I am currently working on my dissertation, and I am having serious problems with my committee.  Well actually, I work well with all of them, the problem is that they do not get along with each other.  They are giving me conflicting advice about edits and changes.  I am afraid that my dissertation has become a political war that really has nothing to do with me.  What do I do?

--Committee Conflicts

Dear Committee Conflicts,

Welcome to the world of academic reality. Unfortunately, all of our gods have clay feet. Your committee is quite human and, therefore, will behave in a less-than-ideal manner. The best way to deal with people when there are disagreements is on a personal, one-to-one basis. It is not your job to be an intermediary, but you can bring an issue to their attention. Since you already have rapport with your advisors, I encourage you to meet with each and request advice on how to address the problem (be prepared for blame shifting). By engaging them in this manner, it is possible that some of them will take up your cause to create consensus among the committee members. They all have a stake in your completing your dissertation.

Should your logic fail to promote cooperation, your committee chair is the next opportunity for resolution. It is that individual’s job to make the committee work for you. Present your case of being torn between conflicting advice from committee members. He/she hopefully will have the inclination and the leadership skills to herd all of the cats in the same direction.

Failing this solution, your next recourse is to talk to the department chairperson. Briefly outline your problem and the failed steps you have taken to obtain a resolution. Request that he/she intervene on your behalf to obtain a compromise. Suggest a date by which time you can expect an answer from him/her or your committee chair; i.e., “I would like to have a response within 2 weeks because I have scheduled a meeting with my committee on [date].”

Should you still have a problem with some of the committee members, go back to the committee chair and discuss the problem. Express that because of the lack of consensus, you have made a decision to follow his/her advice about edits and changes. State your concern that some committee members will voice objections at your dissertation defense and that you would like to be assured of his/her support, should this occur.

In preparing for your defense, you will already know what the likely objections will be based on the past conflicting advice. Build a defense or a rationale for each of the decisions you make that are controversial. Your chair can help you with that, and it will allow him/her buy into your justifications. In Power Point, make a series of final slides listing each controversy on a separate slide. For each point, identify the committee member’s name, the chair’s recommendation, the suggested alternative you did not use, and the reason for following the chair’s recommendation (if not using Power Point, have a separate handout sheet ready for each controversy). Do not show the final slides unless the committee member raises an objection. Show only the slide related to the specific challenge.

By engaging the chair to work with you on your defense and presenting an organized, logical response to questions, you will likely disarm any objections. In addition, your chair will support you to the committee.

--Luba Zuk Levy, PhD

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