I have a committee member that I have had numerous problems with over the course of my dissertation. He has been very difficult to work with and doesn’t return emails, his feedback is short and unclear (and late), and he won’t make time to meet with me to clarify what he is wanting. I have talked to my chair and he has had the same experience with this person across many different settings, so I feel confident that it is not just me. Regardless, I have decided that I want to remove this person from my committee, but I do not want to burn any bridges or create any problems in the future. Any thoughts as to how fire someone from your committee without consequence (or at least minimal backlash)?

-- Committee A-Go-Go

Dear Committee A-Go-Go,

The first thing you need to do is to consult your university’s rules to see if it is even feasible to remove someone from your committee. The rules may specify how many people need to be on your committee and how many people need to be present at your defense. Also, some universities have different rules regarding the nature of the dissertation committee. If this person approved your qualifying exam and your proposal, they may be required to approve your defense. If you cannot find these policies on your own, you may need to ask your chair. If your chair doesn’t know, then you may need to seek advice from the graduate school.

Another problem with removing someone from your committee is that you may need to find a replacement. If there are no satisfactory people available, you might be stuck. Also, consider how long this person has been on your committee. If this person has been on your committee for several semesters, then you may have a difficult time rationalizing why you need to remove them from your committee.

If you have explored all of your options and it is feasible to remove this person from your committee, you will need to come up with a good plan for going about it. It might be as simple as asking the person if they wouldn’t mind stepping down from your committee, since it looks like they have a lot going on. It’s the good ‘ol “I’m trying to help you” approach; you could tell them that it seems like they have had problems getting back to you, and you are concerned that your dissertation might be adding too much to their schedule.

Another option is to just be honest with the faculty member, tell them that you are on a strict deadline, and you find it difficult to work around their communication schedule. Remember that sitting in on committees is considered service to faculty members, and faculty members tend to not like service. So if you can get them out of having to do something unpleasant, they may appreciate you for it.

Regardless of what you do, make sure that you have the full support of your chair. Your chair will support you if it starts to get nasty. If there is backlash, your chair needs to be the person affirming your decisions. If your chair does not support you, you are going to find yourself at the whims of departmental politics. In this case, it would be best to just grin and bear it. It will be better for you to deal with the faculty member’s bad manners than it would be for you to be stuck for another 2–3 years waiting for it all to blow over.

--René Paulson, PhD

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