Monday, February 23, 2009

Choosing Your Dissertation Committee

Friday morning I attended an amazing talk on things to consider when picking a committee, for any thesis or dissertation. I left the talk actually enthused about the committee selection and my dissertation. Partly this was due to the speaker, an Anthropology professor (totally not my discipline) who came with few notes and 34 years of experience as a professor, and was just vastly entertaining to listen to. Mostly this was due to the points he made. I just have to share them, or at least my interpretation of them.
  • Never forget that your committee is a means to an end. You have to have the ends in mind (perhaps the job you want to get after you get your PhD) to construct the means. If your end is getting your career to a good start, getting the job you want, then the best person to ask may be someone who is a great name in the field, and whose recommendation from them will open a lot of doors. If your end is just perfecting your research so your dissertation will be published quickly, then the best person to ask may be someone who has expertise your advisor doesn't have.
  • Ask yourself "What is the purpose of having this person on my committee?". If you have the attitude "who can I get?" and are just trying to fill seats, you've already lost. Don't select committee members because they won't interfere; select them because they'll be helpful and committed to you and your goals.
  • Your committee has to respect you as a young scholar. If they don't respect you, you can never argue with them.
  • You cannot be afraid of your committee. Where there is power, there has to be trust. Your committee has power over you, and you have to trust them not to abuse that power.
  • All catastrophes on a committee are caused by either lack of communication or forgetting that this is a means to an end.
  • The worst catastrophe is breakdown of communication with a committee member. This is particularly true if that committee member is your advisor. If it gets to the point that you cannot or will not take the member's advice on your dissertation, you're screwed; either you have to get that person to step down from your committee, or find some way to restore communication.
  • The second worst catastrophe is discord between committee members. Two members on your committee give you conflicting advice and requirements, or have irreconcilable views on your dissertation. Again, you either have to restore communication or get someone to step down. Never be part of a "triangle", where they're giving you competing instructions and not talking to each other; get both of them to sit down with your to resolve the conflicts.
  • When picking your outside member, go for one of two extremes: Expertise your advisor doesn't have, or somebody completely unfamiliar with your area. If there's no department that can offer additional expertise, then use the outside member to show that you can speak to a broader audience.Offer to introduce the outside member to the rest of your committee, so they've all met before the defense. With the outside member, it can be okay if their role is just to read the work and show up with a few questions.
  • You should never go into a defense without knowing the outcome. Meet with each committee member after they (should) have read the paper, and before the complete meeting, and ask "Is there a fundamental problem with this thesis, or a reason that this defense should not go forward?" Even if they haven't read the paper, and fake it, saying "No, it's fine" - that's a commitment of a sort.
The last point applies more to applying to graduate school and selecting an advisor, but was also good to have in mind when discussing the committee
  • The quality of your relationship with your advisor/committee matters more than the quality of your program. Having people who will work with you, support you, and network for you will get you further than having graduated from the top program in your field with faculty who don't care about you one way or another. This is primarily excellent advice when applying to grad school or picking an advisor, but is important to keep in mind when selecting your committee members as well.

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