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Somewhat Awkward Meeting


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Hi there, all. I had a quick question about a meeting and just want some feedback since I've not really been able to stop thinking about a conversation I had last night with a committee member.

I am in the second year of my program and I am getting ready to take my exams this coming autumn. In spite of this, I already have selected a dissertation adviser. This adviser is someone who I hadn't planned on working with but I am excited about the project he has helped me come up with for my dissertation. My research for this is still in its infancy (if that) but my adviser recommended that I get in touch with people I will want on my dissertation committee now so that this would not be something I had to focus on once my exam date gets closer. His logic with this suggestion was based on a few elements, namely that two of my potential dissertation committee members (both currently on my exam committee) have time-consuming departmental obligations.

Last night, I approached one of the aforementioned professors after our class let out and asked if he might be on my dissertation committee when the time comes. He is someone with whom I have a very good relationship--I often feel like he sees me as a mentee in terms of professional development as we often talk about the job market, departmental service, etc. While I originally entered my program to work with this professor, I have since found myself interested in a different time period than he teaches and he is aware of my draw to that and doesn't seem to have an issue with this. I told him that I really hoped he would want to be on my committee when the time comes but I am aware of his departmental obligation, etc. I said this last bit more out of nervousness and as a way of acknowledging that I was asking for a large time commitment from him. While I knew he was 99% likely to accept, I was still a bit nervous (it felt very official, saying dissertation-related things aloud!)

His reaction was a bit of a surprise to me. First, he seemed a little surprised that I had brought dissertation stuff up--he made a comment to the effect of "well you need to get through exams first!". In retrospect, this comment was obviously him teasing me a little, but because I was nervous I immediately felt embarrassed/uncomfortable/more nervous. I said something like "oh yes, of course, but I thought I would mention this now since I know I'll be buried studying as the semester goes on" and he nodded and seemed receptive to that but still a bit surprised/confused that I brought this up. He also said something about how since we're both medievalists, I was "stuck with him" to which I responded I was glad because I really liked working with him. He also said something about how he was not going to let his departmental obligation get in the way of his work with students, which makes me think he maybe thought I was questioning his ability to juggle the two when really I was trying to show I was understanding of what asking him to be on my committee meant in terms of his own time--really, I was trying to show that I appreciated it, etc.

Even though I'm not really worked about my relationship with this professor, I still feel moderately uncomfortable and anxious about the conversation. First, I'm afraid this professor assumed we were working together on a dissertation--I haven't talked to him about this happening but I did originally enter the program to work with him. I have had the opportunity to take many classes with him at this point and while I love being in class and talking to him, I've discovered the period he teaches is just not what I'm interested in. He seems to have this impression, but now I'm thinking maybe he didn't realize the extent to which I felt this way--he and I rarely discuss work, most of our conversations revolve around departmental involvement, teaching, and discussing personal life. The second thing I'm worried about is that he thinks something else that I'm just not picking up--maybe that I'm getting ahead of myself, that it should've been obvious he would be on my committee, etc. In response that that latter element, it is true that all of the medievalists who have gone through my program in the last 5 or so years have had him on their committees, so maybe that had something to do with his reaction? What I didn't get the opportunity to say was that I'm having four members on my committee (instead of the required minimum of 3) and that his involvement wasn't necessarily "required" to meet my minimum committee number as typically is with the vast majority of dissertations in my department and thus that was why I felt like I ought to "invite" him rather than just have him as an assumed member.

This is such a ramble. I realize how insane this reads, but there has to be someone out there with anxiety like me who has been in this situation or can relate to it. I know this is likely something that will blow over, I'm really just looking for some support/empathizing from anyone who has been through something like this or similar? Bleh. I'm maybe also procrastinating--I've had a hard time focusing on my work since this happened yesterday evening.

As always, thanks, GradCafe.

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I think you have nothing to worry about. From the way you described that conversation to me, it just sounded like he was trying to convey that he's committed to helping you, regardless of what other obligations he has. It really does, honestly, come across like a conversation one would have with a prof with whom one has a good relationship.

I get the worry - I only feel like a stammering fool when I have meetings with professors I really respect but I sincerely think - from what you described - there's no occasion for worry. 

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Yeah, like Solomonski, I really don't think that sounded awkward at all. Professors (and by extension, us grad students) often get a little off-kilter when it comes to social niceties. I can't begin to count the number of times I've said something to a professor that I retroactively thought was stupid. The saving grace is that I'm quite sure, at this point, that professors get those same thoughts...

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5 hours ago, aethelthryth said:

His reaction was a bit of a surprise to me. First, he seemed a little surprised that I had brought dissertation stuff up--he made a comment to the effect of "well you need to get through exams first!".

This reaction from your prof is completely normal.  The process of preparing for and taking exams will (and should) impact any potential dissertation project.  You have 6+ months of academic reading left to do.  What sounds like a great project now might look completely different on the other side of those exams.  I know in my case, taking the exams REALLY focused my project idea.  Now really isn't the time to be thinking about your Diss.  In six months time, you might have a new project (or your current project idea might have developed in a different direction) and he might NOT be the best person for the committee.  That's all he was trying to say.  Don't worry about the next step until the current one is finished.  They really do build from each other.

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Agreed with everyone. You didn't commit any major faux pas! But also, I agree with Tybalt: my own chair has a philosophy that every student's committee dissolves immediately after passing exams. Then, the student has to re-ask people to be on the dissertation committee. The thought is that as you preparing for exams, two things happen: (1) your project takes shape and (2) you realize which professors you work well with-- and which you don't. By having to start from scratch after exams, there are no hard feelings if you decide you actually don't want Professor A to be on the committee because Professor A never replies to emails and gives vague feedback. This way, you don't have to remove Professor A from your committee; you just don't ask Professor A to be on your dissertation committee once exams are completed. 

I wonder if your professor comes from a similar school of thought? That could explain the surprise and the perceived the reluctance. In other words, any awkwardness from this professor was likely not directed at you; instead, it seems he was just working out his thoughts aloud, wanting to say yes but also wanting to give you an out down the road in case you change your mind. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Thanks everyone for the great feedback! I just wanted to post an update to this as (as many of you noted in your excellent replies) nothing was amiss! I ended up meeting with the prof early the in week after this conversation and we sat down and chatted like nothing had happened--in fact, he told me he had recommended me for a position on campus akin to a graduate leadership position that works with the faculty! I'm thrilled and, more importantly, done being in my head about the situation.

Thank you all for your helpful replies--it really does do wonders to feel like you're not alone when something like this is like nails on the chalkboard. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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