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Part 2 of How to Pick Your Defense Committee

by in RyanK
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Part 2 of How to Pick Your Defense Committee

Choosing a committee can be a daunting task for a doctoral student.  We’ve already covered two strategies that can help you through this process. 

To recap, choose a committee that will balance the theory, methodology, and practical wisdom necessary to help you craft a strong dissertation, and pick members who are able and willing to invest time in you.  Here are two more.

Guideline 3: Decide on a chair/advisor that can communicate well

Make sure you pick a chair that will get back to you in a timely manner and that you have a good working relationship with. Test these waters in classes that you have with them prior to choosing them. A good analogy for the relationship that you will have with your chair is a strong partnership. Therefore, if you don’t foresee a strong partnership working well between you two, then think of someone else you could pick as your chair.

To be sure, this relationship is an unequal one because it is between a mentor and a student. However, in order for the partnership to work, it not only requires an understanding of the rights and responsibilities on the part of both chair and student but also a good grasp of the chair’s goals and preferred operating procedures, as well as a healthy amount of communication. 

To elaborate, you as a candidate have the right to ask questions and guidance from your advisor, and they have a responsibility to provide that for you.  You have a responsibility to be receptive of their guidance and to be respectful of their time.  They do have other candidates, classes, committee meetings, and projects that they must attend to.

Additionally, it’s difficult to place a metric on what constitutes a healthy amount of communication because it differs based on the capabilities of the student and the workload of the advisor.  I would suggest a good gauge would be to ask: are my questions about theory, method, and procedure being answered effectively and efficiently?  If the answer is yes, then you are engaging in a healthy amount of communication.

Guideline 4: Choose members who will challenge you (but not too much)

You will not become a good academic or researcher without someone challenging you.  It is vital to have that kind of critical eye. If an instructor is telling you that your project is progressing just fine and not providing some kind of cogent critique of your work, they really aren’t doing their job.

However, you also don’t want a committee member who may vote you down because they have impossible standards. For example, I’ve heard of over-zealous committee members putting candidates through the wringer because they couldn’t quote verbatim an obscure, theoretical source.  This kind of critique is unnecessary and doesn’t contribute to you becoming a better researcher.  It only contributes to your level of anxiety.

My committee members are always ready to point out issues with the logic of my arguments.  If I found a statistically significant coefficient between my key independent variable and my dependent variable, they would ask, what does that mean?  What causal mechanism is at work in the empirical evidence that we are seeing, and does it actually conform to your theory?  What do significant control variables suggest?  How do they fit into your theory?  Are there methodological issues that you didn’t account for that might change the result you are seeing?  Are you conceptualizing and measuring your constructs appropriately?  Questions like these have more of an impact on your growth as a candidate than unrealistic expectations.

The purpose of the PhD process is to mold a doctoral candidate into a competent expert in the field.  At the end of it all, the student becomes a peer.  It’s the job of the committee to communicate well and to challenge you as the candidate so that you can achieve that distinction.

I am a social scientist, and I focus on economic and political development problems in the developing world. After attending Friends University in my undergrad and University of Texas at Dallas for grad school, I finally have All But Dissertation status while working toward my doctorate degree and am currently employed as a research consultant. I’m a formally trained artist (my undergrad work), and when I rejoin the world (when grad school is over), I’d like to get back into my painting and collage work. Additionally, years of waiting tables in high-end restaurants has made me an epicurean – which turned out well for me because I married a self-taught chef and certified sommelier. My wife and I love to travel abroad, eat good food, and drink good wine. We have a wonderful daughter, Olivia, who has been the joy of our lives as well as a brand new baby, Adelaide. Hobbies I enjoy include reading philosophy, history, and sci-fi fiction; I’m also a huge movie buff and am really good at Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.