Straight Talk about Assembling a Dissertation Committee
Mary Renck Jalongo, Ph.D.
An early and crucial step in completing your doctoral program is deciding on a committee to guide you through the unfamiliar terrain of dissertation writing. There are at least five important considerations in choosing a major advisor and committee members.
1. Determine Eligibility/Availability
At most institutions, doctoral committee members have to meet the criteria for graduate faculty status in order to advise dissertations. Before you approach anyone about joining your dissertation committee, find out who is eligible to serve and whether there is a different set of criteria for the chairperson and members of the committee.
The list probably is in your program handbook or posted on the website of the graduate school. Also investigate the process used to assemble a committee. Some institutions give students free choice while others assign and rotate responsibility for chairing dissertations within a department.
Ditto for topic selection. At some institutions you would be expected to conduct a study that follows established research agendas of big name researchers, while at other institutions you would be free to choose as long as your topic is consistent with the program's mission and goals.
You may be surprised to find that it is institutional policy to assign an administrator to the committee (often a dean) who may (or may not) take an active role. Check the policies before you make plans. Consider also the committee member's availability. If he or she is going on sabbatical or has accepted a Fulbright and will be out of the country for months, this can wreak havoc with program completion.
If you envision bringing someone from outside the institution onto the committee, check with the program director first. Students sometimes seek to appoint an outside member in the hope of stacking the committee in their favor only to discover that outside members do not have a vote, for example. The only good reason to invite an outside member is highly specialized expertise; and even then, this may present some logistical difficulties when scheduling meetings.
In addition, persons outside the university may have neither the time nor the experience to deal with a lengthy document such as the dissertation. Generally speaking, university faculty members who know how to supervise dissertations and insist on high quality are the best choice.
2. Investigate Scholarly Expertise/Productivity
Look past affability to investigate a potential committee member's scholarly track record. The person who seems to have unlimited time for small talk may be pleasant enough, but this doesn't do much to support original research.
Curriculum vitae usually are posted somewhere on the university's website, often as part of an accreditation report. Type in potential committee members' names at a book site (e.g., Barnes and Noble or Amazon) or search for their published work using your library's online search engine. You may discover that someone has conducted research in your area of interest or, conversely, be surprised to learn that someone who talks a good game has not done much professionally for a number of years.
Don't think about expertise too narrowly. Regard your committee as a think tank, a group of resource people who can offer the kind and amount of support that you need in particular areas. If you are a statistical genius, you may not need three more of them on your committee. If, on the other hand, you struggle with quantitative research methods but need them to answer your research question, a committee member with considerable expertise in this area may prove to be invaluable.
3. Seek Those with an Established Reputation for Principled/Ethical Behavior
Seek committee members with a sterling reputation for principled behavior. Select neither the pushover nor the self-serving "star." Look to those who can guide you through the dissertation, introduce you to useful professional networks, and nudge you to disseminate the study results afterwards, rather than plunder your work to advance their own.
One of the best indicators of ethical/principled behavior is the faculty member's reputation outside the university. Do your homework. Look for evidence that the potential committee member provides service and will work at relatively thankless, uncompensated tasks rather than limiting his or her contributions to high visibility projects with a price tag attached. Talk with previous advisees in a discreet and professional manner about their experiences in working with the faculty members you are considering for your committee.
4. Assess Commitment to You and Your Project
Be realistic about the opportunity to advise a dissertation. Usually it is a professional duty rather than a perquisite. When faculty agree to serve, they are agreeing to more work, usually without any more time or money in return. For these reasons, when doctoral students ask if a faculty member's feelings will be hurt if he or she is not invited to become a member of a dissertation committee, my answer is "probably not." It is important for everyone on your committee to believe that your research is worthwhile and that you can do high-quality work.
Most institutions have a formal approval process that identifies the committee. Committees are not changed on a whim and surely not at the first request for revisions. More often than not, any changes in the committee are initiated by the faculty members rather than the student, and your institution will not support you in "firing" your entire committee to replace them with another group. Unless or until a committee member retires, relocates, or resigns, the composition of the committee is apt to remain the same.
Asking someone to chair or serve on your committee should not be an impulsive decision. Doctoral candidates sometimes worry that if they don't act quickly, a highly regarded faculty member's "dance card" will be full and they will miss the chance to work with him or her. The best approach is to proceed cautiously and have your study sketched out before you begin assembling the dissertation committee. If you radically change your topic, you may lose the support of one or more of the original committee members or end up with a mismatch, thus eroding support for your project.
5. Review Track Record in Advising Dissertations
A doctoral candidate once said, "I chose Dr. X to chair because he just finished his dissertation and he knows what it's like to be a student." That dissertation took seven years to finish because Dr. X had no experience in guiding another person's study. In fact, some institutions require a period of training as a committee member before assuming the role of chairperson. At the opposite extreme, you do not want to affiliate with anyone who has ample experience but a reputation for shoddy dissertations.
Find out where the print copies of the dissertations are stored and do some browsing through them to see who guided the ones that were exceptionally well done. If your institution gives awards for outstanding dissertations, look specifically for these documents and study them as exemplars.
When you think of your dissertation committee, think Rocky Balboa. They are the trustworthy mentor/coaches who are in your corner, offering valuable perspectives and suggesting successful next moves. They don't jump into the ring with you, but they've been there before and, as a result, they can offer encouragement and suggest the strategies that lead to a successful outcome. At times, you may not genuinely welcome their feedback as you strive to make it to the final round, still standing. But after the work is done and the final document is filed, you will come to appreciate their advice if they have done their job well.
Mary Renck Jalongo, Ph.D., is director of the Doctoral Program in Curriculum and Instruction at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the author of over 20 books, and a journal editor for Springer.
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