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Choosing Dissertation Committee Members

To receive graduate degrees, graduate students will likely be required to write dissertations or theses under the direction of faculty chairs or advisors and to present that work to an academic committee who decide whether or not the students pass examination and qualify for graduation. Typically, graduate students are allowed to choose their own chairs and committee members. Committee members and chairs play an important role in the success of graduate students. Academic committee members and chairs can determine (a) how quickly graduate students progress through their degrees, (b) how successful graduate students are in their research, (c) how successful graduate students are in networking with others in their fields, and (d) how successful graduate students will be in either academia or the professional world after graduation. Therefore, graduate students must carefully and thoughtfully choose which faculty will act as their committee members and chairs.

Qualities to Look for in Committee Members and Faculty Chairs

When deciding whom they would like to act as their committees and chairs, graduate students should consider (a) if faculty have compatible personalities with similar research interests; (b) if faculty are experienced in and enthusiastic about directing, advising, helping, and working with students; and (c) what kind of teaching and research reputations the faculty have. Graduate students should definitely consider all three of these characteristics for both committee members and faculty chairs, but graduate students should especially consider the first two characteristics in their choices of faculty chairs. Graduate students work more closely with faculty chairs than they do with academic committee members, so it is important that graduate students can get along with their faculty chairs.

Differences in Mentorship Styles

Being a member of a graduate student’s committee or acting as a chair for a graduate student is a form of faculty mentorship, and most faculty approach mentorship with different styles depending on where faculty are in their own academic careers. For example, a newly hired professor hoping to gain credibility with his or her department might be more involved in a graduate student’s research than would a professor with a well-established academic career. Neither style (hands on or hands off) is inherently good or bad, but both styles have pros and cons. For example, a hands-on chair may provide a graduate student with lots of direction and guidance but may subsume the student’s original research goals into his or her own research. On the other hand, a hands-off chair may provide a graduate student with a wealth of knowledge about research and other industry information but may have less time to spend with the graduate student because he or she is too involved in his or her own work. Before choosing their academic committee members and faculty chairs, graduate students should understand differences in mentorship styles and should identify the mentorship styles of potential committee members and faculty chairs to determine if their mentorship styles will provide them as graduate students with the support that they will need to succeed in graduate school.

One of the most important decisions you will make as a graduate student is choosing your dissertation committee. There are many factors that you should take into consideration when requesting faculty members to sit on your dissertation committee.

Can you work well with them?

This is one of the two most important questions to ask yourself before inviting somebody to sit on your committee.  While you do, of course, want people on your committee who can challenge you intellectually, you don’t want hand grenade throwers.  You want a committee member who will be honest, challenging, and respectful.  You also want people who obey the cardinal rule of reviewing somebody else’s work: comments are to be about the writing, not the writer. If you have to choose between somebody who knows your subject incredibly well and who has a reputation for hostility or being a prima donna and a faculty member who isn’t a subject matter expert but likes you, choose the latter.  Here’s a quick checklist of positive attributes to look for:

  • They like people.
  • They’re prompt.
  • They’re generally friendly.
  • They can see the other side of the coin.
  • They’re consistent.

Can your committee members work well with each other?

This is the other most important question. Be very careful here. Professors, like everybody else, have agendas. There’s nothing wrong with this fact. Political, ideological, and intellectual agendas can make people interesting. However, while both the Frankfurt School Marxist and your institution’s local free-market guru are probably fun to have coffee with, would you want them working together evaluating your dissertation? Remember that each committee member can ask for revisions. Do you want to invite radically opposed kinds of comments? Yes, the chair of your committee can go to bat for you or try to over-rule somebody, but everybody has to sign off on your work. How do they feel about your using a dissertation editor or dissertation editing service of some sort? Do they want you to, insist you do, or forbid you from doing so? Don’t set yourself up for needless conflicts.

Is your advisor a full professor?

This may seem petty to talk about. But academic departments are often very political. Generally, departments do not allow untenured assistant professors to serve as advisors. Departments do, however, allow associate professors to advise. Often, one will be intellectually attracted to younger, energetic faculty members. However, while these associate professors are tenured, they do have to worry about making full professor. Thus, if your advisor is an associate professor and other members of your committee are full professors, your advisor may not feel comfortable challenging people who are going to vote on whether or not to promote him or her. Full professors, at least theoretically, sit at the top of the food chain and will speak their minds and defend their students.

Is the potential committee member enthusiastic about your dissertation idea?

You don’t need somebody who thinks your idea is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but you do need someone who  thinks that your subject matter is intellectually worthwhile.

These are some of the most important things to look for when choosing your committee. If you follow this advice, you’ll have smooth sailing. If you’re having trouble, don’t hesitate to hire a good dissertation editing service to help you out.

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