Leslie Leonard is a Ph.D. candidate in American literature and American studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can follow her on Twitter @lesliemleo.
Whether you’re looking for some new perspective outside your department or you’re unsure of your current faculty options (maybe you’ve recently ditched your adviser), choosing a dissertation committee is hard. This post provides strategies to choosing the best committee to support you and your work.
While “Gradhacker” has previously published articles about navigating a successful defense and surviving the dissertation process, the first step in the process is putting together a team of faculty members who will support you through both. It’s time to build your dissertation committee. So, how do you choose?
Know How You Work
Think about projects you’ve completed in the past, classes you’ve taken or even your process for completing nonacademic tasks. What kind of timeline do you generally need to not feel overwhelmed? What does helpful criticism look like for you? How often do you expect to be in contact with your mentors and how quickly do you need them to respond to you? Do you need someone who is regularly available for in-person meetings? What are your expectations for your project? What role do you expect your mentor to play in advancing your project? Do you expect your relationship to be that of an adviser, an editor, an emotional support system? Do you expect your committee members to support you on the job market, as you write future book projects or even years after you’ve secured a position?
The answers to these questions will illuminate your needs, and communicating these needs to potential members ensures that you’re both on the same page about what the next few years will look like for both of you. Having a frank conversation about your needs and expectations also offers necessary space for the two of you to negotiate those expectations and quickly and easily determine whether they’ll be a good fit for your committee.
Learn Your Department’s Requirements
When it comes to deciding how many faculty members to include and what their general responsibilities will be, your department should have most of the work done for you.
If you haven’t already, now is the time to brush up on your department’s committee requirements. How many committee members are you required to have? How many are you allowed to have? How many must be faculty members from your own department or your own campus and how many can/must be from external departments or institutions? What roles are committee members typically expected to perform and where are those roles outlined clearly? If you’ll be including faculty from other departments or institutions, be sure to check with them about how their own department’s requirements and timelines align with your own.
The Who’s Who
While your adviser (if you already have one chosen) should be able to help you identify potential committee members based on what they’ve seen of your work thus far, doing a bit of legwork on your own can make sure that you have a committee built to support you. You’ve likely already checked potential members’ faculty pages, their personal websites and their previous publications to make sure that their work aligns with your own, but now is the time to do a bit of sleuthing.
First, be sure to ask fellow graduate students about their experiences -- your peers are your best resource for finding faculty who are grad student friendly and easy to work with. There are other practical considerations as well. Will this faculty member be taking a sabbatical soon? Will they be retiring before you’ve finished? Are they on many other student committees? Are they tenured? What are their administrative responsibilities? Are they publishing regularly? Are they well-known in the field? Will they be able to speak to the current job market? Will they be able to help you network with other scholars? Do they work well with others, or will there be tension with other committee members?
Knowing who your potential members are beyond just their faculty page can both protect you from mishap (choosing an adviser who is difficult to work with or who treats graduate students poorly) and set you up for future success as well.
Interviewing the Lineup
You’ve determined how you work best, you’ve learned your department’s requirements and you’ve done the preliminary work of identifying potential members that you wouldn’t mind working with; now it’s time to interview them. This step requires a slight paradigm shift. As graduate students, it can be easy to feel like faculty members are doing you a favor when they agree to work with you. They aren’t. Part of a faculty member’s job and professional responsibility includes serving on committees and advising students. Furthermore, it’s their privilege to work with you as an up-and-coming scholar, and you should bear this fact in mind when building your committee.
Choosing committee members can be an overwhelming decision (although you aren’t locked in to your decision forever), but approaching the process as an interviewer can make all the difference. When you reach out to potential members, be clear about the fact that you’re choosing your committee, that you’ve identified them as a potential member and that you’d like to meet to discuss your project. During this meeting, clearly express your needs and expectations and be direct in asking if they feel they can meet those expectations.
Remember that this is your project, your career and your professional (and emotional) well-being, so don’t be afraid to ask tough questions and to change your mind about working with someone based on how those interviews go. It may also be worth considering faculty who are not directly in your field but who may be strong readers, who have strong scholarly networks or who are cheerleaders of your work. Choosing a faculty member for the support they bring to your Ph.D. experience can be just as valuable in finishing your degree as having someone who knows your specialty well.
Feel free to use many of the questions above as a template for what to discuss during the meeting: Will you be taking sabbatical soon? How often will you be available for meetings? What does your dissertation feedback typically look like? How many other students are you currently working with?
After each meeting, you should have a clear idea of how this faculty member will be able to support you (or not), and you should be able to decide whether or not they deserve a coveted space on your final committee. Remember to send out emails alerting faculty of your final decision to either include them (“Would you be interested in serving as a reader …”) or not (“Thank you again so much for meeting with me. I’d love to stay in touch about my project as it develops. Unfortunately, the department only allows me to have two dedicated readers …”).
Again, it’s important to remember that this is your project and your academic career. Be direct when searching for committee members, and be honest and considerate when making the final decisions.
What did your search for committee members look like?