always to remember, that even very disturbed behavior is contextual. The individual with depression is not equally depressive in every moment and every location throughout everyday life. Understanding when disturbed behaviors occurred and when they did not (“when” and “when not”) carried the psychologist a long way into understanding the disorder and the person in human terms. Such contextual understanding also enabled professionalsto identify intervention points: How can we expand the portions of the landscape where the disturbance does not occur?

Connie Fischer also emphasized the concept of style, as introduced in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception.  For the French philosopher, style was individually embodied, like the style of a particular artist. For Connie Fischer, style was the individual’s characteristic signature, evident in his or her movement through the Rorschach inkblots as well as in the landscape of everyday life.  Describing the findings of assessment in the language of style opened up many possibilities, especially engaging the client in a collaborative process, and sharing the assessment findings with the client. This was revolutionary in 1971, and the diagnostic nomenclature of the time made test reports obscure and useless to the average client. Connie’s graduate students learned to create descriptions in everyday language of the client’s style, and to develop practical behavioral recommendations for the clients that drew on the contextual and style-based formulations that clients could resonate with.

Connie’s professional contributions ran in many directions. I frequently use her textbooks on Qualitative Research Methods for Psychologists (2006), and Individualizing Psychological Assessment (1994), and her early book on the liberating power of enabling clients to actively participate in human services and clinical treatment (Client Participation in Human Services: The Prometheus Principle, 1973). 

Connie Fischer contributed in multiple ways to my PhD studies, and the dissertation process. Her greatest influence however, came in a single phone call, when she nominated me for a pre-doctoral internship at a psychosomatics clinic in the University of Pittsburgh Health Center.  That internship turned the direction of my studies from a fairly academic pathway, in which I was focused on the movement of the dancer in modern ballet, to the arena of clinical health psychology and the mind-body challenges of the chronically ill human being.  

I extend my personal gratitude and respect to Dr. Connie Fischer for a career spent in service to graduate students and to her chosen profession of a humanistic clinical psychology.

Donald Moss, PhD, Chair, College of Mind-Body Medicine