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MichelleNero

Choosing a Dissertation Committee - Tips? Secrets?

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Is there a logic to this other than "find people who are knowledgeable in the area of and sympathetic to your specific dissertation topic" ?

My university's handbook tells us to choose 5 committee members, specifying that a maximum of two can be chosen from outside the university.

Why would that be a good plan?

Is there some reason why you would WANT someone from outside the university given the added bureaucratic red tape and trouble for everyone involved?

Reasons I can think of:

  • Your university lacks people with the right expertise.
  • Your beloved former adviser has moved to a different university (or was convicted on all counts, or sent into space with a monkey and a dog, or gave up academia for a NASCAR career).

    Why else?
    • Is there prestige associated with getting mucky-mucks to be on your committee? I know that your adviser's reputation matters a lot-- but how important is the committee that you choose?

      • Is choosing someone from another university a way of positioning oneself so as to increase the chances of getting a job at one of their institutions?

      [*]Is this a matter of literally linking your name with theirs in some sort of social networking way (electronic and otherwise)?

      From a different perspective (that probably matters most):

      ******Unless you have a pre-existing relationship, why the heck would a professor at another institution agree to be on your committee simply because he/she has expertise that's useful to you? What's their incentive?? What do they get out of it other than extra work? ******

      So... what's the story here?

      I'm wondering if there isn't some super-clever thing that some people have figured out to do in selecting their committee.

      That's my question... but any other advice on selecting a committee (esp. in the social sciences) would be very welcome!

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I have an off-campus committee member. She's my advisor's collaborator. (I'm currently paid by a joint NSF grant.) And yes, she does have a lot of expertise that no one here at MyU does. Also, the work she does is much closer to what I really want to do after I get my Ph.D.--I love my advisor, but her research interests cover only about 50% of the stuff I want to do when I'm done here.

I must admit, I would love to have my off-campus committee member offer me a job after graduation (she works at a very well-known university, and her PhD advisor is the closest thing to "Founding Father" of the sub-field I really want to go into)...but there are mundane reasons why that wouldn't work out. Sigh.

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Hard earned experience is teaching me that rapport, trust, and clear lines of communication are important criteria in putting together a committee. Finding out if a potential member of your committee brings these traits to the table can be difficult, but it is incumbent upon you to do your due diligence. If those elements are deficient, the expertise of a committee member, especially the DA, will matter less and less.

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My primary advisor on my committee (and the only person I am sure about so far on the committee), is an off-campus researcher. It's a little different at my university though. There are certain organizations that are affiliated with the university, and the researchers who are at those organizations are often involved in research that is completely different from what people at the university are doing. It's the primary reason I decided to go here, actually.

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I think the main draw of having an off-campus person on your committee is that it can help you to build up your professional network beyond your own university. I would not prefer to have an off-campus person as my main advisor, if I could help it.

Not to self-promote too much, but I recently wrote a blog post about all the factors I considered in choosing my committee chair (a mix of academic, professional, and personal considerations): http://marginalia84.blogspot.com/2011/09/chair-choosing.html.

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sometimes an off-campus advisor is necessary because your program lacks someone in your field of expertise. i know a student at princeton whose primary advisor is from the university of toronto because there are exactly zero people that could even begin to advise her general regional field at princeton (so why she's there, i don't know). i also know a student at cornell in the same situation, with zero potential advisors in her program that even come close to her regional field. cornell student asked my advisor (at a "boutique" small and successful program) to be on her committee and my advisor said no, so cornell student is trying to navigate the basic texts of her regional field on her own. sometimes people pick the prestige of a program over the fit for their interests (or their interests shift dramatically once they're there) and then having an outside advisor becomes almost necessary to complete the project.

other times, it's a way to network or get "big fancy professor that everyone knows" on your dissertation committee (and get LORs from them for job applications).

i'm having an outside member on my own dissertation committee, but he is at a school that is literally two blocks away from my own institution, and the two universities collaborate on stuff constantly. he has very specified knowledge of my dissertation topic, he's great to work with, and he's a grad school friend of my primary advisor (who is also great to work with), so collaborating with both of them will work well for me. my school stipulates that one committee member must be from another discipline, so i had considered getting an outside member to serve in that capacity as well, but i don't think that will pan out.

anyway, i want to echo one of the sentiments in here: your dissertation committee should above all have GOOD CHEMISTRY. if your goal is to finish your PhD, you want your committee to be able to work well with you and with each other. if one is asking for a certain argument or method and another is asking for the exact opposite, this will give you a ton of headaches and delay your project (or potentially derail it). yes, networking is important. yes, big names on your committee can be a bonus on job searches. but you also need to actually get through the dissertation, so personality really matters here, perhaps even more than expertise.

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I want to highlight something Strangelight mentioned that I think is important, and that's that your *committee* needs to have good working relationships.

Lots of people think about how they're going to work with their committee, but might miss some undercurrents between faculty members when they choose. I've heard horror stories of people who had their dissertations stalled because two committee members couldn't or wouldn't work together. Ideally, your advisor should be the one to guide you when you're selecting- they're more in the know for department politics, and a lot of the responsibility for wrangling the committee is on their shoulders.

I'd suggest trying to get some minor interactions with the people you're thinking about for your committee- in my program, we have several "minor" things- department seminars we have to give and invite 4 faculty to "grade", etc. It's a good time to give prospective committee members a trial run before you choose for good. On a more informal level, you could ask them to read over a paper you're working on and give you some suggestions.

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I want to highlight something Strangelight mentioned that I think is important, and that's that your *committee* needs to have good working relationships.

Lots of people think about how they're going to work with their committee, but might miss some undercurrents between faculty members when they choose. I've heard horror stories of people who had their dissertations stalled because two committee members couldn't or wouldn't work together. Ideally, your advisor should be the one to guide you when you're selecting- they're more in the know for department politics, and a lot of the responsibility for wrangling the committee is on their shoulders.

I'd suggest trying to get some minor interactions with the people you're thinking about for your committee- in my program, we have several "minor" things- department seminars we have to give and invite 4 faculty to "grade", etc. It's a good time to give prospective committee members a trial run before you choose for good. On a more informal level, you could ask them to read over a paper you're working on and give you some suggestions.

I just want to say that I think this is very smart advice. I'm 75% done my PhD, and I used this exact strategy when selecting committee members: 1) How will this person contribute to the academic success of my work?; 2) How will this person contribute to my success as a human being?; and 3) How will this person work with other people I'm considering as committee members? I also did what you've suggested - went to hear potential committee people speak, made appointments to talk about their work and my work, and did a lot of informal observations (e.g., How do they act at social functions? at the presentations of other students? when they're talking to colleagues? What is the tone of their academic writing?). I also asked around (in a politically correct, nice way) about which prof's were the most enjoyable/productive/communicative to work with. I've been very happy with the committee I ended up with as a result. They communicate well with myself and each other, and they each contribute something unique and useful to my academic work. Most importantly, all of them support me as a real, live, human being. I feel comfortable asking for direction, expressing my need for guidance, running random ideas by them, or asking for advice on things like motivation, stress, etc.. Bottom line: choose wisely after collecting evidence, and don't be afraid to ask a lot of purposeful questions! It's better to do your investigating up front, rather than find out later that you've missed a huge factor (e.g., political/personal conflict between committee persons) because you didn't do your homework.

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If you're in a small field or working comparatively (or both, like I am), chances are, no one department or university will be enough to constitute a good committee. A lot of humanities specialisations have literally 5 people or fewer in the US working on them. For example, I'm interested in vernacular Egyptian poetry (though I'm likely not picking that as my dissertation topic), and there are 3 people I know of who focus on that genre; one of them is in the UK, and another in California... This is because there are huge expanses of Arabic (or insert any non-western-European language) literature that get entirely ignored in academia, and people tend to gravitate towards fields where some groundwork has already been done, so the trend is reproduced generation after generation (so there are like clusters of well-researched areas/genres/periods and big gaping holes in other specialisations).

Anyway, in small fields/uncommon languages/comp lit, it makes perfect sense to have at least one person for another uni on your committee. Of course, in that case, going to school in NYC is pretty convenient.

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Just check if you're asking non-university members to sit on your committee that the school is OK with it- I know that our school, for example, requires that the "majority" of your committee be from your school. So in a case like yours, one external member wouldn't be a big deal, but other schools might have more restrictive policies.

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I just want to re-enforce Andsowego's guidance to figure out ways to do chemistry checks. (Oh, if I only knew then what I know now, I'd be even more not bitter than I already am.)

An additional method is to look at a POI's acknowledgements. Does she thank those who sit on the opposite side of the aisle of very controversial issues? Does she leave no stone unturned when it comes to getting guidance from SMEs? Are there signs that she incorporated the feedback of graduate students into her work? Do her thanks ring true or do they sound routine/pro forma? Is she herself often thanked in the acknowledgements of the work of others?

Please also note that at some point, you may need to say "no" to members of your committee. When you're doing your chemistry tests, see how potential committee members respond to that word. (And also, please consider the value of developing your ability to say "no" well before you pick a dissertation topic.)

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Important: Make sure the committee members have good "chemistry" with one another. There's one professor that is pretty knowledgeable in my research area but is NOT on my committee because my advisor doesn't enjoy working with him. That's the way it is sometimes, you know?

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Great advice guys!! I didn't start thinking about my committee (in my 1st year) until recently and good thing I did because I found out there is are some 'chemistry' issues! Small stuff but still, good to know for picking a fun, cohesive bunch!

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Great advice guys!! I didn't start thinking about my committee (in my 1st year) until recently and good thing I did because I found out there is are some 'chemistry' issues! Small stuff but still, good to know for picking a fun, cohesive bunch!

Who said anything about fun? :P

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Who said anything about fun? :P

What's wrong with fun? I have two really fun people on my committee. One of them even wrote me a fun question as part of my written exams. :)

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