Dealing With the Committee

Fabio Rojas suggests ways to keep these key people for your dissertation helpful and supportive -- and strategies to consider if they aren't.
October 10, 2011

Your dissertation committee has to approve your dissertation before you graduate. Committee members can also serve as mentors and coaches who can help you reach your professional goals. Therefore, you need a strong working relationship with them. Here are some guidelines:

You should have the most contact with your committee chair. That is the person whose opinion of your dissertation will matter the most. Most of the time, if he or she approves your work, the rest of the committee will go along.

You should give your chair frequent drafts of chapters, and, if possible, give an entire draft of the dissertation way before you expect to formally defend the dissertation. No semester should go by without the chair getting something substantial from you.

Follow these rules even if you live far away from campus and you are doing field work. Get in the habit of sending material to your chair with some frequency. Do not be silent for a year or two and then show up with a complete manuscript. Of course, it’s better than not completing at all, but give people a long time to read your work.

In general, give the rest of your committee members frequent drafts well before defending the dissertation. Perhaps not as many as you would give your chair, but every person in your committee should get at least one draft of all the key chapters before you send the final product before the defense.

Committee member should feel as they have had a chance to help you at least through one version of the manuscript. You can talk with your chair to get a sense of how well-developed the work has to be before you ask other folks to read it.

Face-to-face action is important. Show up to the department and let people know you are alive. When you talk with people, give them a sense of when you want to go on the job market.

Keep writing while you wait for responses from your committee. Work on an article or another dissertation chapter. Don’t waste your time waiting. Be constructive.

What can you expect from people in return for all this effort? In general, the chair should return some comments to you within a couple of months. It’s like a journal article review. It’ll take a while. You might expect the same from a second reader, but expect little in return from “outside” readers unless they like you a lot. Few third readers will spend much time, unless their expertise is genuinely needed. Be sure to check the “official” rules in your department’s graduate student handbook as some departments specify the “acceptable” amount of time it should take to hear back from your chair and/or committee members about the drafts you have turned in.

Hopefully, you will have a committee of helpful people. But sometimes there are some difficult issues. Here are some coping strategies.

Tardiness: If a person takes more than a semester to get back to you, a gentle reminder may be needed. Often, a friendly e-mail or office visit will work. It’s quite often that a non-urgent dissertation chapter draft gets lost when emergencies pop up.

Complete non-response: Sometimes gentle reminders get no results at all. Some professors simply abandon their responsibilities to students. Sadly, I’ve seen it happen a little too often. What you should do is document that you actually gave the person the draft and start working with someone else who will help you. Why? Basically, there is little a graduate student can do to make a professor do anything. If they are unable or unwilling to help, through hostility or simply being overwhelmed by life, you aren’t going to change that. Start getting help with your research from someone else. Sometimes, no comments at all on returned work may indicate that the person has “checked out of the hotel.” If you have documented that you actually gave them the work, then any later complaints have no basis. Bottom line: if you have an absentee adviser, document it, suck it up, and move on. Complaining rarely solves anything with delinquent advisers.

Hyper-criticality: One issue is that some advisers give devastating feedback. They seem to have a magic power called "crush student confidence." Sometimes, they enjoy it. Other times, they don’t even know they are doing it. I am not saying is that advisers should refrain from pointing out student errors. But there is no reason that any well-adjusted student should ever leave a professor’s office in tears or in a rage. Instead, a good instructor can say, "I appreciate what you are doing, but I got really lost here." Or, "Are you aware that this argument has been made before? You can really improve this by working on the lit review." Sadly, some professors just say things in the wrong way, and when your main coach is telling you that you are completely lost, it can be aggravating. But as usual, you’ll probably just have to suck it up and move on.

Conflicting advice: A touchy topic is when professors X and Y give you different advice. The response is simple. Do whatever the chair tells you to do. That usually solves the problem as long as you acknowledge X and Y.

Adviser divorce: Once in a while, you get to a point where an adviser has completely abandoned you or is so hostile to you and your work that no progress has been made after you have seriously tried. Normally, I’d say "suck it up," but in some cases it so extreme that it can hamper your career. For example, it is nearly impossible to get fellowships and jobs without letters from your chair, but this may not be possible if your chair is completely non-responsive. At this point, ask yourself if there is anything you can do to improve the situation. You may need to get your act together academically. Students can annoy professors! Be considerate. Also, consult with other friendly professors and ask if they can help out or give you advice. If you decide that your academic skills are fine and that you have been acting in good faith, then you might consider "adviser divorce."

I strongly recommend against this course of action because a new adviser might require totally new material, and you would have to start from scratch – a very bad outcome. But sometimes, the student-adviser relation becomes so toxic that it’s better just to move on. I had one friend who did exactly that. His adviser was hyper-critical and he wasn’t really able to deal with it. He selected a new adviser and he completed the entire dissertation two semesters later with a more reasonable committee chair. I don’t recommend it, but it can be justified in some cases.

Non-responsive outside readers: On the other hand, I do recommend dumping any outside committee member who abandons you or acts like a jerk. You really want to salvage your relationship with your chair and other “core” members of your committee. That is very, very important. However, what’s the point of keeping reader #7 from the linguistics department if they are rude or undependable? Answer: None. Just ask your grad secretary or grad director about dumping horrible outside readers. It’s usually no harder than an email from you to the graduate chair.

You’ll find that being friendly, persistent, and open to fair criticism will usually lead to a good relationship with your committee and good progress toward your degree.



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