So you picked the right chair/advisor and things are going swimmingly—right up until you pick the rest of your committee. You think, it’s the chair that matters—I only need bodies for the committee. Wrong. You know those horror stories about dissertation chairs? There are probably again as many about dissertation committees.
Most universities have guidelines for choosing chairs and committees listed on the graduate school website. Here are some examples of chair and committee selection policies:
- Roles of the Committee Members: [University’s] dissertation supervisory committees are generally composed of three members: a committee chair, a committee member, and a committee university research reviewer (URR). In some rare cases, a fourth, external member may be added to the committee to provide special expertise.
- The dissertation committee chairperson and at least one committee member must be full-time members of the faculty of [ ] University, holding the rank of professor, associate professor, or assistant professor with an earned doctorate. The chairperson is to come from the student’s program of specialization. Further, in order to ensure a diversity of perspectives during the proposal and dissertation development process, at least one member of the committee must hold professorial appointment in a program different from the student’s program.
- The committee members shall be chosen from at least two departments, and at least two members shall represent academic specialties that differ from the student’s chosen specialty; one of the committee members must be a tenured [University] faculty member unaffiliated with the student’s home program.
Even with these guidelines you still want to be very careful. The first thing to do is to ask your chair (assuming you have a good working relationship with your chair) for suggestions for other committee members. Once you get some names you can use these questions to help you make your choice. Be nice! Prospective committee members are interviewing you at the same time you’re interviewing them. They might be required to serve on a certain number of committees but it doesn’t necessarily have to be yours!
- Do you have time to be on my committee? Ask your chair about the expected time commitment for a committee member. Your university might have this spelled out in a document you can send to a prospective committee member. Tell him/her your schedule and outline their involvement, time commitment.
One editing client said her committee member forgot to mention she was going to be out of the country for six months—right in the middle of the dissertation proposal stage. Another client told me that a committee member was adopting a baby and said whenever that came through they would be leaving the country and then she wasn’t sure of their schedule. And both times this came up after the proposal stage so it would have set back the dissertation timing by months.
Most institutions have a formal dissertation committee approval – and disapproval – process. What that means is that it’s going to be near impossible to change committee members once they’ve been approved.
- What methodology did you use? Which methodologies are you familiar with? Grounded theory? I’ll have to read up on that. Again, my client was told this after they were well into the proposal. And some members might have a pet methodology. Appreciative inquiry anyone?
- Are you familiar with/interested in my topic which is ______________? You’ll want to have a solid outline of your topic and even an elevator speech to sell it. One doctoral candidate changed her topic really frosted one committee member who had only agreed to be on the committee because of the topic.
- Have you served on other committees? How many? How recently? One doctoral candidate feels she dodged a bullet by asking other advisees about a potential committee member. Three out of three said to find someone else! It was the same complaint for all three – unresponsive, vague, uncommunicative.
- My chair is _________. Have you worked with or are you familiar with him/her? What happens if you disagree with my chair or another committee member? This is a huge question so listen carefully to the response.
- What kinds of things have you published and where? You can usually get a list from the university website or via a simple google search. Or check amazon.com. Writing style says a lot. So is publishing volume.
More tips for choosing a dissertation committee
- Personality matters. Find someone whose personality matches yours—or at least doesn’t conflict with yours. You don’t want a “runs with scissors” committee member in a “plays well with others” world. One doctoral candidate said her committee member always second guessed her chair and tried to do end runs on nearly every call. Still another said a committee member contradicted the rest of the committee at every turn.
- Go with the winners. Check out print copies of dissertations done through your school and this potential committee member. Some places give awards for outstanding dissertations so that’s where I’d start.
- Pick someone geographically desirable. One woman thought she had secured the perfect third committee member only to find that working remotely wasn’t remotely working! It’s so much easier if all of your committee is in the same city.
- Stay in your university. Even if it’s not required, it’s best and easiest to work with people from your own university. The only good reason to invite an outside member is if someone has highly specialized expertise; and even then you want to make sure your chair approves.
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